Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Three books you must read before you're 30.

I turned 30 this year (Why, God, why????) and I thought I'd share a little pearl of wisdom about three books that changed my perception of life in the past few years.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen R. Covey):
Maybe it's not your case, but sometimes people go through life just going with the flow, never stopping and taking time to go deeper and try to find purpose in what they do. I was kind of like that until a friend of mine suggested this book because I was interested in a better time managemente application. The book states that being "effective" is doing what you want, with the best results possible, while you optimize your resources. In order to achieve a high level of "effectiveness" in all areas of your life, you need to go through all the seven habits, which in turn go from dependence, to independence, to interdependence. The habits can be applied to most about anything from corporate culture, to love life. It shows a way of being in control of your life and assuming responsibility for it.

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (John Gray):
Ever wanted your partner to come with a manual? Well this book is as close to a manual as I've found. It explores the basic differences between men and women, how they process information, how the use language, what they need and what they expect from each other. It's a book for couples, though I found that many of the things they suggest apply to general relationships between men and women, even at work or in your family. This book opened my eyes and made me realize that I had been doing it all wrong for years. It wasn't my fault, I didn't know better. We all bring baggage from our parents and our past relationships, you know? It's a good idea to try to understand it better to break away from it.

Rich Dad, Poor Dad (Robert T. Kiyosaki):
Are you one of those people for whom finances is like advanced chinese? I am. As a designer I was more interested in other things, never really worried about finances, assumed that I'd always have somebody to take care of that for me. Well, nothing like being in control of your own destiny, including money. I found that this book is a first glance at the world of finances, very easy to understand, with very straightforward suggestions. It also changes paradigms most of us have related to money, and teaches a good approach towards wealth.

Well, needless to say, these guys have created whole industries out of these and other books, however I read them and took what applied to my life, became a better version of myself, though I still have a long way to go. If you find that none of these really speak to you, at least they will force you to think a bit outside of the box, have a broader vision and maybe start looking for other materials by different authors, that will take you to making the changes in your life that will lead you to happiness.

All the best!

Designers beware of… filing systems.

When your design operation starts to go well and there are more and more customers with new projects, you will see two things:

1. You need to keep a record of your work, most of the time, digital files, digital images and all other recording materials and 2. You'll need an easy way to identify and find such materials.

As I've mentioned in previous blogs, it is very important to keep track of your projects in a database or some sort of tracking system. Such system should hold information about the location of the actual digital files of each project, and the files should be stored in an orderly fashion in said location.

Here's my method:

I organize the files by customer, so first I decide the biggest criteria to divide them, for example, country and create a folder for each country I work with. Inside each country folder I create folders for each of the customers. Then, inside each customer's folder, I create new folders according to new criteria, for instance, types of projects, sizes, media… Here's an example:

It's crucial to be consistent with your filing system and train your staff on how to file correctly. This will save you precious time when trying to locate files for an especific project (or an angry customer on the phone who claims you messed up a whole nutritional table) and it's also very valuable once you start implementing an automatic backup system.

I guess it goes without saying that backing up your files is imperative not only to have access to them, but to ensure their protection against plagiarism. There are multiple digital storage devices out there, even companies who'll do it for you following a specific method.

Now, you should come up with a way to name your digital files as well. For instance: CUSTOMER_TYPE OF JOB_TOPIC_SIZE_VERSION
"Strawberry_package.ai" just won't cut it in the long run. I also found that saving the previous versions in separate files is useful due to the fact that sometimes customers can't make up their minds about an idea. Though sometimes this uses a lot of hard drive space, you can delete them once the customer has final approved one.

In order to help yourself (or your staff) remember to file all related materials both physical and digital, I suggest you start using checklists that describe your process thorougly. These cognitive devices help people track the different steps they need to take to finish a project and store it effectively. I am a rather forgetful person, and these checklists helped me be on top of things handling a large volume of projects.

It's useful to file the checklists with the materials of the project. For instance, you can have a checklist to use when receiving materials from the customer, to check that everything you need to start working is included, and one that describes the internal design process.

