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Accelerated Design: Meeting Deadlines for the End-of-Year Rush


Part 1: Why the Rush?

Something about the end of December looms as a natural deadline. Project fires have been burning steadily through November but this month, they are burning brightly, finally recognizable as problems that need to be controlled. And who gets the pleading call that says "Help me extinguish this" but the freelancer? Whether we like it or not, the role of fireman or firewoman is precisely what many see as the advantage of freelancers – we exist to help people out of a tight spot. Or do we? What exactly is our role in projects with superhuman requirements, and how do we get through them while maintaining a sense of best practice?

This article examines these questions in two parts, first looking at how and why we make rush jobs a part of what we do and then in part two we'll dig into some tips and tricks to execute designs under urgent deadlines. In both articles I will share insights from some of this season's extraordinary Layer Tennis players who are used to being short on time. They have generously taken an extra moment to afford our freelance community their words of warning and wisdom.

Assessing a rush job

What is considered "rush"?

"I've never heard of a job that isn't rush. Can you please put me in contact with those clients?"
Jennifer Daniel

A rush job can mean anything from 'This should have been done yesterday' to 'You have a month.' It depends on how busy you are; if you are constantly stretched for time, then everything is rush. But let's zoom out for a moment and examine why rush jobs, the really high-anxiety, stress-inducing rush jobs, happen in the first place. David Stewart says:

"Rush job can mean somebody dropped the ball. Now I get to pick it up. [...] But sometimes Rush job means somebody got ambitious. A long timeline was shortened by an opportunity, competition, or clandestine strategery."

Figuring out the history of a project and why it became rushed (projects rarely start out that way) is one step closer toward figuring out whether to accept the job or turn it down. In order to help you talk about the fumbles without fully offending or embarrassing your client, here are some easy questions to ask:

  • What's been difficult about this particular project?
  • What does your approval process look like?
  • What happens if the job doesn't get done?

The answers should give you an indication of how stressful it might be to work on this project. If the client shifts blame, back out of a question, or seem disorganized, it's enough to raise a red flag and make you think twice about accepting the work.

Why do rush jobs at all?

Designer Stefan Sagmeister (not a Layer Tennis athlete but a source of good quotes) was asked how he generally decides to say no to clients: "When they have rush jobs," I imagine him shrugging matter-of-factly. "Clients who are bad at scheduling a job are often bad in other areas too." While this is likely true and while the ability to say 'No' is often seen as a strength of character, there remain many reasons why we take on last-minute jobs, each yay or nay boiling down to a highly individual assessment of risk vs. opportunity.

Assessments tend to take into consideration things like the chance to maintain relationships or to nurture future possibilities, a challenging opportunity to create cool or meaningful work, or simply for the good pay. Here's how some other designers and illustrators evaluate rush jobs:

  • "... depends on how cool the client is, depends on my motivation/interest in the particular project, depends on my mental state and free time, and if they pay me enough for that rush" Andrew Baumgartner
  • "... if it can actually be done quickly with the way the approval process is set up. Often it can be an urgent need on their end, but the approval process is not streamlined, so you are setting yourself up to fail." Matt Stevens
  • "...when the subject matter is something I'm already fairly familiar with. For me a lot of the time that goes into a job is researching the field." Rich Arnold
  • "...if the project sounded like something was a good fit for me and if this could be a partnership that would yield good and smart work." Kate Bingaman-Burt
  • "The only time I won't accept a job is when the client doesn't have a clear objective." Emory Allen
  • "I work mostly with musicians, so accepting a rush job is almost a daily occurrence." Robbie Kanner
  • "I'd accept a rush job if I believe in the client and/or the project. If there's a chance for future work and exposure, I'd also weigh that into the decision-making." Mig Reyes

These are all good ways to gauge whether you can accomplish your goals. Before agreeing to a rush job, take the time to ask yourself:

  1. What will I gain from this project?
  2. Is it worth the reshuffle of whatever else I had scheduled?
  3. Do I understand why the project is so rushed? Is there a good reason for it?
  4. Is the client prepared to provide all the content I need? Will they give quick feedback?
  5. Do I trust and work well with this client?

