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How to Manage Creativity to a Deadline

Creativity in a boxPerhaps the most emotional aspect of a digital project is the design. People can have strong feelings about design, they care that the website design is good or that it’s great. Website design is about appearances, it says so much about the company. If badly designed, then the impression it gives will be of a poor company with poor products and services. Website design is a major ambassador of the company brand and therefore it’s probably no bad thing that people care passionately about it.

But design issues can be troublesome for a digital project for several reasons;

  1. Assessing a design is subjective in nature. Design decisions swim in a sea of opinions making it difficult to attain an agreement. There is no single right design.
  2. Most people are more capable of criticizing poor design than they are at defining what good design is.
  3. It’s not easy to draw a line under the design process, i.e. when is a design good enough?

Coupling these problems with having to deliver to a deadline and within a fixed budget means managing the design phase can become a challenge. And so how best to manage the artistic design phase of a project? How can a creative solution be squeezed into a fixed budget and timeframe without stifling design talent and imagination? 

In a nutshell, to manage creativity a structured process is required and that process requires careful facilitation. One tried and tested method is to break down the creative process into distinct stages and limit the amount of time spent on each stage.

So let’s walk through each stage.

Target     Stage 1 – The Rules of the Game

A design brief is needed to define the goals of the new design. It provides the background and some context to the design exercise and usually offers some guidance for the designers. For example, who are the target audiences? What are the key products? What messages need to be communicated? Is there a desired style or tone for the website and are there any existing artifacts that need to be incorporated such as existing logos or colour schemes? From this brief, the designers should have a reasonable understanding of what they need to do.

Contenders     Stage 2 – The Contenders

The second stage is when creativity can let it’s hair down. Working within the brief, the designer or multiple designers submit their ideas. The design submissions can be presented in a variety of forms such as mood boards, paper sketches, mockups, Photoshop images, etc. The designs only need be conceptual at this stage as we’re several steps away from the finished article. This phase should be a fun, fast paced and furious exercise but it's also hard work. The client should provide as much feedback to the designers as possible and there’s no limit on the number of different design ideas or the number of times that ideas can be iterated.  

The designers’ imagination shouldn’t be capped during this stage but time certainly is. We've kicked off a design competition and they’ll be winning and losing designs. This stage usually takes between 1 and 3 weeks but the deadline must be agreed before we start. 

Finalists     Stage 3 – The Finalists

Next, all contending designs are assessed and a fixed number of designs are chosen to battle it out for supremacy. Those not chosen are dropped. It means at least 2, but probably no more than 4 designs enter the final stage. The finalist designs are unlikely to be the finished article at this stage but they’re the designs that are showing the best potential. The designers carry out further work again, with continual feedback from the client. These front-runners are honed to be the best they can be, as another deadline looms.

Winner     Stage 4 – The Winner

As the deadline is reached, a winner is chosen from the finalists. A decision needs to be made and there’s no going backwards at this stage. It may not be an easy decision as attachment biases may have been formed during the process. It can be helpful to organize a crowd vote using social media and employees etc. Sometimes there is a obvious winner or a couple of clear front runners. The more feedback that can be obtained, the more it can really help with the big decision.

     Stage 5 – The Prize

A winner has been chosen but there may be more to do. High quality versions of the designs need to be produced with the precise colours and high quality images.

The process may not be perfect but it does encourage unlimited creativity in the early stages and then travels down a funnel of refinement until a winner is pronounced. And importantly, this process can be managed within a fixed timeline and budget. 

There’s always more than one way to manage the creative process and so how do you maximize creativity while working to a deadline?

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