Dealing with deadlines, what type of designer are you?

Before I get into dealing with deadlines let me first define what a deadline is. According to Webster Dictionary, a deadline is a date or time when something must be finished : the last day, hour, or minute that something will be accepted.

I know I didn’t really need to give you the definition of a deadline. You’re a graphic designer, you know all too well what a deadline is. But what I really wanted to touch on is not what a deadline is, but instead, how a deadline comes to be.

What I’m getting at is, who decided that the project you are working on needs to be done at a specific time?

Did your client tell you? Or, did you tell the client?

One of the biggest problems I’ve encountered, especially amongst newer or inexperienced graphic designers is their mistaking a client’s enthusiasm as a desire to have the job done quickly and then self-impose a deadline.

When I worked in the design department at a commercial printer our Production Coordinator did this all the time. I would be discussing a new project with a client, getting all the specs and details, and at the end of the conversation the client would ask something like “how soon before I see a proof?”. My Production Coordinator automatically interpreted this as “the client needs this in a rush” and would tell him a proof would be ready within a day or two, forcing the design department to rush on the project. What was maddening is oftentimes the client would respond to this by saying something like “wow, I wasn’t expecting it that fast. I thought it would take at least two weeks but 2 days is great!” As I said, maddening.

What’s even more maddening is that I’ve seen this happen over and over again. Just because a client asks when, or how soon they can see a proof doesn’t mean they are in a rush to get it. Let the client dictate the actual deadline if there is one instead of assigning one yourself.

Setting interim deadlines.

Once you have a true deadline assigned to the project. You’ll need to do some backtracking to figure out what YOUR actual deadline is. Let’s say you’re designing a brochure that your client needs for a trade show at the end of the month. There are several factors to keep in mind;

  • Where is the trade show? Will the client need time to ship the brochures?
  • How long will it take to print? Contact the printer as soon as you get the job. They'll give you a deadline to submit your files by in order to print, trim, fold, bind and package the brochures on time.
  • How long will revisions take after the client reviews the initial proof?
  • How long will the client require after receiving the proof before sending those revisions?
  • Finally, add in some padding for anything unforeseen that may delay the project.

By calculating all of these things you’ll be able to determine your own deadline for submitting a proof to the client.

Now what?

Now that you have your deadline, how will you go about working on the project?

Dealing with deadlines is all about balance. If you can't learn that balance you will forever struggle between doing the job well and getting it done on time.

Imagine you're sitting down for a holiday feast surrounded by friends and family. A very large plate of delicious looking food is placed in front of you. Maybe there's turkey, and ham, mashed potatoes, some stuffing, steamed vegetables, cranberry sauce, pasta salad, coleslaw and maybe even some home made meatballs, the ones that only grandma can make. Everything looks so good and you can't wait to dig in. But there's so much on your plate and you're not sure you can eat all of it.

So what do you do? Do you make your way around your plate sampling everything until you're full? Do you pick a little of this and a little of that, leaving your favourite part for last so you can eat it all and savour the taste? Or, do you immediately dive into your favourite just in case you run out of room? After all, you wouldn't want to leave that delicious morsel on the plate because you're too full.

How you decide to eat your meal all depends on what type of person you are.

The analogy may be a little slim, but dealing with deadlines isn't much different.

When it comes to dealing with deadlines there are really only three kinds of graphic designers.

  • The Racers: Designers who tackle the project right away and try to get it done as quick as possible with lots of time to spare, and then move on to the next one.
  • The Coasters: Designers who work on the project slowly but diligently, in little chunks from the time it's assigned until the deadline arrives.
  • The Slackers: Designers who wait until the deadline is almost upon them before finally starting. In this case, slacker doesn't mean lazy. More like someone who is often viewed as a procrastinator.

Now, there are many arguments as to which method is best, but what it really comes down to is you, the designer, and how you handle the pressure of dealing with deadlines.

