Anyone getting into Graphic Design and Illustration must be aware that they are entering a deadline driven businesses. Unlike the stereotype of the artist who works at their own pace when the mood strikes, commercial artists must always be aware of time. Newspaper ads must be submitted on Wednesday by noon in order to run in the Saturday paper. The September issue of a magazine is being put together in June. And Christmas cards that will be signed, sealed and delivered in December are due to the printer in April. When digital print-on-demand came along in the 1990s, designers didn’t need as much lead-time, but deadlines still loom on a daily basis.
Clock watching isn’t confined to the final hours of a project. Most designers must keep a daily log of time spent on every job. Timesheets are used to record hours worked down to the quarter-hour. A work log will show that from 9:00 to 9:45 the artist answered email and checked online networking sites, from 9:45 until 10:30 they were occupied with a meeting with an art director, and from 10:30 until 12:15 they flowed and formatted fonts in a brochure. It is essential that these records are accurate so that the design firm or agency knows how much to charge their client for services. It is critical for freelancers to know how much time they spend on a project in order estimate accurate quotes for future jobs.
With printed work, deadlines are rarely flexible. If the files don’t get to the printer on time, it just doesn’t get printed. A newspaper are especially strict — if an advertiser reserves space and doesn’t deliver the material to fill that space, that company may be billed for that ad space anyway. Seeing a big, white block where your ad should have been is not what the designer has in mind when they think of white space.
With web projects, deadlines may bend more easily. Once the work is approved it literally only takes seconds to upload files to the Web. But this can create another sort of problem — the never-ending project. There are horror stories of websites taking three years to complete! In that time design styles and technology has changed so much that the site is no longer cutting edge, but more cutting room floor.
Time is like moving into a new house with a lot of closet space. Delighted to be out of a cramped space, you might think, “I’ll never fill all these cupboards!” But of course in a matter of just a few months, you find your storage stuffed. The project will expand to fill the allotted time. Like a woman dressing to go out for the evening, she may start getting ready hours in advance but will still be fixing her hair when her date arrives.
Without a deadline there is no incentive to complete a project. Other things will take precedent, and suddenly you find yourself re-grouting the bathtub instead of working on that layout.
For many designers and illustrators, the deadline won’t stick if it is self-imposed. This is why a personal goal to get a portfolio website launched by June 1 fails. But meet an art director who wants to see samples of recent illustrations for a potential job, and that site suddenly becomes a priority.
The first thing to do with any project is to set a firm date for completing. Select a date that is far enough in the future that it will give enough time to complete the work. Twelve to sixteen weeks is ideal. Any longer and you end up thinking you have plenty of time, you put it off and put it off only to wake up one day and realize the due date is tomorrow.
Many designers enjoy the thrill of working under time pressures. There is an undeniable adrenaline rush that comes with racing the clock to get a project completed at the last minute. However this constant stress can also causes early burn-out in a career. To prevent procrastination and the pressure of trying to finish a project at the last minute, one final deadline isn’t sufficient. Having interim dates for various steps helps the designer to stay on track along the way.
Rewards and punishment are great incentives. Money is a powerful enticement to stay on track. Some contracts go so far as to state that if the work is not completed by a certain day the client doesn’t have to make the final installment or gets a price reduction. A promise to clean the office refrigerator if you don’t get the job done on time is a great motivator, but may have your coworkers secretly hoping you can’t meet your deadline. However, be careful of punishments that force you to do something that will only lead you to more procrastination.
State Highway Commissions offer incentives road construction bids: if a project is completed before the deadline, contractors get a bonus for every day the project comes in advance. Offering a bonus to a writer or programmer to deliver early may help you get work done faster. There is the danger of poor quality in the rush to get the biggest bonus possible, so use this with subcontractor you know do good work to get your project pushed forward on their agenda.
Self-promotional work is especially prone to the deadline-lacking death. Many people need an external motivator — someone else to hold you accountable to getting the work done. Ask someone to nag you. This could be a coworker or big sister who will ride your tail. Give them permission to call you weekly and demand a report on your progress.
For illustrators, critique groups can be useful. Not only do your peers offer great advice on you work, you will be pushed to get something done to show at the next group meeting.
Finally, plan a celebration for when the job is done. Reward yourself with some time off when you get a big project done, but don’t forget to schedule time for cleaning the fridge when you get back!