Dear design student: Deadlines are a necessary evil | by Jon Robinson | Nov, 2022

Learning to ride the agency waterfall

Woman in an Office Looking Through Documents on her Lap
Photo by Mizuno K

When you’re a student, you’re often afforded weeks on end to work on a single design project. This probably means you spend a minimal amount of time on that project until it’s good enough; good enough for a passing grade, or so that you can focus on other coursework (or, really, any other reason).

Or, when given an abundance of time, you focus on pushing pixels until they’re perfect. But in truth, nothing in existence is “perfect.” No amount of tweaking ever leads to a fulfilling definition of “done.”

When you genuinely care about a project, you often become consumed by it. And as soon as satisfaction is attainable, you realize you forgot to write a paper that’s due for another class and that time spent “perfecting” was just a waste.

That’s all well and good when only passing grades are at stake. Unfortunately, if this scenario sounds familiar, you’re probably not great at managing your time.

The creative industry is fast-paced, and work flows in a linear direction. In software development, we call this the Waterfall Method: A model that cascades a steady stream of work from initiation to deadline, and allows for minimal schedule flexibility. So, having weeks to work on a project in the “real world” is a rare occurrence. Most designers don’t figure this out until the frantic first week at their new job when asked to crank out handfuls of concepts in a day, two, or even hours.

If you’re unprepared for that velocity — if you’re the type of person that takes forever to pull the first idea out of your head — then you’re probably left wondering: Where do I start?

In addition to this constant race to the finish line, most designers manage multiple clients or projects simultaneously — often with independent deadlines. And, surprise: A couple of those clients will undoubtedly ask you to get something to them early (Hopefully you work with an account manager that’s able to set realistic expectations with clients).

It’s a far cry from design school, where you’re focused on one project at a time and not worried about the next until the prior is complete.

Even when you have several weeks to work on something, the amount of time you actually spend “designing it” can only be a fraction of your available time to hit your deadline. Aside from a multitude of things competing for your attention, you’ve got meetings with teammates and project managers, status updates with your client, and so on for each of your projects or accounts. So you need to develop a solid understanding of how long it will take you to do something — and constantly be aware of what else is on your plate — to balance everything.

It may feel like a blessing that you don’t have to worry about these things in design school. As a former student and professor of design, I know how easy it is to get an extension from a professor or permission to turn something in late for a reduced grade.

All this does is help you build bad habits. If you miss a deadline in the real world, you could risk losing that client or losing your job.

It might sound obvious, but sometimes the best way to stay on top of deadlines is just to get started. That’s especially true when you find yourself faced with a large workload.

Developing habits comes with time and patience. If you need to get better at managing your own deadlines (or life), you should check out James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. And there are many methods and tools for keeping track of your workload. You should certainly try out a few until you find the one that works for you. I prefer using a physical Kanban board (because I’m old school) with post-it notes to help keep track of the work I need to do, the work I’m doing, and the work I’ve completed; but there are also great digital tools for this as well (Asana, Trello, Hive… the list goes on).

If you don’t, you’ll just find yourself stressed out and working 60+ hours a week.

Personally, I’m always working on things in my head, because creative inspiration can strike at any time. Especially at 6 pm when you’re driving home from work or 11 pm when you’re trying to get to sleep. Therefore, I’m always working — at least in my mind. And, often, 70% of my work on a given problem takes place in my head before I ever put pencil to paper, or mouse to screen.

That process helps me — you guessed it! — stay on top of deadlines. But it’s more heavily related to my personal approach and how I navigate the ideation phase of a project, than an actual “habit.”

Like Abe Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend four hours sharpening the ax.”

As you grow, you’ll learn to develop concepts more quickly, and that earlier career question of “Where do I begin?” starts to shift into “Which concept(s) do I move forward with?”

Sometimes, though, no matter how well you manage your workload, you just can’t get ahead. You may get slammed with a new client or need to add a few rush requests on top of your regular workload, and all of a sudden, you’re working overtime again.

Quick turnaround is just a hard reality of the job.

So you need to learn to adapt. To expect the unexpected. To be able to jump back and forth between clients and tasks. Most importantly, you need to listen to your body and take breaks. Because you’re not gonna be at the top of your game unless you come up for air now and then.

No one loves deadlines, but if they didn’t exist, we’d have no reason to stop working on anything.

What do you think?

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