Checklists call for thorough thinking, though, you don't want to have so many checklists that all your day goes by filling them out, just enough to ensure that everything is under control. Also, if your operation is bigger, like part of an in-house design team, there might be checklists for different parts of the projects, or checklists to communicate with other departments, so analyze your process before implementing too many controls.

If the department is just starting out, start small, using a checklist to control a small portion of the process. Avoid going electronic at first. I found that an electronic checklist will only work if it has been previously tested with pen and paper.

It all has to do with being in control of your operation and being aware of what's happening with each of the projects and their related materials, but keep it simple.

In short:

- Store digital files in identifyable folders.
- Store physical materials in identifyable devices also.
- Be smart about naming your digital files.
- Create checklists to add control points to certain steps of your process.

All the best!

Designers beware of… leadership.

When I first started as a designer I never imagined that I could have such an impact on the people I worked with or that worked for me, and I discovered that to me, leading a team of designers is actually even more rewarding than designing itself.

I found that the most important thing is to reach a point where we trust each other, as people and as co-workers, a point where a culture of accountability is created. For me, it is important that we understand and respect each other as people, because inevitably, this dynamic will reflect on our work relationship.

It's true that business matters and personal matters should be kept separate, but isn't it so much better (and productive) when you like the people you work with? Even dealing with stressful issues becomes easier when the team has a great dynamic.

So here are a few things I discovered:

Even if you're the leader, the design manager, remember that leading is not about barking orders to your staff. Get close to them, be one of them, try to understand where they're coming from, their skills and their flaws, so that you can assign tasks accordingly.

Be a partner, someone they can rely on and share your knowledge with generosity. Create an environment where creative expression and fun is embraced but also be clear on when it is the time to get serious and meet deadlines. Manage them the way you'd like to be managed.

Let your staff own some projects, be in charge of tasks and even lead other staff members some time. Do this slowly and once you've gotten to know their abilities and if they're interested in doing so. Most designers feel really good that they're being trusted with new responsibilities and will step up to the plate.

Also, this will allow you to delegate more tasks and slowly empower your people, which will resonate in a better, more productive working environment. However, be aware that while you listen to their opinions and allow them to have a voice, you need to lead with your choices and ultimately, you're the one that decides.

Try not to solve all their problems, but rather guide them so that they can solve them themselves. Also, encourage them to come up with alternative solutions before talking to you, so that you can discuss them together.

Don't be afraid to be wrong, let it be an opportunity for everybody to learn. Be sure to provide constant feedback, positive and negative, create spaces for it, seek it inside the office and outside. A leisure activity is ok every now and then.

Finally, it's important to communicate the direction of the company to your staff. Once they know how their work plays in the larger scheme, you'll find that most are more committed and that they show care for the company and its growth.

Establish achievable goals, performance indicators and be disciplined about collecting the data necessary to see if they have complied. Better yet, place them in charge of collecting the information.

I've had a very gratifying (though short) experience leading people, and I've been very fortunate to have had great leaders to look up to as well. My staff went on to ventures they never thought they could handle and some became leaders themselves. I just love how I had such a positive impact in their lives and I look forward to keep on growing as a design leader.

All the best!

Designers beware of… technology and supplies.

When running a design office or a design department, you need to assess the kind of equipment you'll be needing and the supplies you'll be using on a daily basis.

If you're starting out, you need to decide the extent of your operation, research the types of activities you'll be performing, so that you can assign a budget for your equipment. Try to figure out how long it'll be before you have to update your hardware and software and take this into consideration when managing your current budget and the budget of the upcoming years.

Also, beware that technology changes too fast in these times. Subscribe to a technology magazine or newsletters and be constantly aware of new developments that can make your work easier of more efficient, or new things that you can offer to your clients. A great one for we designers is Macworld (www.macworld.com). Joining a few technology forums in Ecademy or other platforms is also a great way of being up to date and asking people around for the latest and greatest.

