Finish your design projects with a strong process

Allison Vail – No Comments

You’re done with another freelance design project and have time to take a break. Final artwork and invoices are out and you’re ready to kick back, pour a drink and collapse into a Netflix marathon. Right? Sure. As long as you’ve done your project off-ramping and debrief.

The legendary designer Massimo Vignelli said, “There is no design without discipline. There is no discipline without intelligence.”

Think of the off-ramping process as part of an intelligent creative practice. Make it mandatory-just another part of the process. De-personalize it so you can take an honest look at the project and your finished work. Think of debriefing as a necessary step to make you a better designer and a better business owner.

When you’re drowning in a project, you end up focusing on survival and you develop a narrow field of vision to get through it. There isn’t time for introspection. Late nights, mad scrambles, the occasional temper tantrum or weeping in a corner—we get it. It’s hard when you’re a freelancer and there are no project managers waiting to swoop in and restore order or take the brunt of the client’s demands.

When you’re swimming along nicely, you don’t want to rattle the situation with questions or over-thinking. It’s always a treat when things go better than expected and your first instinct is to just go with it.

When the project is finally done, you don’t want to revisit it. Who would? If things went really well, it’s easy to move on. What could you possibly learn from perfection? That’s where the discipline comes in.

A solid, informative off-ramping process will help you improve your skills and your business in a very deliberate, thoughtful way. Albert Einstein said “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” This part might not be fun or creative, but it is intelligent.

So what should you consider and include when doing a project debrief (often called a post mortem, but why make it more depressing?). Write it down for reference and to clarify your thoughts. The process of writing it down might also reveal things you didn’t expect. Here are a few tips you can use when developing your own written debrief process:

  1. Be nice to yourself
    Start on a positive note. Sure, there will be clients and projects that make you want to quit. But find something in every project that you can feel good about. It might be something small, like discovering a new drawing technique or a new software to make your life easier. Write down what you learned so it’s solidified in your mind for next time.
  2. Figure out what went wrong
    Be really frank about what did not go well. Don’t be afraid of a little self-evaluation. Have a think about why things went awry. What could you have done instead? What could you try next time you face a similar problem that might turn things around? What is something you’ll never do again? Again, write it down. Have a little play book of lessons learned that you can review now and then.
  3. Check your financials
    It’s easy to not bother with the cost of the project once the cheque is in your hand, but trust me, you need to look at how many hours you spent on the job and compare it to your cheque. Make sure that the job was in fact profitable. If it wasn’t, do you need to raise your rate? Does this particular client need a risk factor built in so you don’t end up working for less than minimum wage? Did you do really well on this project and can you seek out more of that type of project or pursue a stronger relationship with that client? Finally, as yourself — is this the type of work in your wheelhouse? If not, you might want to think twice about taking the unprofitable projects. Might not be worth it in the long run.
  4. Ask for feedback
    When you work alone, personal and professional growth can be harder, because you don’t have project managers and art directors pushing back at you. Professional growth keeps life interesting and your skills sharp. Craft a small survey you can send to clients (Google has a great, free survey tool), no matter how the project went. Ask questions about the process, the timeline, the relationship and the final design work. Ask clients what would have made the project better for them. Don’t categorize feedback as good or bad — it’s all just information you can learn from.
  5. Clean up your creative
    Don’t leave the detritus of your project floating around. Put your digital files in the right folders, file or shred sketches and paperwork, and update your online portfolio and LinkedIn page. If it was a great project and your client is OK with it, share it on your social media channels. These finishing touches mean you don’t have a huge mess to clean up and it robs you of a procrastination tool down the road, because it’s just part of the process, not a distraction.

Pushing yourself through these additional steps after a long design project might seem like an unnecessary chore. But it is the conscious, disciplined decisions we make that make us better designers, and ultimately, more creative business people too.

By the way, the above applies to almost any sort of project or company really—not just design studios. What sort of process does your team employ to identify, record, learn, and improve from projects? Please share your ideas and tips in the comments!