Now I want to give you my own personal opinion on these three types of people. I know My opinion can be wrong, but this is the way I see it. The Racers, those who tackle the project as soon as they get it are doing themselves a disservice. First off, they are not spending enough time thinking about the project before starting their design. Because of this, I feel they are not putting out their best possible work. The design they come up with may be spectacular, but think of how much better they could have made it if they had spent more time on it. Now obviously with more time left before the deadline they could go back and revisit and expand on their design. But chances are they've already moved onto the next project and have put this one out mind.

The Coasters, those who deals with deadlines by working on the design steadily but in chunks. These designers are also doing themselves a disservice. Sure this method allows them to work diligently on the project and not feel the pressure of the deadline looming over them. But by breaking up their time this way they are constantly disconnecting themselves from the project, splitting their focus between different design projects which could hurt their overall vision and design.

By now I'm sure you've managed to guess what type of designer I am. I truely believe that The Slacker, the designer who waits until the deadline is almost upon them before starting is the one producing the best work.

Let me tell you why…

You're a creative person. Obviously, you wouldn't be in the graphic design profession if you weren't. That creativity means you are able to visualize things in your mind. Play with layouts, fonts, colours and everything else, all within the confines of your head long before putting those visions to paper or pixels.

You know what I mean. Just think of those phone calls you get from clients describing a project to you. If you're like me, you start visualizing in your head how the project will look even before the client finishes describing it. It may not be what the final design turns out to be, but there's definitely something brewing in your head. By the time you hang up the phone you already have a good idea of where you're going to start.

Of course, all three types of designers start out this way which is to be expected. It's what they do afterwards that separates them.

The Racer starts right away developing that idea and doesn't alway explore other possibilities.

The Coaster starts developing their idea and then comes back to it later. They may have some revelations along the way, but they're mostly tackling the problem knowing they've already taken some steps along a certain path and their more inclined to remain upon it.

Finally the Slacker, the one who hasn't put anything to paper or pixels yet. His ideas have been brewing in his mind since he first received the project. Changing, evolving, ideas come and are dismissed, others are picked apart and rearranged into something different, better. New directions are explored, some working out and others not so much. All of this is happening in his head as the deadline is approaching.

When the time finally arrives to actually produce the design the Slacker has a very clear picture of what he wants to do and is able to spend a much smaller amount of time implementing it than the first two designer types spent on theirs. And chances are his design will be a much better thought out concept than theirs were.

It was Abraham Lincoln who said;

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”

That concept hold true in graphic design, especially when dealing with deadlines. The longer you spend thinking about your design before starting, the faster you'll be able to design it and the better the design will be.

I know it's not always easy to do. I've found myself hanging up the phone with a client and being so exited about their project that I've dropped everything to get started on it. I also know those are the projects that I've wasted the most time changing and revising before being satisfied enough to show it to the client. If I would have taken the time to reflect on my ideas I probably could have saved myself a lot of time and come up with the same design or maybe even something better.

So what I'm saying is give yourself time to think about your design before diving in. If you don't deal well with the pressure of deadlines then don't wait until the last minute. Give yourself enough time to get the job done but also give yourself enough time to know you're doing the job right and to the best of your ability.

Dealing with deadlines is all about balance. Learn to master that and you're on your way to becoming a better and more proficient graphic designer.

What do you think?

What do you do when you take some time off from your graphic design business? Let me know by leaving a comment for this episode.

Questions of the Week

If you would like me to answer your question in a future episode please visit my feedback page.

This week’s question comes from Amie,

Hi Mark!
My name is Amie. I am from Pensacola, Florida. I am opening a graphic design studio and I am so grateful to have found your podcast. Thank you for all of your invaluable content!!!
I was wondering if you could share a little about profit margin. What is the typical profit margin for a small boutique graphic design studio? We won't be offering any web services at first, just traditional print design/branding stuff.
Any insights you could share?
Thanks so much!

To find out what I told Amie you’ll have to listen to the podcast.

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Running a graphic design or web design business all by yourself isn't easy. If there are any struggles you face running your design business please reach out to me. I'll do my best to help you by addressing your issues in a future blog post or podcast episode here at Resourceful Designer. You can reach me at [email protected]