Less expensive items like general office supplies also need to be accounted for. Measure their use and unless you have an unlimited budget for this, try to recycle and get the best of them. You don't always know when you're going to run out of printer cartridges or glossy paper.

All the best!

Designers beware of… production lines.

Once you've completed your design process, it goes to production. Whether it's printing, packaging or product design, you need to be knowledgeable about the production process, in detail.

Suppliers are more than happy to help most of the time, they will explain technical specifications (they will even share molds or keylines) and suggest better ways to handle the design in order to make the most of the process. Knowing about it will give you more authority to assess design issues with clients as well as avoid potential problems during production. If you can, spend a few days in the factory or production line, so that you understand the process thoroughly. Ask many questions.

Take a look into products that have been made using the same production techniques and evaluate how much you can push the boundaries of your design. Learn about the quantity of items to be produced and the budget to do it. These factors may play a key role in how the design should be tackled, for instance, can you produce two different designs at the same time? Is there a limited number of colors available according to the price? What's the minimum/maximum quantity that can be produced in a predefined time?

It's also a very good idea to create mock-ups, specially in product or package design.

Despite all of the above, clarify responsibilities with your client and suppliers. While I'm saying you need to be knowledgeable in the production process, take into consideration that specifications, legal requirements and other production issues should be addressed by them.

All the best!

Designers beware of… customer service.

Something to think about in any business is your relationship with your clients. We designers often think that the world doesn't understand us, that clients don't speak the design language… think again: It is we who need to understand them and speak their language.

Speak their language you ask? It's not as hard as you think, I found that mainly the secret is to listen. Take the time to sit down and find out what your client expects from you and vice versa.

The tracking system I mentioned in my previous blog will be one of your best allies, because you'll always have information for your clients at hand, you'll know exactly where each project is, if it's been invoiced, sent, what the terms where, etc. Accurate information is very valuable to clients and it'll be a differentiating point against your competition.

Also, when the project is in the client's hands, make sure you follow up on them, let them know that you're available to answer any questions and that you care about what they have to say. If you can, attend some negotiation seminars and learn the way to handle tough customers. It is important to learn how to say no as well, and guide your clients towards the best design solution, one that they're happy with and that doesn't compromise your principles.

Remember I told you about speaking the language of the clients? Well, you need also to be aware of the way you speak, this means, grammar, spelling and the way you present ideas. This is particularly important when sending emails and explaining design issues in writing. It is very easy for a customer to get confused when he receives an email and it's not well written.

Revise how much detail you want to go into when discussing matters with your clients. Little detail and you won't be able to convey your message, too much detail and it's likely that your counterpart will get confused. Grammar and spelling do speak about your professionalism, so be aware of the image you're presenting. Check emails for errors or typos before sending them and make sure your staff does the same.

Do call your client on a regular basis to let them know that status of a project. They should never have to call you. Be strict about meeting deadlines and exceed your customer's expectations.

Remember, the clients are the ones bringing in the money, so treat them as you would like to be treated, put yourself in their shoes… you will find that many times your clients become your friends and your best referrals.

All the best!

Designers beware of… time measurement.

Have you even been one of those people that at the end of a long day go "I worked my butt off all day and still I didn't get to do what was important, I feel like I didn't do anything at all…" Well, you may need to start measuring your time.

In my experience I found that there are several kinds of activities, for instance, true added value activities like strategic planning, chore activities like entering invoicing information into a collection system, annoying activities with no added value like burning CDs for other people and personal activities like breaks, lunch or cooler talks, to name a few.

It is important to know how much time you're spending in these activities. Why? Here are a few reasons:

- Because you may be spending a little too much time in activities that add no value to your operation.

- Because you may encounter that you can delegate certain activities to your employees, which not only would empower them, but free time for you to spend in more added value activities.

- Because you may find that it's more effective to hire a consultant to take care of certain time consuming activities or you may even ask for your suppliers to absorb such activities which would make your operation even more effective.

