Ahh mistakes. We all make them, and it’s not something to fear or be ashamed of. They are a great opportunity to learn, to grow your skills, and become a stronger designer for your clients and your career. After doing this for a number of years, I’ve made a few “lessons” myself. I started thinking about the more common mistakes that happen in the creative workspace and maybe some advice to help get around them. After sharing and discussing with a few of my peers here’s what we came up with.
All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes.
– Winston Churchill
Going too fast! Sounds like that isn’t possible right? You get paid by the hour, your client has a limited budget, and you want to produce something that’s portfolio worthy and insures you’re going to get paid. You spent all that time learning quick keys, shortcuts, and workarounds just so you could literally go faster and be more efficient. But there’s a point on the curve where your speed is up but your quality control goes down. It’s important in your development to discover where that is.
Solution: Go fast, smarter. Any good race car driver knows that you go fast in the straights and drive smart in the curves. The same thing needs to apply in your approach to design work. When it’s a part of a project where you can go straight, full speed, flat out, do it. Automate, batch process, use quick keys, anything to help you get ahead. Why? Not so you can finish faster, but so that you can take more time in the curves. The tricky part of the project is when you don’t slow down. Try to create an overview of the project that you can use to identify times when you can just go flat out full speed on production, and where you’ll need to be careful. Proof reading isn’t something you should do fast, but converting all your images to black and white is. Make sense?
Try to switch gears before you do your quality control check. I often schedule this right after lunch, or I will go take a 10 min break walking around, getting fresh air, grabbing a drink, so that I can come back calmed and focused on the task at hand. It’s important to wind down into that focus, no machine likes to switch from top gear to bottom gear, and your brain is no exception to that.
You’ve been working all night on the cover graphic, the big illustration, retouching a photo that’s part of the annual report center spread, and finally you have it in the project. It looks great and you’re super proud! You send it off to the Project Manager/Editor/Creative Director, etc. The first thing they respond with is, “hey your cover has a couple of typos and you missed a period on the last paragraph of page three”. You feel dumb! You would normally never miss those, so what happened? It’s easy when you’re striving to make a singular part of a project so good, so perfect, so monumental, that you get Tunnel Vision. You’ll start missing all the little details you’d normally catch. I find this happens when the balance of a project is not evenly distributed. For example, it’s easy to do on projects like CD packaging for a band. You spend all that time on the outside cover art that you make all kinds of mistakes in the liner notes. It’s no one’s fault but yours, a hard lesson to learn. It’s up to the designer to push things back into balance and take ownership of as much as the project as they can.
Solution: You can approach this a few ways. My personal preference is to produce a checklist of what needs to happen for the project to be completed. Once identified try to knock out all the small things first, finish them, get someone else to look at it if possible, proof read it, double check it and be done. Now, give your full attention to that big piece of the project. Once there is nothing to be sacrificed at the expense of the largest component it’s more likely that you’ll have no mistakes in the final piece. What happens more commonly is designers try to take the biggest piece and solve it first. Then they approach the deadline and have a lot of small things remaining that get rushed for completion thus causing errors.
Ok, the logo for client A is almost done. Those edits for project B are next, you just got an email about website C, and you have a conference call with your code guy in a couple of hours about a new job D! That’s a lot, and realistically a busy designer usually has this going on threefold in any given week. I always envied those designers who talk about the “big project” they’ve been working on for a month with nothing else on their plate. How nice it must be to focus on one single project for a month, imagine how your brilliance could shine, if only! Flipping the switch too many times is bound to burn out the bulb faster, and we as a design machine are no different. Sure all that work can be exciting, it’ll definitely not hurt the wallet, but what does it mean for your reputation, what does it do for your portfolio? Remember that every project you work on is an investment in yourself. You were hired to deliver something great for the client and if you’re dividing your talents beyond a manageable level, you’ll make little mistakes that drive a client to not hire you again.
Solution: Some of the best advice I ever received was, “Learn when to say no to projects and work”. That terrified me because in my head all I heard was, “turn down income, make less money, live on noodles”. The reality became apparent though. When I overworked myself I didn’t produce work with a keen eye for quality control. I was getting the job done, and not making strong impressions on clients and their associates. Reputation and referrals are invaluable in this field. When I sacrificed volume of projects I started producing higher quality work, I could charge slightly more and it allowed more time for quality control. This made for a happier designer and client. This takes time, in my case it was roughly 1-2 years before this balance was complete. It also set me up for this next challenge, which involves knowing when to hire help.
