Define Your Process To Master Time, Gain Clarity, And Take Control

About The Author

Previously Smashing Magazine’s Typography editor, and currently on the Experts Panel, Alex Charchar has had his writing published and referenced in some … More about Alexander ↬

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Most of us carry the dead weight of an undefined process. We’re too passive, or ignorant, or foolish, or dismissive, or proud when it comes to our workflow. And that’s where we lose. Being ignorant of our process is to be ignorant of how long things really take, or where opportunities for improvement, in skill or outcome, are hidden. In all this we lose control of our intellectual and creative growth, letting too many opportunities slip to become the designers (or developers or writers) we aspire to be. In this article, Alexander Charchar will show you how to master your time and schedule, and how to have more control to make more (and better) choices.

How can you be sure you’re moving your design problem in a straight line? That you’re moving directly to a solution? From client to payment, from product to audience?

How certain are you of what the second step in your process is? Or the third? Or how long each will take, or if any should be removed? Are they all useful? Do any need improvement? Is each done with aim and purpose? How often do you fall-forward with momentum, rather than move with reason?

These horribly uncomfortable questions are awkward for one reason:

Most of us carry the dead weight of an undefined process.

If you’re like me, your process is a mix of tools, some picked up when studying, a few from colleagues, maybe one or two from an idol, a few oddities taken too seriously, and some wrapped up in the often stale notion of history and tradition – those “because we’ve always done it that way” steps.

We’re too passive, or ignorant, or foolish, or dismissive, or proud when it comes to our workflow. And that’s where we lose.

Being ignorant of our process is to be ignorant of how long things really take, or where opportunities for improvement, in skill or outcome, are hidden. We can’t provide insightful timelines or adjust our process to suit new projects. In all this we lose control of our intellectual and creative growth, letting too many opportunities slip to become the designers (or developers or writers) we aspire to be.

What A Well-Defined Process Looks Like

"Discipline is hard--harder than trustworthiness and skill. We are by nature flawed and inconstant creatures. We are not built for discipline. We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail. Discipline is something we have to work at." – Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto

A well-defined process is an ordered list of the tasks that get your work done – each given a timeframe, rating of importance, and your level of skill.

A well-defined process gives you an insight into how your projects take shape. Such footing helps you recognise how each step impacts the final outcome, your relationships with your clients and colleagues, and helps you see if the skills you want to develop are being ignored.

A well-defined process.
An example of what a well-defined process might look like. The details of your own process will vary greatly, depending on your interests and career goals. (Large preview)

Let’s have a closer look at a few helpful benefits that come from defining your process:

  1. Master Your Time and Schedule
  2. Make Better Decisions with Clarity and Focus
  3. Have More Control to Make More (and Better) Choices

Master Your Time And Schedule

What’s more important to a designer or developer (or pretty much anyone who works with clients, budgets, and timelines) than to use their time well? In this section, you’ll learn how to:

  • Take advantage of a predictable schedule
  • Warp time to handle the unexpected
  • Comfortably separate creative and non-creative work
  • Easily handle a client’s schedule disruptions and demands

Take Advantage Of A Predictable Schedule

As designers we work to schedules and deadlines. Schedules help us manage our workload, timeline, and especially if freelancing, helps us know how much to charge. But it’s easy to have schedule-creep when we don’t know what our process looks like. I’ve been guilty (far too many times) of giving an overly optimistic progress report or timeframe for projects. Hearing the deadline scream past leaves us looking unprofessional, placing both designer and client in a foul mood.

A process that drives your schedule.
Part of our role is to work to deadlines, but it's common for designers to rely on memory and gut instinct to get them through their process. (Large preview)

Knowing how long it takes to complete each step in our a process, and what step we’re up to, allows us to set realistic deadlines. We can also, at any point, tell our clients how much is left to be done and how long it’s likely to take.

Warp Time To Handle The Unexpected

The client calls and tells you they’ve stuffed up. They noted the date of their launch wrong and the website you’re designing needs to be finished a month earlier than agreed.

That’s okay. You have a super power. You can warp time.