- Because you need to be aware of how long do your typical projects take, in order to have an accurate planning, and how much to charge.

- Because you can plan more strategically ahead of time so that you know if you need to get some outside help for that big project that will be coming next week or if you have some free time to spend on leadership activities with your staff. In other words, when you know how long will your projects take and how they're organized in any given time frame, you get a broader vision of your business.

So here's how I go about it:

- First, get your staff involved, so that the data collection is very accurate.

- Make a list of all the activities you and your staff are performing. Everything from creative meetings to smoking a cigarette, from the time you enter the office to the time you leave. Try not to leave anything out.

- Assign categories to the activities, for instance, a creative meeting and meetings with customers will go under "meetings" or "strategy". It depends on your particular needs and activities.

- Create an Excel table to enter the information with time and date and how long each activity took. For example:

You can set up the Excel table to count the time spent in each category and start analyzing the information, after you've collected it.

- Once you add up the time at the end of a predefined time frame, for instance, a week or a month, you can being to make some choices.

Depending on how many people work for you or your strategic plan, perhaps you want to start with your own activities first and then start measuring the staff according to their tasks, like, first the graphic designers and then, the sales people… it's your call, you define the criteria.

The first time I tried this methodology I found that 40% of my time was spent scanning pictures and burning CDs for other people (We were the only department in the company that had CD burners and a scanner, back in the day). This lead me to suggest to my boss that maybe somebody else (his assistant?) could take care of such activities if he invested a bit of money for the hardware, which would allow me to use that precious time attending to the clients requests.

All the best!

Update: To learn further about how to use the Excel activity tracking tool, go to my article about it, from October 30th, 2007.

Designers beware of… finances.

Money is involved in everything (Well, almost). Design is no exception. When it comes to design, you need to be aware of the costs you have when you're "designing" in order to be able to reduce them, to establish prices, to establish goals and to check if you're operation is actually bringing back some cash.

Along with costs, you need to be aware of your sales and how those are related to the costs you have. In order to "be aware" you need to measure, as my former boss used to say: "What you don't measure, you don't know". In order to measure, you need to establish some data collection, a database or some sort of system that will allow you to keep track of your projects, what went in, what came out. In the beginning I used to do this using File Maker, but a basic Excel table will do. You just need to be disciplined and enter the information rigorously.

So, in short:

- Set up a tracking system, not only to keep track of your design traffic, but to keep track of your costs and sales.

- Measure how much you're spending in the operation (Yes, including the coffee you drink).

- Measure how much you're selling.

- Establish some goals, like reducing costs and increasing sales.

- Follow up and review periodically, about once a week or twice a month.

If you're a flying solo designer, this operation is rather simple, though you may want to get some advice from an accountant or some finance professional.

If you're part of an in-house design department, you need to be aware of your operation and its performance related to the whole company. The finance department is usually happy to help.

If you have your own design studio, consider hiring a financial advisor, but don't leave all up to them, get involved.

All the best!

Designers beware… design is not just about designing.

Hello, Everybody!
I'm new at Blogger and so I thought I'd bring here a series of blogs I wrote last month for a business networking platform online called Ecademy (www.ecademy.com). I hope you enjoy them:

As a fresh-out-of-college designer I used to think that design was all about creativity, form, color, inspiration… and that that's all there was to it. I was wrong. Design, as almost everything else, is a business, and needs to be handled as such.

As an in-house design coordinator, I learned many of the day to day things that apart from designing per se, go into the design business. I intend to write a series of short blogs aimed at young designers, so that they know that there's more to design than just designing and that it is important for them to start thinking about their future, meaning, keep on designing, or move on to other design ventures like design management or design consulting.

I am aware that some of the users are executives or very experienced professionals for whom this information might be redundant, incomplete or even naïve. However, since it's all about sharing, I thought I'd share a bit of my experience, maybe open a few young people's eyes, and get some feedback from the community.

I'll be posting the first one of these blogs shortly, and I look forward to receiving some comments.
All the best!

My Pic