Too Many Hats
So the client contacted you about work, and you’ve dreamed of working with this company. How exciting for you. So first you need to submit your proposal, then get the project timeline figured out, contact and hire a contractor to handle some specialist parts to the project like 3D modeling, voice over, video, etc. You negotiate budgets between all those involved, start writing/reviewing content and all of this is before you’ve put pencil to paper, or mouse to pixel, and actually been a designer. Freelance is hard because you have to fulfill many more roles than an agency, or in-house, designer. Wearing all these hats can distract your focus and pull you away from delivering the great project you want to provide. If you are wearing so many hats on a project as this, and it’s not uncommon at all, then it’s almost guaranteed you’ll make a mistake and miss something from someone. So what do you do?
Solution: This is hard, because it’s the most common problem for freelancers. I think you have to approach this in a very systematic, structured, and organized way. I’ve met designers who say they only take conference calls on mornings so their afternoons are focused on the design side of the project. Fridays are the days they handle billing, etc. Find a system of organizing the roles so that it works best for you. My personal process is I write down all the positions of a project and under those positions I write what needs to happen, when it should happen, and how long I have to do it. For example “Copywriter>Edit Down Article to Fit Layout>2 Hours>By Friday”. Once I have this all figured out, I put it into my calendar and block out time based on position and need. Once my blocks are full, I can evaluate needing to work longer days or if I want to hire in extra resources. This is great because it puts you in a position to decide what you want to do, and what you need to contract out. This level of organization and focus should better insure you make less mistakes and that you’re giving your very best to each role for success.
Some people are not meant to quality check their own work, I honestly and strongly believe that. It doesn’t make them any less skilled, or any less valuable, but it’s not in their personality to recheck their work. For me, these are the “artists”. Their minds wander, they are easily distracted, always looking for a potential muse, and maybe they’ve stayed attentive long enough to get that one killer part of a project done. It’s important to recognize and admit if you’re this sort of person. It’s considered by some to be ADD, and I won’t comment on that because I’m not a medical professional. However, the personality type is real, and for as brilliant as their talents can be, their mistakes potentially rival in scale.
Solution: Don’t work alone, and never put yourself on a timeline you can’t meet. Pad your time knowing that you will need it or create a distraction free work environment. That could mean turning off email, IM and phones during certain times of day while you produce work. Find others you can collaborate with, bounce ideas off of, and get spot checks of what you’re doing. Make sure the client understands exactly what you’re willing to deliver and what you’re not willing to do. This might sound like you’re cutting off the potential for more work but it’s better to have clients hiring you know exactly what you are providing them. If you don’t do research well, make sure they understand they are providing you with the necessary information formatted for the project because you won’t read it and edit it down. The best carpenter can charge more than an average handyman.
A group project, great! You’re doing the layouts so you don’t have to bother checking if Bobby’s copy has spelling errors, right? It’s dangerous to assume roles on a project when they haven’t been clearly defined by anyone. It’s even worse when there’s no project manager to define responsibilities. I care much less about my title position on a project and much more about my responsibilities for it’s success. At the end of a project when the final deliverable is sent, a client will never accept the granular elements of a project and alienate the mistakes by category alone. Either the project is right, or it’s not. This is a shared responsibility and one often lost when there are no clear guidelines for expectations established early on.
Solution: At the beginning of a project launch ask for it to be clearly stated by the Project Manager or Client exactly what roles each of you will fulfill. If you think that’s not possible, state the roles and responsibilities yourself. Make sure everyone agrees, and if they don’t agree continue to rework the list until all responsibilities are met. In some cases the list might only be you, but now you have a checklist for each individual component you must deliver. There will be no surprises, and now you can focus on tasks without fear. It also can help illustrate the dispersion of work on a project which can lead to support before you have to cry for help.
