This is a slight rant on something I have been experiencing in the past few weeks.
I started out in this design/design business thing self taught. I learned to use the software and I’ve been sloughing away at it ever since. In the 7-8 years I’ve been doing this, I have probably designed up to thousands of pieces and artifacts – logos, mailers, flyers, websites, etc. Over time I have gotten good at delivering visually pleasing work quickly and within the chaotic constraints of the typical client service business.
For most creatives, the most exciting part of our work is the actual creative part, making the thing, the logo or the booklet or the poster. Many times I have fallen into the trap of becoming nothing more than a tool for the client, a pixel pusher. Do this, do that, move that there, without much regard for my opinion or ideas on what works. That was entirely my fault. I did not understand the value I brought to the table nor could I communicate that effectively.
In the chaotic landscape of client services, things tend to be frantic. Everything is always due yesterday. There is often not a good enough understanding of the connection between design output and business objectives. Design becomes a last minute exercise quickly producing pieces of communication without any form of strategy or intent.
This is a mistake.
Sure you can get a nice looking design out of a competent designer working this way. But creating design that actually works, design that clarifies your intentions and aims your efforts, design that sets u up for greater success beyond the project at hand, that is something else entirely. That is the love child of good process and talent.
The Design Method outlined by Eric Karjaluoto in his book goes as follows: Discovery – Planning – Creative – Application. Newbie designers and most clients are happy jumping right into the creative. However they miss out on the many benefits of engaging the first two steps.
Discovery allows you to fully understand the problem at hand, it gives you context. Ideally, the designer should be able to immerse himself/herself into the world of the client and understand how the business works, what the problems are and how the audience interacts with them. Discovery has the benefit of helping the client understand what’s really going on with the business. Are there gaps in the communications? Do you understand what you really do? Do you understand what you are selling? Do you have objectives, and do you know how you are going to achieve them?
Planning helps connect the insights from discovery to the nitty gritty of execution. It provides a plan of action of what needs to be done, targeted to whom and by when. It gives purpose to your efforts and ensures you don’t waste time going down rabbit holes.
Respecting the process transforms a simple brief for a website for a bus company to a holistic communication solution geared at increasing online sales. Instead of just a website, the client is steered towards adopting online marketing, referral campaigns and developing e-commerce solutions. A directive to design new labels for a budding craft beer brand now turns into the task of the defining and refreshing company brand in light of their new investment, offerings and aspirations. Instead of just labels, the brand is rewarded with a deeper understanding of itself and a roadmap for handling communications moving forward.
Rushing through the design process to the production bit might be satisfying in the short term, but you miss out on a ton of value left on the table in the long term.
Over the past few years, in my quest to become a better designer, I have been faced with two related ideas – the need for a good process, and consideration of the larger context.
A good process allows me as a designer to work in a way that is systematic. It helps me walk clients through the project from start to finish. I am also able to cover all the important points consistently, and the process allows me to build consequentially. Stage 1 provides a foundation of understanding around the project and goals, the next stage builds a framework to organize execution, and so on, until I get to designing outputs that are firmly rooted in insights and strategy.
As a designer, every design, every action taken sits within a larger context that will ultimately influence the success or failure of the project. If one jumps directly into design trying to make something cool and aesthetically dope, we end up with nothing more than superficial solutions. To have real impact, the work of the designer starts way before he puts pencil to paper or opens up that blank Photoshop canvas.
You have to ask yourself, ‘what is the client trying to achieve?’ – More sales? Increased awareness? Or are they simply trying to communicate to a specific audience? Considering the intent of the design project increases the chances of designing something appropriate and on target.
Engaging in this exercise can seem very time consuming. All you want to do is jump right in and do the fun stuff. But the step back is crucial. If you can define what the brand you working on is all about, who their audience is, what their key messaging is and their objectives are, you can set out a creative strategy framework that would allow the brand to be deployed beyond the specific output you are presently working on.
As an entrepreneur or business person, you may find yourself in need of a design output – a logo, a profile, a brochure, a website, or a full CI (Corporate Identity). It would do a world of good to clearly define your brand first. Your company or product sits in an ecosystem with multiple competitors, multiple audiences and numerous external forces. It is important to define clearly who you are, what you do, why you do it, who you do it for and who should care. It is important to know what is unique about you and the value you bring so you can consistently speak to that and with every subsequent release of communication you can reinforce your brand and build equity over time.
Understanding your brand and intent has the powerful effect of helping to direct your efforts in the day to day running of your business and its development. With a clear sense of who you are and what you do, you know how to focus your operations and work in line with your brand and maximize your returns. You won’t split your energy into pursuing things that seem interesting or opportunistic but are out of brand character. It will help you build a stronger more focused business over time.