When you know every step in your process, how long each one takes, and how important individual steps are to the final outcome, you can speed things up.

Warp time with your process.
Having a clear guide as to how long each step in your process (should) take, realistically allows you to give some tasks more attention, while knowing that you can race through others. (Large preview)

Let’s say you were going to design custom icons and draw a custom map. You can adjust these minor steps and speed up the process by using a set of purchased icons, and stick with Google Maps to give people directions. These moves are worth making because it allows you to focus on the more valuable tasks of, say, optimizing the product pages for sale, or the home page for email sign ups.

Knowing each step in your process allows you to calmly adjust them, and their expected outcomes, as needed.

But warping time can do more than save your client from themselves. It can help you produce better work. If you need to spend some extra time learning a new skill or gaining a deeper knowledge about the audience, you should feel comfortable doing so, remembering that the steps you know inside out will allow you to catch up. You will have learned a new skill, addressed the audience more directly, and produced something great for the client – that’s a whole lot of winning!

Comfortably Separate Creative And Non-Creative Work

Who’s a fan of paperwork? Or quoting? Or bug hunting?

Creatives projects aren’t solely made of creative tasks. There is always other stuff which is never fun, but is inescapably important.

Optimally organize your creative and non-creative efforts throughout your day.
A designer's process is a mix of the creative and the practical. Knowing when, why, and how long each creative and non-creative task of your process takes, you can rearrange them to better suit your day or week. (Large preview)

Knowing each step in your process allows you to schedule your days more efficiently. You can schedule your most productive time for your most important work, and leave the autopilot stuff to the after-lunch slump. You can shuffle around your process without much worry because you can trust that every step is going to be ticked off.

Easily Handle Client’s Schedule Disruptions And Demands

We all have an order we prefer to work in. First, I want my sketches approved, a couple of weeks later we’ll start talking copy, and then down the road we will figure out the photography.

What if the client’s Brand Coordinator is going away and she’s the one approving the copy and the photography, but doesn’t care about sketches? What if the Coordinator is heading overseas for three months, and when you’d normally be presenting sketches, you need to be thinking about words and photos?

Rearrange your schedule when needed.
Sometimes we rely on nothing but habits to get our work done – habits that a client can easily disrupt and throw us off our game. A defined process allows for easy shuffling without losing momentum. (Large preview)

Having a process means being able to rearrange on the fly without skipping any steps. You can line up the copywriter and photographer much earlier than you normally would. Once the copy and photos are taken, instead of putting them into a polished design, you can go back to what needs to be done (getting those sketches approved!).

Obviously, if this kind of situation comes up you’ll do what needs to be done, regardless of whether or not you know your process well. But, by having that knowledge, you can shuffle things around without stress and manage your timeline easily.

Make Better Decisions With Clarity And Focus

Any product we produce is the result of a thousand small decisions. Everything from how we communicate with the client to what the product will look like and do, comes down to this-or-that choices. Having a strong understanding of your process will allow you to:

  • Relax and enjoy the reliability,
  • Keep your focus and ideas on track,
  • Build stronger relationships with your clients and
  • Kill the steps that aren’t carrying their weight.

Relax And Enjoy The Reliability

A defined process becomes a roadmap that ensures you visit each step. You will always know how far into the project you truly are or how much is left to do, and can take a more educated stab at how many hours are still needed.

Know what steps are coming next.
We can too easily forget important and necessary steps when we're in the middle of a whirlwind project. Checking off the steps in a defined process helps us get everything done. (Large preview)

The worth of this knowledge shines through during conversations with your client and colleagues. You’re able to show them where your time (and their money) has been spent, while also being able to judge how much more time (and, again, their money) might be needed to reach the finish line. We’re always better off approaching the deadline when we know how much work is still left to do.

Keep Your Focus And Ideas On Track

As creatives, we deliberately keep our eyes open to new ideas and methods. We do so in the hope of finding a more effective way of grabbing the audience’s attention and communicating to them in way that is both clear and interesting.