You weren’t sure what they meant in the meeting? You didn’t want to sound dumb so you didn’t say anything about it. You didn’t set expectations back to your client for when they need to get you the content, or logo, or image, etc. If you don’t communicate clearly, and I mean with complete transparency, you’re setting yourself up for failure. If it comes out towards the end of a project, you have less time to address the issue because the deadline is closer now then it ever was. Worse, the solution means reworking a lot of the project, ouch again! I’d rather be told I over communicate and make very few mistakes versus over simplify something very technical because I didn’t have the confidence to ask the client something. Often designers feel like they have to be an expert at everything to be able to design for it. This is extremely bad practice because it’s theoretically impossible. In the same week I’ve worked on projects for companies like Nokia and Genentech. There’s no way I could possibly be an expert on mobile technologies at the same time as I need to be a master of bio-tech.
Solution: You have to ask if you’re not certain and don’t understand something. Beyond stating the obvious about the potential risks, I often find that if a client’s information is so complex that I can’t understand it, there’s a good chance their target audience won’t either. They hired you for design, but it’s true that you’re biggest value add is being a sounding board for their message. To test its ability to be communicated visually, and how well it will be received. Try restating the information and see if the client agrees with you. Many times I find they’ve never heard their own content explained back. They may have never heard it translated and re-voiced. This can cause a better alignment of messaging, thinking, and ideation between you and the client both. If you have a client that doesn’t want to collaborate like this live then shoot them an email breaking out your understanding of each part of the project and let them correct it, mark it up, edit like a madman free with a red pen. In fact, I welcome that sort of approach. I often tell clients, please go through this and let me know what needs to be changed because “I WANT TO BE SURE IT’S RIGHT FOR YOU!”. That usually creates an appreciation for the attention to detail you’re bringing to the team.
Taking on a project that will allow you to use some skills you haven’t developed fully is a great opportunity to learn something in a real world scenario. Necessity being that mother of invention, sometimes this happens under duress versus desire. I for one have learned in all my years that I should NOT do 3D modeling work, and dance the line on coding for websites. But I’ve made the mistake of saying “yes”, that I’d give it a try because of time restraints, unavailable resources, or the client doesn’t have the money. The result is almost always, just ok work, long days with late nights, a less than happy client, and me being underpaid for my effort and overpaid for my delivery.
Solution: Know your strongest abilities, not just your technical/vocational skills. What are your individual strengths that allow you to add value to a project? I can do a lot of things, but I know I’m a strong Photoshop/Illustrator user. That’s good as a technical skill but another skill I’ve realized I have is that I can create a lot of ideas very fast. Without hesitation I can generate a pool of ideas while others are still deciding if their first idea is worth exploring. This will help when assigning roles mentioned earlier, knowing your strongest contribution puts you in a great position of success with the projects you take on.
No designer likes to hear this one. “You’re not the right person for the job”. But you know all the latest techniques for the applications like Photoshop and Illustrator, you can “make” anything, why wouldn’t you be the right person? Simple, it’s a project that isn’t in your style. Think of this like fashion design and styling. Whoever is designing should hopefully have a passion and proficiency in the style they are working towards. Design for work that aligns with you, your style, interests, passions, and successes. If you do great grungy textured urban looking work. Then don’t take the project for the chain of childcare businesses around your state. It’s not what you do, it’s not where your mind eye lives. How many times have you seen a logo for a business that looks like it was done in a conflicting style? This is what I’m talking about, and we’ve all seen examples of this. Comic Sans used for construction companies and an Apple Chancery font used for a electronica-dance club. Yikes.
Solution: Get portfolio reviews, look for peer feedback often of your latest work, and start building a digital style box of other designer’s work that you would compare to your own. Do a side by side of their work and yours and see if other people agree with your comparison. The goal here is to gain a real perspective on your work, versus your definitive perception. For years my wife, another designer who I respect dearly, called my personal illustrations cute. I hated this, the word seemed dirty and rude to my work. I collected samples of my personal illustrations and asked for feedback from many designers and illustrators I respected. “Cute”, was a common descriptor amongst others. That was it! I had to change, or accept that I illustrated “cute” things.