Lessons from re-launching my business site
A little over a month ago, my new business site went live. This was after 3 years of having nothing on that domain name, and this was one step in a long journey of a thousand steps. I had been freelancing and consulting for a while and being so busy, having my website up was one of those tasks you file under important but not urgent. It was also a task that would demand many hours of my time and require a firm foundation of strategy and intent behind it. It took a while but I finally completed it. I did it! A person like me who is prone to being very productive getting everything else done but what’s actually important to move me forward towards my goals. These are the principles and lessons I learned from this process.
- Long Term Intent
Before I started work on the website, I had to take several steps back to evaluate my business, what I was strong at, what trends I had discovered and what my goals were. I even defined what I want my business to look like in 50 years. This allowed me to work backwards and sketch out the stages I would probably go through to eventually get there. Understanding the bigger picture provides context to the initial goal of getting the website up and helps drive a sense of urgency towards accomplishing this goal.
- Relevance for today
I did not just understand what my big picture goal was and how my initial goal of setting up the website sets me up for that, I also understood what it would do for me today. Getting this done would crystalize my messaging and be an important step in the sales and onboarding function of my business.
There are many things that compete for my attention and time everyday, from client requests, projects and social functions. I ended up committing about 6 months (I thought it would be 2 at first) to getting this done. This meant forgoing 99% of social functions and limiting the amount of client work I took on. I was now my first and most important client. I spent free weekends doing the necessary groundwork for the website.
- Break it up to parts
Because defining my brand and creating the website was going to be quite a long process, I had to break it up to chunks and work through it systematically. I worked on my brand definition and key messaging, then I created the site structure, found a theme I liked, designed the interface using the theme as a framework and my brand definition as a guide, then eventually setting up the site itself. Chunking helped because I always knew where I was and what to do next to move the project forward.
- Stealing time
Like I said earlier, I get busy, and even though I was able to set aside hours at a time or half days or full weekends to really digging into the project, sometimes I would get really busy. But because I had broken the work into chunks and was working systematically, even being able to steal 30 minutes here, an hour there was vital to getting this done. I would take a spare 30 minutes to quickly hash out the content for a section I was working on, or to reevaluate some design decisions. One time, feeling a bit burnt out and vegging out on the couch, I grabbed my notepad and quickly brainstormed ideas for blog posts. If you know what you are doing, chunks of 25-30mins can eventually go a long way. When I eventually sat down to put in a days work on the website, I had ironed out many of the kinks in those time chunks and things went smoother
Working on one thing for months is not easy. There are many temptations to give up and distractions to derail you. You have to persevere.
- The last stretch is the hardest
The final month working on the site to get it live was tough. There was some design fatigue and it just seemed like the work would never end. 90% of the work was done, but the last 10%, fixing errors, putting in the details, seemed to take just as much time. I just had to push. In the first week of 2017, I set a deadline to go live by the end of the week and that’s all I did everyday, sat down and worked on the site until it was done and I hit publish.
Once the website was live and I made final tweaks, sent off the link to a few friends and colleagues to have a look, I went out and grabbed a bottle of champagne and celebrated with my friends. I finally got some real shit done.
So those are the lessons I learned working on this, and I look forward to getting many more crucial things done as I move forward on this journey, creating the company of my dreams. I hope it helps and inspires you to get your important things done too.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
There are many things that are good, but only a few that are truly important, and truly great. Many times, what stops us short of greatness and our full potential is not failure or doing the wrong things. It’s giving too much time and energy to things that are merely good.
Good is answering every email in your inbox, and promptly too! (yay inbox zero). *Smh*. Good is tidying up your workspace and making everything extra super duper organized. Good is answering every phone call and every request, living at the whims of everybody’s agenda but yours. Good is accepting every social invitation, (you know you gotta nurture those relationships). Good is…well…good. Good is normal. Good is average. Good is mediocre.
Great? Great is harder. Great requires a little more time, and a whole lot of thought and experimentation. Great is uncertain. Great is what’s truly important even though it may not scream to you with the urgency of that last email with the title ‘Re: Incredibly Urgent! ‘. Great is the work that you really feel drawn to create. Great is that project you want to undertake, the book you want to write, the business you need to redesign and optimize. Great is that sweet spot of exertion, mission, creativity and impact.
Not everything is equal. It may take the same amount of time to make those edits for that client that it would take you to draw up a strategy for your business. One will reward you right now. The other will pay you dividends for months or years to come. One is good, the other is great.