When we’re planning how to finish a new project, we give ourselves a clear set of ideas. (“I’m going to use this kind of grid system with this typography” or “I’m going to use this JavaScript library to add those features.”) But, when we stumble over a new idea that we’re excited about, we sometimes apply it because it’s new, not because it’s better.

Knowing where each step in our process begins and ends gives us the opportunity to simply ask, “Have I gotten lost?”

Our attention can easily wander.
Our attention can easily wander, but having defined outlines for a project and process means we can explore while ensuring we stay on track. (Large preview)

Accidental discoveries are a marvelous aspect of creative work and can sometimes yield results we never would have planned for. But, if we want to ensure that we’re hitting the right targets and doing so before we run out of time or money, taking a moment to make sure we’re keeping our focus on the outcome rather than our own curiosity is essential.

Build Stronger Relationships With Your Clients

Clients who have been brought along in the design process tend to be a lot easier to work with. Regular contact helps them understand where our time is being spent and what progress has been made.

Regular emails help build relationships.
Completed established milestones are natural moments to get in contact with clients, helping to build relationships as well as their trust in our process and professionalism. (Large preview)

Moments between steps give us a great opportunity to fire off an email or two. Often it will be good news (“We’ve finished the wireframing and it’s going well! That thing we were worried about was easily managed, and we’re now slightly ahead of schedule,”) and it helps the client put more trust in our professionalism.

This comes in handy when things go wrong. Imagine how a client feels when they only get the, “Here’s a proof,” or, “Give me content,” emails, then gets a, “We broke something and will miss the deadline,” email? Imagine how such an email would go over when we’ve been in regular contact and built a relationship that can genuinely handle a bump in the road.

Kill The Steps That Aren’t Carrying Their Weight

We can pick from a wide range of tools, methods, and ideas to get our work finished. For each project we do, we choose what will best help us achieve our goals. But sometimes there are steps in our process that exist for no other reason than tradition. This is especially true at bigger or older businesses, or in-house studios. Useful steps which have turned stale can sometimes linger in our process.

Remove the unessential from your process.
Tradition, routine, habit, and 'just because' often lead to steps that chew up our time without much of a return. (Large preview)

More often than not, they’re probably harmless, but take up time and energy – the print designer who makes all their font outlines even though their printer’s RIP can handle fonts just fine; the developer who manually converts and compresses images into weaker formats when there are build systems and better formats available.

By keeping track of how long each step takes and its impact on the final product, we can ensure our process is deliberate and lean.

Have More Control To Make More (And Better) Choices

Once you know your process well, you can start to make higher-level decisions. These are powerful choices – they seem simple and small, but can have a huge impact on how you manage your time, your professionalism, and how deliberately your set of skills develop. Here we will look at how you can:

  1. Reduce your workload by outsourcing
  2. Get those I-should-but-never-do tasks done
  3. Target the skills you need to improve

Reduce Your Workload By Outsourcing

All this knowledge allows you to ask the insanely rich question: “Do I even like doing all of these things?”

Outsource steps in your process.
Defined spaces around each of the steps in your process means you can more easily outsource aspects of a project you don't enjoy doing, or haven't got the time for. Knowing your process well means you'll understand exactly what the person you've outsourced to will need, as well as what they will have to give you back for things to run smoothly. (Large preview)

Especially for entrepreneurs and freelancers, there are always going to be boring tasks. As valuable and essential as they may be, they still manage to bore us while constantly sending off reminders of how we could better spend our time.

So why not swap tasks with a colleague? Or outsource the duds? Or even kill them off completely? I’m sure it’s possible for any of us to learn the legal skills to punch out an air-tight contract, but we’d rather hire a lawyer, wouldn’t we? Same goes for accounting work and server (hardware) maintenance.

What about development work? If that’s your weak spot, why not outsource it? Or maybe you love to art direct but hate to do the grunt work of designing a thousand different ads for a thousand different markets? Or maybe you love taking the photos but despise doing the touch ups?

Knowing what the edges around these tasks look like (where they start, where they end, what’s needed for them to work, and what the outcome should be), makes it a lot easier to start justifying outsourcing, so you can focus your effort on what matters.

