If you’re reading this, then congratulations, you made it past the bombastic title of this blog post. You must truly care about being an effective and efficient designer or design agency. I appreciate that, and so do your clients. So, what do I mean by “operational efficiency in graphic design?” I simply mean streamlining, or removing the fluff and focusing on value. But I use the ostentatious term “operational efficiency” for good reason.
Whether you’re an agency or a solo designer, you need to be able to communicate—sometimes justify—your process to the client. Oftentimes, the client speaks Business but not Design, so you need to speak both. This way, when they ask about your process, you can answer in the language they understand.
Of course, ensuring your process is “lean” isn’t only for your clients’ benefit. Cutting costs and trimming time off of your workflow allows you to focus on other aspects of client engagement. It also improves your margin since you’re positively affecting your productivity, meaning you’re producing the same output with less input.
What I’m saying is that everyone wins when you make your design process more operationally efficient.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
“How, then, do I increase my operational efficiency?” you ask. While I wish there was a cut-and-dried checklist I could share, there isn’t. Not every process or company is the same, and everyone has their own strengths and shortcomings. However, I recommend clients do the following: establish a workflow, reduce waste where possible, share accountability across the team and always focus on solutions.
Establish a workflow.
A workflow is a plan for how to successfully achieve a recurring goal from start to finish. A plan, in this case, is less of a formula and more of a strategy—not how do I do this the same way every time but how do I deal with each step of the process. A workflow keeps you and your teammates on task and in sync and provides a common vision and direction. It’s an agreement about how, when and why to allocate time and resources.
Your workflow serves as a map for how to get from Point A to Point Z, but there’s a lot that can happen in between to slow you down. Some people call these obstacles “noise,” but I prefer “waste” since (a) it’s more universally understood and (b) it’s sure to capture an operations professional’s attention. And waste can mean a lot. A file delivery system that the client does not know how to use properly can be waste. An unnecessary middleman in client communications can be waste. Even slow and outdated design software can be considered waste. Two of the most common forms I see, though, are related to feedback consolidation and output.
Set out the terms of feedback at the start. Sometimes a client has multiple stakeholders who want or need to offer feedback. If those stakeholders send you their revisions one by one, you’ll feel inundated with requests. One request may trump another, or one request may be made irrelevant by someone else’s. It’s a designer’s job to review the revision requests as a whole and decide on the best way forward. Sometimes, there aren’t too many stakeholders but one in particular who isn’t thorough and sends their thoughts piecemeal. Nothing’s worse than a “And one more thing…” email when you’re already ready with round two. It’s critical that the client knows the repercussions of unconsolidated feedback.
Put a cap on output.
You can measure output in various ways. In graphic design, you can quantify your output in terms of number of revisions, number of final versions, number of hours, etc. In your workflow, or in the Statement of Work (SOW), set the standard. Clear expectations provide necessary benchmarks to measure client satisfaction and success. Unconsolidated feedback, for instance, can lead to more than the expected number of revisions, which means a bigger bill for the client or a smaller margin for the designer or agency. No matter what your output limits are, be sure to communicate to the team and to the client what the repercussions are for exceeding them.
A workflow isn’t a Showtime Rotisserie; you can’t simply “set it and forget it.” You need to constantly ensure your workflow is well established and understood. Ideally, each person should add deadlines to their own calendar, and a dedicated project manager should add everyone else’s deadlines to their calendar so they can make sure everything and everyone is on track. One person’s noncompliance with the workflow can cause a domino effect of inefficiency.
Ultimately, there are two types of accountability at play: individual and collective. Each team member must be aware of their responsibilities and their place in the timeline, and the team as a whole must work as a well-oiled machine, driven to the light at the end of the tunnel by the workflow.
Focus on solutions.
As a self-certified Negative Nancy, I can attest to how hard it is to focus on the solution rather than the problem. But if you focus on how you got where you are, you can’t fully focus on where you’re going. Acknowledge the challenge, yes, but keep your eye on the solution. This means facilitating client conversations in a way that cuts out unhelpful commentary and constantly reminding the team of the mission. In every step of the process, ask, “Is this definitive? Does this answer the question or solve the issue?”
It’s also important to note that “focusing on solutions” does not mean always sticking to the original solutions. Your focus should enhance, not hinder, your process. Remain open to the idea that new discoveries may result in new solutions. Don’t devote so much attention to one solution, or a selection of solutions, that you neglect to see the challenge from new perspectives. Although at first this advice may seem counterintuitive to operational efficiency, it’s better to spend an extra hour now on a better solution than to execute a poor solution that requires course-correction later.
Finally, and this is a personal pet peeve, make sure that a solution is necessary in the first place. Occasionally, I come across a client who wants a solution to a problem that does not exist. An easy way to deal with this is to ask, “What problem does this solve?” If a client wants to add animation to a landing page, for instance, be sure the animation would boost their bottom line or add value for them or their customers. Otherwise, advise them to turn their attention elsewhere.
Let EVG Add Value
It isn’t easy to see our own shortcomings and the holes in our own processes. If you want a team of marketing gurus to cast an impartial eye on your workflow, contact us today. Our global network includes down-to-earth experts who are ready and willing to assist you. And if you want to outsource some of your graphic design assignments, we’ve got your back there, too.
Cody Owens – Account Manager & Lead Designer