Don’t work in one. This echoes some of the other mistakes mentioned but can also be identified by the lack of collaboration on a project. Working in a silo is a cause for errors, it’s when you isolate yourself on a project, and it isn’t seen by anyone, before it goes to a client. You don’t want your client to be the person who edits your work and catches your mistakes. Their edit requests should be ones that come from being inspired by your efforts and ignite more ideas in them. In future you’ll be seen as a creative resource that can consult versus the person who can “get it done”. When I was a teacher I told my students, “never trust your success in the hands of others”. That holds true at the base level. You assume the project manager will catch any mistakes and hopefully tell you about them. The project manager is busy and assumes you didn’t make any mistakes because you’re “awesome” and they trust you. This is probably the cause of projects ending up on those design disaster websites where hundreds of comments are left about how “stupid” you are for missing something so simple, but every designer has missed something. You don’t want your work to end up there I imagine.
Solution: Get extra people to review your work and it doesn’t have to be another designer. In fact I recommend that you have a non-designer look at it objectively for every project you work on. My friends who aren’t designers will often question the simplest things that cause me to change my designs. The “a-ha” moment comes more often this way. Think of this as research, and everyone else is studying your project. Does it say what it’s supposed to? Is it communicating properly? Extra pairs of eyes are helpful, and often inspire greater work. I utilize friends over IM, via email, those who sit next to me, anyone really I believe is confident enough to give me honest feedback. Take a screenshot of your work, and share it, be open to feedback and critiques and consider it a success if on the first pass it comes back covered in questions and change requests. Now, it’s aligned for success thanks to that open feedback. This takes removing a little bit of ego, but it’s worth it for your career.
Married by Design
Don’t marry your work! Younger designers are brilliant, they have a fresh sense of style, and what’s going on in current culture. However, they often are the ones that get emotionally attached to their projects and want to see their ideas “win”. Unless you’re Charlie Sheen, winning isn’t your goal. This is when creative types treat their projects like contests. I’ve seen it, and I’m equally guilty of it. That doesn’t mean to not voice the strengths of your ideas and concepts, but question your motives. In college I was taught “an artist has one person to please but a designer has the client’s audience to consider first”. Sometimes even the client is married to their own idea and it can be difficult, and require some courage, to explain why it’s not the best concept.
Solution: For each project there is usually a list of goals. If I’m the facilitator of a project I like to start each one with a “need and brief” breakdown. The “need” is a list of goals for the project. You should attempt to isolate this list down to one parent need that all others are a sub goal to. Make it clear and well stated so everyone agrees to the parent need. The more well isolated the need, the greater chance you have of accomplishing it with solid design. The “brief” is what creates some of your design restrictions. The “brief” is the rules behind your project. “You must use this color, it must use this font, it must…”. For large corporate work they often have branding guidelines or a design strategy that you will adhere to. When you have boutique clients the structure isn’t usually so well defined. Think of the “brief” as your QC checklist for meeting standards. If your client is small and doesn’t have any, now is the time to start defining some of those and maybe they’ll see you as the master visionary of their brand. When you start following a “need and brief” approach to projects it will help you be strategic to specific goals instead of just marrying your ideas and fighting for their place in a project. This will help you learn to be a better facilitator and leader of work.
We’ve all seen the projects that have little inconsistencies that make it feel just slightly under-polished. Maybe they ran out of time, maybe they ran out of budget, or maybe the designer just didn’t work systematically versus organically. Some shadows varying on objects, leading on different blocks of text varies, the list goes on. The look is there, and it’s impressive, but the client wants that now applied to a 200 slide presentation, or equivalent page count for a website, how easy is it to reproduce? There’s a reason the old design rule Keep It Simple Stupid exists. It’s not just to help design clean elegant work, sometimes it’s about the ability to be consistent.
Solution: The tools now offer everything up in some form of numbers. The angle of, shadows, blur, kerning, leading, pagination, picas, pixels, inches, dpi, lpi, and more. If you can create a style guide, or cheat sheet on a project that tells you the numerical value of something then it can be reproduced consistently. More importantly it can be shared so anyone else working on the project can produce consistently with you. Getting everyone on the same page takes guidance, and guidance comes from clear instruction backed by solid examples. Break down a checklist for your project so someone can use it as a QC check list before delivering to the client. Are the fonts all the right size? Are the colors correct? A simple list can speed up quality checking, offer better accuracy, and make the process more efficient.
Image Source: Shutterstock.