Somehow we already know this but what keeps us running on the ‘good’ treadmill instead of steadily plodding along the ‘great’ trail we ought to be blazing? Lack of focus and misplaced priorities. If you are not focused, If you have not taken the time to be self aware enough to know what you want and what is truly important, you will not make it to great. You are not working at great because you want to please everyone. You are not willing to draw a line in the sand and say NO! You think you are multitasking god. You are trying to do everything, and eventually the days will slip into weeks and the months. You suck at everything because you have not committed to one thing.
You only have so much energy and time in the day. Spend the best of it on the most crucial things. Do the one thing that sets you up for more success in the coming year. Take care of the one thing that would make everything else easier.
Don’t procrastinate your great by focusing on the merely good.
There are two qualities of important great things that make procrastination so hard to resist:
- We are not clear on what it is, what it takes and how long it would take
- The great thing seems too big and insurmountable
It is much easier to take the easy wins, answer those emails, get on those other tasks. It makes us feel productive. It is easier to get stuck on just good.
To reach for great, you need a new set of tactics
- You need to block off time to sort out or get rid of the ‘good’ stuff. Get them done, outsource, etc.
- Block off time for the important. Block off time for great everyday. This is the time you shut off from the world and work only on the important thing.
- Break it down to its component parts and work on it piece by piece.
- Meditate on your great thing. Think about it all the time. Why is it important? What do its component parts look like? Flesh it out in your mind, make it tangible.
- Just start. Once you begin, you build enough momentum to make it stick and carry you to the end.
I’ve had the weirdest experience over the past few months. I’m not rushed, I’m not running from thing to thing like a rabid cheetah hopped up on coke. I’m not trying to do a million different things at once. My days are relatively relaxed and simple, I’m still quite productive, and my business is doing better than ever. Most importantly, I’m actually making progress towards my goals.
Before this, most of my life has been a series of frustrations, constantly overworked, trying to make things happen and failing woefully, leaving a trail of abandoned projects in my wake. True, you could account for the expected failure rate of trying out new thing. But that was no way to live.
What caused this turn around? The paradox – You have to slow down to go faster. Two books were very instrumental in helping me come to this new understanding. The first is ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport, the second is ‘The One Thing’ by Gary Keller. I cannot recommend these two enough. I liked ‘The One Thing’ so much I bought it as a gift for my mentors.
How do you slow down to go faster? You have to come to terms with a few things. First, you don’t have to do a lot of things. In fact, if you can just identify what the most important thing is and do that, even if you did nothing else, you are still massively more productive than if you got a thousand trivial things done. That means letting bad things happen and relentlessly focusing on the most important thing until it is done. For the past two months, my One Thing has been pulling back from the technical nitty-gritty of my design business to working on the business itself, redesigning it from the ground up – the services and packages I offer, the clients I target, the value I deliver and the growth/evolution trajectory I wish to follow.
Obviously to make this practically work, I still need to juggle working with clients, attending meetings and other such tasks, But entire days and weeks are blocked off to working on the One Thing. And I work on the One Thing, not on the clothing idea I have, not on the book ideas I have, not on my blog, not on that other startup idea, just this One Thing, because when this is in place, it becomes so much easier to overlay everything else onto it.
When this One Thing is done, I will move on to the next One Thing.
And when I’m working on this One Thing, I’m not doing anything else. My phone is off, my internet access is disabled (unless I need to do research) and I’m just hacking away until the task is done. Thank you Cal. The One Thing is the most important thing, and the One Thing deserves the best of my attention and energy.
When I’m not working, I chill, I relax, I think, I read, I say NO.
Slowing down, working DEEPLY on the ONE Thing allows me to build with perspective. With the added time to think and reflecrt, I can take my time to understand the lay of the land, to line up the dominoes so that I know that what I’m doing right now is directly in line with what I want 5 years down the line.
So far so good.
Or ‘Don’t choke at the finish line’
I noticed something interesting a few weeks ago. Lets say you’ve been chasing something you really want – just putting in the hours and ploughing right through in pursuit of this goal you must achieve. Sure the days are long and hard, but you really really want it, so you push as hard as you can. Long enough that you catch a glimpse of it, you finally see your target ahead of you.
Somehow in that last stretch, the temptation to give up creeps up a bit harder than it has this entire time. You almost want to sabotage yourself, because the only experience you’ve had is ‘wanting’ that thing. You are almost to finally have it, because you will lose the comfort of the struggle. Wanting it is more familiar and safer than actually having it. Because once you have it, you have to adjust, you have to seek out the next thing, the next struggle.
In this stretch, be even more vigilant, resist the temptation to fold, to make careless mistakes, to lose the opportunity, to snatch defeat out of the jaws of defeat. Keep running, keep pushing, cross the finish line, dare to win.