Thursday, March 9th, 2006

The need for speed

The need for speed
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Javier (a designer at smashLAB) noted that when he goes home for the day, he’s quite exhausted. This sort of surprised me at first. Generally our designer’s days are a standard length, and really, it’s not like we are mining coal or plowing the fields. The truth is though, that at our studio, there’s always pressure in the air.

My parents always held up the notion of a strong work ethic, and I suppose that has really stuck with me. Even when my brother Mark and I would split firewood as kids, my Dad would push us to find smarter ways of working. Both of my parents encouraged us to find efficiencies, reduce redundant tasks, and get things done.

Around here, that sentiment remains palpable. Some of our past designers came to loathe that, and left our studio as a result. Others have learned from it, and in turn truly become better designers. The reality is that we have budgets to work within and timelines to meet. We have to get things done; plus, we have to do great work. I’ll implement whatever it takes to build creative that is as strong and on the mark as possible.

Moving slow is distracting

Speed is often considered a bad thing. The general sentiment is that if you are going fast, the probability of a mistake is higher. It is often believed that speed makes one sloppy, or results in missed opportunities. How many times in our childhood did we hear such phrases as, “slow down and do it right”?

I have come to believe quite the opposite. I feel that speed can help sharpen your senses and add to your focus.

I may be quite incorrect about this, but I feel that when I drive fast, I see more. At these times, I am simply more cognizant of what is occurring around me—I am continually scanning for information and acting accordingly; however, when I drive or act slowly, I find that I become sloppy—I get distracted, and my focus drifts to less relevant items such as billboards, or people-watching. This is when I seem to make mistakes more readily.

I move fast, and am constantly encouraging those in our studio to find ways to do the same.

There are so many ways to lose time. A couple of years back, a person from a local development firm referenced a term that we have grown a fondness for. This activity is called “gold-plating.” This is when you take a great deal of time to make minute revisions that are undetectable to anyone but yourself.

Make no mistake; at smashLAB we take an obsessive level of care in the details of our work. At the same time, it’s important to concentrate one’s energy on the right tasks. Painting a large wall white with a 1/8″ detail brush isn’t attention to detail—it’s just plain stupid.

A case for moving quickly

Our reasons for speed are many-fold. For one thing, there’s simply a lot to do around our studio, so we move fast out of necessity. On a larger level however, the benefit of doing things faster and more efficiently is so great that it seems foolish for one to not work towards it.

First of all, most of our work is bid on the hour. So, if we are working on a fifty hour wordmark project, I want to ensure that the maximum amount of allotted time goes into the actual creative aspect of the project. By working efficiently, we are able to explore more variations, and refine the project meticulously. This may seem like common sense, but I’m quite convinced that those without established process work many more hours than we do on a project, and spend most of that time spinning in circles.

It seems that many projects have an “energy arc”. Most designers are aware of this phenomenon, even if they refer to it as something else. At the beginning of a project, all that one sees is possibility and opportunity; however, as the project lingers on, obstacles become more apparent, and enthusiasm generally seems to drop. To best manage this, we are working towards shortening our average project life cycle.

Most recently, we have embraced a model within which our small team works collectively and intensively to explore the creative solution. From there, we work to rapidly establish a single direction which best solves the problem at hand. This highly focused energy early in the project generally helps us get on the right track quickly.

This isn’t a new concept by any means. Paula Scher talks about hitting the mark early in this little video by Hillman Curtis. She has also made a nod towards Malcolm Gladwell’s theories in his book Blink. The reality is that we often have good ideas straight away. If we don’t, we certainly have to dig more; however, why should we abandon a sound direction, just because it may come quickly?

Speed allows us time to explore a greater number of options, affording us the luxury of comparing and contrasting a number of different directions early on. I really believe in numbers. More options early in the process do streamline things later. Contrasting variations against one another helps you remove a subjective preference for what may be a weaker direction. Working fast and coming up with a number of options allows us to stay fresh and energetic.

One of the nice side-effects of working quickly is that you can find some happy accidents along the way. It certainly doesn’t always happen, but with a greater number of ideas on the table, you are more likely to stumble upon something unexpected and good.

You too can feel the speed

Perhaps you think we’re on to something here, and would like to do the same. Where is one to start? Well, here are some quick suggestions that should make a difference in your work habits, and in turn the quality of the work you create.

Process is the best way to reduce the number of wasted hours in your practice. Take time to research appropriately at the beginning of a project, and when the exploration phase arrives, invest heavily in it. An exhaustive focus on the “ideas” aspect of the project will make the production-stage of your work much easier. It’s so sad to see a young designer rush into hours of production on a poorly conceived idea. (We call this “polishing a turd.”)

Find good ideas–once you have uncovered them, it will most likely feel as though everything else just falls in to place.