Get Those I-Should-But-Never-Do Tasks Done

You know those tasks that you never do, even though you know they’ll improve your skills or business?

Archiving, reviews (of skill, process, client interactions, outcome), follow-up emails (“How did we do?”, “How is the audience responding to the campaign?”, “Have sales improved?”, “What is and isn’t working?”, “Thank you for working with us”), planning follow-up work, uploading samples to Dribbble and Behance, plus a thousand other little I-should-but-never-do tasks can be added to your process.

These are the little things that can make our projects, our relationships, and even our opportunities significantly better. If we embed it into our process as a way of closing a job, we can be sure we will get to them and enjoy the benefits they bring.

Make sure those easily forgettable-but-important tasks get done.
Rolling those (sometimes) dull but essential tasks into your process will eventually build the habit of making sure they're done before your project is finished. (Large preview)

Target The Skills You Need To Improve

It’s good to see where the deadweight in your process is, but making targeted improvements is better. This is why weighing up the importance and skill of each step is most beneficial.

If setting type seems to take too long, and you rate the importance of it highly but your skills at it low, then it’s probably worth investing some time into deliberately practicing what’s found in The Elements of Typographic Style. Or maybe your HTML/CSS skills are tight, but your jQuery is loose? Great. Time to load up some tutorials or enroll in an online course.

Rating the parts of your process will help you find your weak spots.
Forcing yourself to grade how well you perform each step in your process lets you make targeted improvements to your skillset. (Large preview)

In the middle of a project, when such reflection doesn’t come with any opportunity to take action, such realisations are useless. Reflecting on your process at the end of your project lets you see which of your skills are weak, and is a great time to plan what you’re going to do to strengthen them. Even a day or two of practice can make the outcome of your next project better.

The Designer You Want To Be

We can only take charge of things we understand. If you want to steer the direction of your skills and professionalism, then act like the designer you want to be.

You will start to gain this understanding by reflecting on your process. Then, you can do more than simply use your knowledge – you can act with wisdom.

Leaps of skill are easily noticeable in our early careers – every few days we add another tool to our belts. Soon, it’s every few months, and before long we know enough to keep our clients happy, so we plateau.

I’m sure most of us aren’t that way inclined, at least not those of us who take the time to read a few thousand words on something as niched-within-a-niche as improving the process of our design work. If you’re reading this, then clearly you’re one of those designers, and I’m willing to bet that the idea of having a stale and just good enough set of skills eats you up inside.

So, take the smallest of small steps and think about what you do, why you do it, and how well it all really works. Then take joy in figuring out how to do it all better.

We gain peace of mind when we have a clear view of where a project is heading. Even more invigorating is knowing the capacity of our ability, and being able to make improvements where we see fit.

We can work better with clients, provide increasingly more services, deliver better results, and best of all, find genuine enjoyment in how we spend our days. We can produce work that isn’t simply done, but deliberately crafted.

Let’s Define Your Next Step

It’s easier to start watching what you’re doing than it is to awkwardly fit your effort into some “ideal” imaginary process.

It can be done in as little as four easy steps:

  1. Watch how you work. Note down each step as you move through them. This isn’t the time to worry about whether you’re doing the right or wrong thing, what can be improved, nor what is best.
  2. Grade the importance and your skill level, so you can see what needs work and what you might be able to get rid of or replace with an automated or outsourced process.
  3. Think of your ideal process. Once you’ve finished your project, write out another list – the way you think you should have worked, grading the importance of each step.
  4. Compare the two lists. Look for where they don’t line up, where you have holes, what doesn’t work, how much time was spent on each task and if it correlates with how important you think each is.

That’s all there is to it.

Try scheduling your time to mimic your ideal process for your next project, focusing on the order of the steps, including those you don’t do often enough, while removing what wastes your time. Then, keep track of how it actually works out, compare your new process to your ideal process, and adjust the schedule for each new project until you hit your mark.

Simply being aware of how you want to work and the realities of how you actually work can be enough to start making changes.

Once you have a well-defined process that’s a realistic view of how you work, start making improvements and doing experiments, one step at a time.

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (il, at, mrn)