As an in-house designer or team, you aim to strike the delicate balance between making your client happy and keeping your work load reasonable. Plus, you have to deal with multiple departments and different end goals. It’s a lot to tackle, yet you still produce top notch work.
In this excerpt from her article “Work, Interrupted,” writer Bryn Mooth provides advice on how to deal with the “Time Suck Problem”—those everyday disruptions, like client drop-ins and pointless meetings that eat up a lot of time and can sometimes put you behind. Read the complete article in the September 2013 issue of HOW magazine.
Managing the Disruption
Here’s the thing: The Time Suck Problem isn’t going away. Not entirely. As long as there are bosses with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, managers who don’t value what design does for their business and internal clients who expect e-mail replies within 60 seconds, workday disruptions are bound to continue. But you can chip away at them.
“I’ve realized that if I want to minimize these kinds of problems, I’m the one who has to do something about it,” says Bruce Schneider, who manages a two-person design team as director of marketing and business development at the nonprofit Virginia Community Healthcare Association in Richmond, VA.
“Diplomacy has been a big factor in making things go smoothly. I’m not diplomatic by nature, so I had more friction than I would’ve liked earlier in my career. Then I shared an office with another art director in an in-house job. We worked with the same in
ternal clients and had the same issues. But Janie’s results in getting through difficulties were far superior to mine. So I talked with her about it and listened to the way she talked with people. When I used her methods, it was like someone waved a magic wand—life got much easier for me and for our clients. Diplomacy isn’t a trick or way of manipulating people; it’s a way of thinking about others and what’s important to them and how we can help them achieve that goal,” he says.
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If the Time Suck Problem originates in a lack of understanding or respect for the creative process among clients and co-workers, then the solution lies in diplomacy, education, boundary-setting and process.
Strategies for Addressing the Time Suck Problem:
Educate clients. This has two components: teaching clients about how you work and helping them understand the value of what you do. “A long time ago, I realized that at least 20% of our jobs is client education, and it’s continuing education,” Schneider says. “You can’t just tell them once. You have to remind them. The client education work minimizes a lot of the disruption.”
Clients who don’t see all the research, brainstorming, conceptualizing and design that goes into a project are prone to short circuit that process by not allowing enough time, scheduling unnecessary meetings and delaying approvals—time-wasters, all.
“So it’s important for us to invite them into the process and make them some kind of significant—but not like handing over the keys—part of the process,” says Lejeune, whose team of 30 handles as many as 300 projects at any one time. “We have a creative conference room in our space, so we hold our meetings here. We do that to make them feel part of the energy, but also to keep the upper hand by welcoming them into our turf and demonstrating our expertise.”
Creatives have to help clients realize the value of branding, marketing and communication to a company’s bottom line, too. That means learning the business yourself. “Learn to speak that person’s language,” Schneider says. “We have this language of PMS and pixels, and they don’t understand that, and they don’t care. They want to know dollars, time, percentages. We go a long way toward making life easier if we can demonstrate that we understand where they’re coming from.”
Have a process. To minimize “red-hot” projects and unproductive client feedback, institute—and stick to—a formal creative and production process by which projects move from request to finished piece. Two essentials: an intake form and a creative brief. Regulating the way projects come into your department can help you sidestep those last-minute requests.
Designer Cami Travis-Groves, one of a three-person marketing team for the American Public Works Association in the Kansas City area, says her department uses “trackers” to manage projects, and that’s the mechanism by which clients throughout the organization can request new work. “If it’s an update or a repeat project, I can usually work right off the tracker without ever having to contact the client. But if it’s a new project, the internal client and I get together and discuss the purpose and goal of the project, and go from there. Work doesn’t happen unless a tracker is done, and I work off the deadlines and budgets shown there.”
No intake form, no project. “Just shooting me an e-mail and expecting a result, that’s not going to happen,” agrees Jim Woods, creative director for the aquatic division at United Pet Group in Blacksburg, VA. “We have a way that things happen, there’s a way to initiate a project and a way to give feedback.” That process, he says, took a year to implement, and he’s always looking to refine it.
A creative brief captures the agreed-upon business objectives, measurables, audience and specifications, and serves as the benchmark by which creative decisions are made along the way. Designers can deal with time-sucking, off-base creative direction from the client by pointing to objective criteria laid out in the brief. “There’s no bigger time waste than an unclear creative brief or no brief whatsoever, and you put in hours of work and then find out that you’ve been digging for diamonds in the wrong mine,” Monahan says.
Set boundaries. The in-house environment often means that clients are close to the creative team, instead of across town or in another time zone. “You can’t argue that proximity means that they can pop in easily,” Monahan says. “What’s more important than whether they pop in is whether they think they have editorial management over the creative work. If the client doesn’t respect the roles, then the pop-ins become disruptive; if they do, then those pop-ins can be constructive, allowing you to explore different ideas and directions.”
At Metro, an account executive function provides space between client and creative. “We have a great account services team who do a lot of interface with clients,” Lejeune says. “They’re a buffer for us; they bring in jobs, handle account service, help us stay on schedule, plan and execute budgets, traffic materials and get approvals.” And while Lejeune acknowledges that the size of his design studio makes the AE role both possible and essential, it’s a function that even a small group could incorporate. As a manager, Woods bears the brunt of client meetings so his team can focus on doing the work. Even then, he picks his moments, stepping in only when he has ideas to contribute or information to update.
Setting boundaries also means saying no when you have to or negotiating the scope of the project to adjust either the deliverables or the time frame. “If we can help out, we can—if we can’t, we can’t,” says Woods of those “bake sale” projects. His team also fields frequent “fire” projects from salespeople hoping to jump on unforeseen business opportunities. “We try to negotiate what they want; just because they ask doesn’t mean they need it. We’re honest, and we explain that the urgent business stuff we’re working on has priority.” Earn clients’ respect. “Doing quality work in a timely way tells the client, ‘Hey, these people know what they’re doing, and I can trust them,’” Schneider says. Meeting your deadlines and delivering top-notch creative work that moves the business needle buys your team a lot of leverage—to say no, to decline meetings, to take the time you need to do your jobs.
Anticipate disruption. And make peace with it. Most business is cyclical; there are trade shows, important product announcements, sales periods, high seasons, events that happen at roughly the same time every year. Your creative team’s project calendar and workflow should anticipate not just routine projects, but those last-minute requests as well. Know that you’ll be asked to design and produce a four-color report two days prior to the big board meeting. “I’m a bit of a pessimist—or make that a realist—so I’m always expecting a time suck to come up,” Woods says. “I schedule the majority of my team to be working on routine projects. And I have one person who’s working on lower-priority projects, who can drop what they’re doing and work on the fires.”
Conquering the Time Suck Problem also requires some personal mastery. It’s not going away. Figure out how to work with, around and through those disruptions. “Knowing which things I have influence over and which things I don’t makes my life tons calmer, and me much happier,” Travis-Groves says. “If I’m disturbed, I just put my earbuds back in and try to achieve flow again.”
“You need to figure out how to work in bursts,” Monahan says, advocating focused 20- to 30-minute work sessions with breaks or meetings in between. “The luxury of time, even if it did exist, allows you to wander and get stuck. You’ll see your work more objectively, see what sucks and save yourself the trouble of working on dead ends. It allows you better creative judgment. It’s already happening to you—it’s a matter of acceptance.”
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