Wherever possible, we suggest the obsessive use of keyboard shortcuts. There is a quick key for almost any command. Try to learn a new one every time you have to move towards a menu. By cutting those redundant movements out of your daily work, you will find efficiencies which are multiplied exponentially over the course of a year. This saves you time for thinking and exploration.

We like to use the best applications for a job. As handy as the new InDesign is, we really believe in pencils, paper, words, and brains. Talk first: share ideas, discuss, debate, and get it down on paper. Think about the problem at hand, and try to get as close to it as you can. There’s plenty of time to edit and refine things later, but when you are early in the process, don’t waste any time with software. Programs are just tools, and pencils still work better.

As noted before, we also suggest very short project life-cycles. You’ll find that these not only keep your energy up, but also afford your client less time to waffle and lose focus. Making a series of decisions while both you and your client are on the same page will help you reach your collective goals with a minimum of dilly-dallying. Establish and maintain strict deadlines for both your clients and yourself, and finish the job.

Fast isn’t an excuse

Speed is important. Contrary to the beliefs of many, I believe that working quickly makes a huge difference in both the quality and consistency of output, as well as one’s general satisfaction at work. At the same time, I must stress that moving fast is never an excuse for sloppy work. If one is focused, speed should never compromise one’s output; instead, it should serve to enhance it.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. DK says:

    Interesting post.
    The speed process is something I am all too familiar with at the place I work. But here is my question to you; when is fast too fast? You see, I am thee entire "design team" at the place I work. Which is cool sometimes and crappy others. This is also the first and only design job I have had out of school. Unfortunately we only work with low budget clients for the most part, and the powers that be know absoultely nothing about design, so they think, hey, if your that creative, you should be able to come up with brilliance on the spot. Research!?! Your just wasting time.

    Anyhow, rants aside, I am curious to hear what you would consider "too fast" for typical prijects. Am I just being a baby, or is 6 hours to design a logo and entire ID package just insane??

    I would say I am alotted 12 hours tops to take a logo from concept to final deliverables around here. Is it just me or is that still insane?
    10 hours to design web site comps?

    I do it cause I have to, and most of the time I pull off something pretty decent. I am sick of only pulling off decent however. Do I just need to shut up, stop complaining and continue to bite my tongue, or do any other designers that have been in this game a while think that these are weak time allotments?

    At what point do projects become hack rush jobs?
    I am curious to hear some thoughts.

  2. Hi DK,

    Good question.

    In my mind, working intelligently is paramount to working effectively (and in turn quickly). In no way do I mean to imply that skipping key steps in the process can result in successful work.

    You need to spend an adequate length of time learning, researching, and working to understand the challenge at hand, prior to creating useful design. Otherwise, the client (or in your case employer), is left with a shell of a solution--perhaps visually appealing, but likely ineffective.

    When I reference working rapidly, I make the assumption that solid process is relied upon. This seems the only way to actually ensure that we deliver as we promise. Our first directive is to solve the problem. Our second is to complete the work efficiently. Seasoned designers can generally do both, but even that statement must be tempered by common sense.

    I am reluctant to speak for others; however, I believe that 6 hours for a logo and identity is not a sufficient amount of time to truly design a solution. Instead, it feels a bit like a fantasy. I would love to have my lawn mowed in 7.8 seconds, but realistically, some things do take time.

    Fast doesn't mean sloppy, incomplete, or foolish. My suggestion is to bring up your situation with your employer, and explore what their goals are. Do they wish to be a production house or a strategy driven operation? If they are solely interested in the mechanics of the work, and not the effectiveness of their efforts, you likely won't sway them; however, if they are really interested in delivering good work, they may take your points into consideration.

    If you work for an operation that is not design focused, you will have to make an effort to articulate why a more deliberate and thoughtful process may be necessary. In working with our clients, we make a business case for the time requirement and processes in our work. If they can remain dispassionate and practical about what they need, we generally find success with this approach.

    Ask your employer questions. Why are we doing this? What is the end goal? Will it actually work? I am hard pressed to believe that this kind of reasoning wouldn't be successful. For example, if your employer explained that a new brochure was intended to create brand loyalty, and you could explain that it was not possible given the direction, you may steer them in a more appropriate direction with more realistic time allowances.

    Most people are logical if presented with a clear case and salient argument. As much as we shirk away from doing it, this is a part of what we are required to do in order to bring sound work to life.

    Good luck!

    Eric

  3. Dan Joslyn says:

    Speed is relative to something. In my work speed as a process is relative to getting information. I love loads dumped quickly then I love sorting slowly and then moving fatser to project options. It is a rhythem.

    I try to speed-up review getting feedback, encouraging not holding back that slows down the possibilities which can be reviewed more slowly but creating options sooner for better decisions faster.

    Dan

  4. B. Baggins says:

    (We call this “polishing a turd.”) - hardly an original term.

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