If you can answer these questions optimistically there's a chance this rush job might actually be a good idea for you. If any of the answers are negative I would think long and hard about whether the job is worth the headache.

If you agree to a rush job

Know what motivates you

"I think it's good to figure out and pay attention to how you work as an individual. Your strengths and weaknesses. What inspires you and what gets you unstuck. For me, I have to find that angle or one thing that excites me about the project. It helps to motivate me and gets me to the good ideas faster." Matt Stevens

Getting to good ideas quickly is exactly what you're trying to do under tight deadlines. Without the good idea, design is cosmetic and it becomes difficult to back up aesthetic decisions or validate your role in the project. Learn your creative process intimately. Keep a sketchbook and document what leads to insights. Pay attention to patterns. Whatever you do, don't short yourself on concept. These habits will help you under pressure.

Another way of looking at motivation is to have something to look forward to upon finishing the project. This really does help keep you going. Reward yourself for finishing a rush job – everyone agrees they are a pain and you deserve credit for getting through it.

Stay connected
When quick feedback cycles are integral to the project's momentum, the importance of staying connected to your client cannot be stressed enough. "Unfortunately, I think the first thing to get cut is communication," writes David Stewart then offers a solution: "Working with people you know helps create a shorthand that minimizes the fallout but it is always exacerbated when working with new teams." Armin Vit says he only accepts rush jobs when it's "a client I've worked with in the past and that I know works well in a rush. Would never do it for a first time client."

Whether your clients are new or established, staying connected under pressure isn't an easy task, but it should be considered and discussed beforehand with the client. The rush job can be an isolating experience and you don't want to be left stranded in a validation-less vacuum, nor do you want to leave the client unhappy with your work.

Charge rush fees

"It seems like most clients don't understand how long design takes so they don't know that what they are asking for is rushed. Those sorts of clients also don't know how much design costs, so bidding on a project with an additional 'rush fee' comes as a complete surprise to many of them and they quickly back out and rethink their timeline." Micah Bauer

Clients may develop unrealistic expectations because your process is unfamiliar to them. Fair enough. Take time to be upfront about how your schedule normally works and be honest about what you can accomplish in the time they are giving you. Feel free to quote Jennifer Daniel, who offers: "Fast, good, cheap. You can only pick two."

Rush fees can vary from percentages of the project total to a flat fee, or a multiplying factor of your regular hourly rate, usually depending on the complexity of the project, the urgency of the deadline, or your relationship with the client. First, determine if rush fees apply to your project then figure out how to discuss rush fees with your client.

What to expect

The sad fact about urgent deadlines is that it is difficult to meet them without cutting into your personal life, and by personal life I mean eating and sleeping. If there were an easy way to create good designs faster, someone would have exposed it. Instead, the Layer Tennis folk shared both a common idealism and commitment to clients and work that cast a radiant light on the design community.

  • "I'd rather be exhausted and miserable the following day than quit at a decent hour with a piece that is 'good enough'." Aaron Scamihorn
  • "The corners that get cut are usually my sanity and sleep." Kate Bingaman-Burt
  • "I lean towards cutting time in my personal life before cutting time with work. It may sound awful, but it's reality for most people running their own businesses." Dustin Hostetler
  • "I'd rather skip the sandwich and make sure the work is of a high standard." Tom Muller

Time after time these designers and illustrators revealed that they would rather not eat, would rather not sleep, would rather not do anything but create good, original work. Greg Hubacek pretty much summed it up by saying:

"I think we owe it to ourselves to differentiate our craft."

The good news: What an amazing community to be a part of, one that is open and ambitious and passionate about their work. The bad news: These folks may directly or indirectly be your competitors. The bar is high. Fortunately, the next article will share some tips and tools to help streamline your process and make designing for rush jobs a little easier.

Credit: Photo by joshjanssen

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