The Proper Place for Procrastination
How to Estimate Design Projects: Tips from a Pro

A Hundred to One

Dog ISO headline

When I first moved to Seattle, I freelanced at what was considered to be the meat grinder of the Seattle agency world. My first assignment was to serve as a production artist for a series of pet food ads. I was provided with layouts in QuarkXPress 4.0, consisting of a few dozen black and white portraits of happy Scotties, terriers, and other sedan-sized pups. The traffic person then handed me sheet of paper completely filled with three- to six-word phrases. "These are the headlines for the ads due today," she said, and scooted away.

I spent the next few minutes puzzling over the page. Some of the lines made no sense to me, outlining in scientific terms the benefits of Pet Food Special Formulation A to Crappy Pet Food Type B. Others were clever puns and riffs on animal lingo. The rest of the lines seemed like doggrel, and at the time I didn't really understand why the writer had even included them.

Until that point, I'd never been exposed to the full brain dump of a creative person, and while I could see which lines were pretty good, I was a bit stumped as to which would make the best ads.

The art director came by and hunched over the headline sheet, circling various headlines that met his fancy. He then stood over my shoulder and instructed me which headlines to place in which layouts. Then, after pushing up his chunky black glasses and asking me to "add a little air" to a few headlines, he vanished, leaving me to print about six comps and send them out into traffic for proofing.

Thus began my first day of work at a "real" advertising agency... though it would take me a few years to realize that what I'd imagined as the world of advertising would always be a better place than the reality it embodied. (I didn't stick around that agency for more than a few weeks, just to get a taste of where I wouldn't ever work again.) And I'd share the ads, if I could find them. I only remember my emotional reaction to his art direction effort: a frothy admixture of surprise and dismay. Surprise at seeing how much energy was being expended (100 headlines!) for promoting pet food, and dismay at realizing that some of the weaker headlines (grammatically) were much stronger in ads than on the plain white page.

Since that day, I've tried to invert my work ethic regarding quality versus quantity. It's been an ongoing, uphill battle. Quality is the most important result of the work—but without a quantity of output within an design organization, it's quite difficult to determine that your design decisions will succeed in context.

Earlier in my career, I would rest as soon as I'd hit upon what I felt was the perfect idea, coast through photo and typeface selection, only to discover that the client didn't agree with my thinking. Or if I didn't spend enough time locating just the right illustration or font, those choices would be called out and beaten up in the client review. Or be asked to make changes, and realize that my well of options had ran dry and I'd fail to make the desired changes in the time frame I had left. I had to get rid of the idea of waste through every part of the creative process.

This led me to a principle regarding working in companies that depend upon great design work: To be wildly successful in a group of designers, your first ideas need to be wildly divergent.

Not just divergent—wildly so. From different planets, with little to no resemblance to each other.

This is only possible by being as generative as possible, in as many instances as possible. Instead of sitting around and thinking of solutions, you need to be documenting your thinking through the entire process, through each phase where you're expanding the client's view of potential solutions.

In the case of the pet food ads, this was a retained account, so people were paid to sit around and think of headlines—that's more billable time that can be applied against the retainer. Focus allowed those creative types to be generative.

But even with the specter of budgets and billable hours and account managers breathing down your neck, preparing to snatch the work out of your hands, I think that's an excuse. Instead of thinking of how much time I have on a project and limiting myself accordingly, I like to think about how much time I have to generate work, then trying to produce options without becoming too attached to one or two ideas and polishing them accordingly in the time frame.

One you throw out the fear of your work and time being wasted, there's nothing that stands in the way of exploring a wider range of design directions. More options always means better choices—not always better ideas, but a better frame for making decisions around them. Just because you have 100 headlines doesn't mean you'll share them all with the client—that's just cruel. But limiting that set down to the best range of options for your client, based on your far-reaching explorations, will serve both you and the client best.


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