The Client as Visual Decorator
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Time Estimating Essentials for Designers


What do designers hate most? Other than improperly kerned type, being grilled by their superiors about why they went over budget on their time estimates.

Design isn't something that can be easily done on a deadline. Ideas come flying at you in the shower, while you're longboarding down Fremont Ave., and sometimes even while you're in a creative brainstorming meeting. Cut me some slack, all right? This is the way I do my best work. Can I skip out of that meeting about the TPS reports?

Yeah, that line of reasoning flies real high when the agency principal pulls you aside and lets you know that your last few projects have been a drag on agency profitability, and as a team you all need to find ways to keep costs down. Is it even possible to change your working methods and try to fit yourself into the narrow boxes you keep getting handed? Or should you start looking for the kinds of agencies and companies that give you more time to do your projects? (Oh, wait... that last one was a trick question.)

Great time estimating boils down to proper communication. If you address the following five things, you'll be well on your way to meeting the majority of your estimates.

1. Understand what contributes to your agency (or your) profit on a job. Some agencies and designers set a project budget and attempt to hold to it. Some are on retainer and want to bill out as much time as possible on each job to maximize their earnings and potential profit. Some mark up printing and other outsourced services in order to supplement hourly revenue. Make sure you know how your role influences the bottom line on project profitability and revenue.

2. Know what you can (and should) be held responsible for. As we're in a service industry, making our clients happy can sometimes include simple (or not so simple) niceties that add extra hours to tightly bid projects. If the client asks for and receives something extra that wasn't in the scope of work -- or if it was requested by your manager or determined by another of your bosses to be crucial -- no one can pin you to the wall for following their lead. However, that leads to this next point:

3. Be a team player by holding yourself (and others) accountable at set points through each project. Pick points in the project to check where everyone is at, hours-wise. Know where hours can be shifted if necessary to make sure you don't run out of time. Don't be afraid to speak up and kindly question ways to make sure you get what you need. Sometimes doing a bang-up job and going a little over budget pays off with new work and even larger gains... if properly managed. But you'll need to discuss that with your boss before you go over.

4. Directly contribute your hours to the estimate -- don't have them handed to you. Shut down that voice in your head that keeps saying, "But I'm not very good at estimating how long something's going to take..." Pin yourself down to a realistic number of hours, meaning you've padded it with time to accommodate a few things going wrong through the life of the project. Chances are, you'll get a few wrong along the way. We all do, even today. But without practicing this skill, you'll be more likely to get burned.

And here's the last one... the one that we dread having to deal with, but needs to be properly handled to stay profitable:

5. Always be prepared to submit a change order to the client if the project scope diverges from your estimate. If you have a tightly worded estimate and brief that the client has approved, and the creative work maps directly back to the brief in a quality manner, then you should follow it to the letter. If they put you through six rounds of review to get it "just right" and there are only three rounds in your estimate, let the client know there will be a change order before you break the bounds of your contract. (You did put a notice about this in your contract, right?) Then hold them to it. 

This is entirely professional, and if they balk, then this needs to be addressed in a frank conversation, ideally in person. However, if you didn't do a good job or your brief is weak, you're probably going to have to negotiate a fair agreement with the client or eat the overage if you want a relationship past your current project... though you'll still need to address exactly why you didn't satisfy their needs with your working process.


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