Being an Agency of One
January 26, 2010
While working on our Design Business for Breakfast talk on February 10th, Fiona Robertson-Remley said:
"Agencies and designers are usually hired for their design skills, but they are nearly ALWAYS fired for lack of project management skills."
Truer words were never spoken.
I bet you thought when you first began working as a designer, you would have uninterrupted time—full days, if not complete weeks—hunkered down at your desk, dreamily scratching away at what would become your next breakthrough creative execution.
Perhaps you work in a creative company, where the halls are ever-filled with sidebar conversations spawning reams of game-changing ideas that float their way into the layouts that grace your perfectly calibrated flat-screen monitors. Or, if you work in-house at a corporation, you're always in full-on client service mode, prepared to triage whatever flaming arrow has just thunked its way into the wall beside your head.
But even if you work as a lone gunman, with the requisite dreamy dreams about how you'll preserve long stretches of precious airspace for being creative, our increased connectivity and heightened need for interaction with our clients is rapidly changing the ratio of what we'd consider "billable time" as part of our paid workday.
We've traded our focus on the tangible, designed work product for the ability to manage the higher-order project details more aggressively.
We've been tossed more projects to juggle than ever, and are penalized more heavily when we sully one by dropping it in the dirt.
We meet spoken (and unspoken) expectations regarding quality of service, when we often don't even realize what great service means.
If we want to preserve the integrity and quality of what we feel is great design work, we need to understand how behave like an agency of one. We need to know how to project manage ourselves, through the high-level workflow to the nitty gritty negotiations that sneak their way into seemingly simple client conversations and restrain our hand from reaching back to the mouse for that fifteenth comp that really isn't necessary to prove (to the client, to yourself) that you'd explored every microdetail.
Face it. No one loves a project manager, especially when they start questioning why the project is $5,000 over budget and the developer is tying a noose in the bathroom over the back-end services that don't exist yet and wait a minute did you forget to make the logo green because the client requested it in the feedback document didn't you read it go back to page three down there at the bottom how did you miss it can you get it done in the next five minutes cause the deliverable is already late and then we can figure out just how things ended up wrong so we can all learn something from your epic fail...
But this fear of project management is a ruse. This imaginary combat between the left-brain, rational number-crunching beast that screams at us because we're going way over budget—while the right-brain, crafty part of our mind is engaged in some heavy-duty creative flow, busy affixing gold stars to layout comps with star stickers matching PMS 123—it's an albatross that we gingerly hand from designer to designer.
We can eat, sleep, and occasionally dream in measurements other than pixels and picas. We can learn to speak in estimates, business strategies, and occasionally open Excel to update a spreadsheet without bursting into tears and feeling like we've "sold out to the man." We can put aside our chunky black glasses and speak frankly with our clients about our measured, expert opinions informed by our previous project work, innate emotional intelligence, and our understanding of how to wield the design process most effectively.
When we've internalized much of the structure and thoroughness that great project managers provide to our ongoing creative work, there is a much cleaner balance between what we imagine we do (design!) and what it really takes to succeed as a designer (business!).
"Design is the human capacity to plan and produce desired outcomes," says Bruce Mau.
The producing part: that's definitely design.
And the planning part?
Still a good bit of design... but a whole lotta business. We can plan and produce better outcomes for how we act as design businesspeople.
When we don't have the support of business partners or our employers, because we choose to hide behind our own designerspeak...
When the way we present our concepts doesn't really describe how we've helped our clients with their business needs...
When we get sidetracked and distracted by the Interwebs and end up sloughing our creative work into the wee hours to distract (or inspire) ourselves out of a rut...
These are times when we struggle to reconcile those things we feel don't fit the designer persona. We resent having to be "on top of it all" when we're actually trying not to be crushed by the eight ball. We feel like process is being sacrificed for creative freedom.
Well, I'm all for killing process when it isn't yielding great design. Risk yields reward, when it's managed with an ultralight touch.
But the business process—that's what keeps the project running. For the sanity of both coworkers and clients, it can never be sacrificed. Ever. Firms that are unwilling to box their creative inclinations into a stable business process often end up blowing through clients (and designers) like they're Kleenex.
This is not a strategy that I advocate, for you or any designer. Instead, consider what roles and responsibilities you play through your workday. What do you do that keeps your agency of one continuing to run?
Then, tote up those hours by project—including project management, account service, and other non-overhead roles that you provide as part of your workday—and add those responsibilities into your billable hourly fees. Carve them out of your design time, and tack those design hours onto the end of the project.
This is how much you should really be billing, at your top-line rate.
It's also how hard you should actually be working, amortized out at 40 hours across each week. Unless you enjoy spending 60 hours per week cursing at the clock and preparing your baggage for a very fast trip to Burnoutland.
It's really this easy (and psychologically demanding) to choose to make those business activities a focused, billable part of your workday.
But it will pay off, in time, with both increased sanity. And, lest we forget, the holy grail of this business of ours?