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

The Tao of Deadlines

September 19, 2007

Deadlines are a useful and ever-present factor in our work. To be a professional designer you’ve got to love and respect deadlines. But in order for you to have this proper, positive attachment to deadlines you must work to ensure that deadlines don’t become an obstacle to the quality of your work or a negative factor toward your reputation. Most of us are likely familiar with the origin of the term, but the modern aspect of deadlines in our work doesn’t need to be quite so sinister.

Veerle Pieters recently wrote an article entitled, “Deadlines Kill Inspiration.” This title is quite inaccurate, as deadlines can have absolutely no impact on inspiration or creativity. But the content of Veerle’s article described rather accurately where the problems lie with regard to inspiration and deadlines (though the title and theme of the article misattribute responsibility). To be clear, problems with deadlines almost always come down to one root problem: poorly managed business.

No client ever caused a designer to miss a deadline. If you believe otherwise, you’re laboring under a grave misapprehension (not to mention that you’ve got a victim-mentality). Such an unhealthy attitude makes it difficult for responsible deadline management to occur. Deadlines do not exist in a vacuum.

Responsibility

I hope you can agree that professionalism requires a designer must never miss a deadline. There are circumstances that arise in business and project processes that sometimes make it difficult to meet some deadlines, but missing a deadline is an inappropriate way to respond to that situation. It’s the designer’s responsibility to do what is necessary to deliver on his/her promise. Every time. Period. That’s what a deadline is: a promise.

I know that some agencies make it a practice to regularly contact clients to request that one or more deadlines be pushed back, for one reason or another. There’s no two ways about it: this is exclusively the habit of badly run and irresponsible agencies. Clients of these companies (or individuals) should never put up with such shoddy practice, and should be busy finding better, more responsible agencies with which to spend their money.

Things will not always go smoothly. Bad things happen. Bad clients happen. Accept, however, that none of these common factors are license to behave irresponsibly.

I’m sure that some of you reading this may be thinking, “That sounds a bit extreme. It’s just a fact of business; stuff happens and delays regularly creep into projects.” I agree, but only to the extent that this is true only of poorly run design businesses and poorly managed projects.

You see, responsible deadline management requires more than just a designer willing to do whatever it takes. If that were the case, we’d all be run ragged with the required effort (and likely producing ragged results). No, there are many factors that contribute to responsible deadline management and I want to go over a few of them here.

Estimating and scheduling

Surely among the primary factors in our being able to meet deadlines is our ability to accurately estimate the time required for each phase of a project, and the related ability to effectively distribute the various projects in our queue. In order to do this successfully you have to know certain things:

You have to know your work habits

You have to know the client’s character and processes

Contracts

Aside from trust, nothing in any design project is more valuable than an intelligently crafted contract and/or project scope document—along with the client’s full appreciation of the specific elements. As for the second part of that, when it comes to reviewing contracts with clients, be sure to deliberately point out the client responsibilities as described in the contract(s). They must be made to appreciate that the project is not a one-sided affair. They must work as diligently as you in order for the project to be a success. Few clients understand this of their own accord.

Be sure to do the following:

Project Management

No project runs itself. Responsible project management is a vital component in allowing everyone to meet deadlines. In addition to the typical elements of project management, make sure to:

Be the pro

Professionals act professionally and responsibly. If you’re not doing so, you can hardly expect your client to be professional and responsible in return. Lead by example in all aspects of project behavior.

Things will not always go smoothly. Bad things happen. Bad clients happen. Accept, however, that none of these common factors are license to behave irresponsibly. When the crap hits the fan it may mean that long hours and extra effort are required in order to meet the deadline. If that’s what’s required, just do it. The alternative does not reflect well on you or your reputation.

By the same token, these sorts of mishaps can easily be limited by following the advice offered above. But whatever the case, don’t start looking at deadlines negatively. Deadlines are your friend. Deadlines are a necessary and beneficial component of professional work. Deadlines allow you to demonstrate, in some measure, your ability and your responsibility. Clients respect that. And even if one doesn’t, rest assured he will not respect you breaking your promise. No one does.

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