Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Design Process vs. Result

January 16, 2006

When I’m assigned to a design project, the contract the client signs shows that they’re paying for a specific amount of design time. But the specified hours are no indication of how long I’ll actually work on the design. Problem? Nope. It could be a problem if clients were buying process, but they’re not. They’re buying me.

This is a concept that I’ve not always appreciated, at least not fully. When I first started out designing professionally (freelance), it seemed that I should charge for the hours I worked on the project, just to keep everything fair and logical. But in practice this results in a wholly unfair and illogical approach, given what it is that a designer does. And a designer cannot maintain such an approach for very long and stay in business. If you think about it, the reasons for this should become apparent rather quickly.

Anyway, I used to agonize over the fact that sometimes I’d estimate and charge for 24 hours of design time and end up finishing in 5 or 6 hours. In such cases, the requirements, constraints and client objectives would so quickly coalesce with a concept that the obviously appropriate design execution would just come pouring out of me. I felt like the client was being cheated somehow – as surely they would believe if they knew just how little time I spent on their project. But I came to realize that these are irrelevant concerns.

“…By attrition he reaches a state of inaction
Wherein he does nothing, but nothing remains undone.”

— Lao Tze, Tao Te Ching

Seriously, how can you quantify a design process for billing purposes? I think you really can’t. For starters, there’s very little that anyone other than a designer can understand about the design process. Every designer has his or her own individual process, but for most of us much of design “work” looks like goofing off or like we’re doing nothing at all.

I often aspire to follow the wisdom of Lao Tze quoted above. At work I can sometimes be found at my desk, lying back in my chair staring at the ceiling. Sometimes I’m thinking about a concept, sometimes I’m using the ceiling tiles to play with imaginary grids and sometimes I’m just …waiting. Really.

One of the things you learn after a few years of being a designer is that you’ll never know when the right idea will find you or how long you’ll have to wait. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can go out and find it. But not always. Maybe not even often. The truth is, I really don’t have any idea where some design solutions come from. They just find me.

Now, the rational part of my psyche tells me this all quite simple. If you’ve got some artistic talent and you’ve worked to learn and internalize design fundamentals and you’ve lived a life that offers experience, practice, and a habit for seeking the answers to communication conundrums, it is no wonder that such solutions present themselves. The mathematical equation for this might be “design = preparation + information + X + opportunity.” Yeah, x is a bit hard to define. Even so, that still doesn’t explain how the idea/concept/solution springs forth from the ether.

So how do you explain this to the client? You could try, “Okay, the total will be $4,500. I’ll review what we’ve discussed and these reference materials, spend 30 hours thinking about things, staring at the ceiling, maybe take a walk in the woods, and hopefully something awesomely perfect will come to mind sometime during that process. But right now I’ll need a 50% deposit.”

No, the client is not purchasing process. They’re purchasing the expertise and successful track record of an individual or team. They’re purchasing your attention, education and ability. They’re purchasing the result, not the journey. And that’s how it must be. No use agonizing over the fact that the awesomely perfect something came to mind twenty minutes after your meeting – or, for that matter, after 84 hours of mind-numbing, excruciating design work. Nobody cares and neither should you. We’re just supposed to do like Larry the Cable Guy suggests and, “Git’r done!

So if you’ve ever spent time worrying about how your design process might not jive with what the client would appreciate, stop. We designers have a unique job to do and a unique way to do it. The less time spent explaining it, the better (and the better we look. It just sounds kooky so don’t try explaining). Oh yeah, don’t bring up Larry the Cable Guy to the client, either. Lao Tze makes for a much more trust-inspiring philosophy guru.

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