The Best Part
I recently had someone ask me, “What’s your favorite part of a project/engagement?” “Oh, that’s definitely got to be the...well...hmm,”
I responded, fumbling over my words, sounding like a contestant in the Q&A segment of the Miss America pageant. It’s funny how sometimes we don’t even really think about some of the more obvious things in our lives. As I’ve gotten older – er, wiser – and I’ve searched for more meaning in my work, purpose in my life and tried to maintain a sense of relevancy amongst my peers, this should be top of mind. I mean, I love my job, I still think it’s a kick in the pants to get paid to do what we do, and I’ve worked on hundreds of projects. The answer should be easy and obvious, right? To be honest, I was surprised with what I came up with.
Even after almost 30 years in this profession, the conceptual phase of a project can still be slightly scary and intimidating – will I come up with that perfect idea that gets me pumped? What if I don’t? What if our clients don’t like it? At the same time, perhaps it’s that tinge of anxious adrenaline that drives the conceptual creative process for me and makes it one of my favorites. Metaphorically speaking, the conceptual process is like waking up in the mountains on a cool, crisp, sunny morning, appropriately caffeinated, full of energy and with no “honey-do” list in hand – what do I want to do today? Where do I want to go? Because, initially anyway, there are no limits, no idea is dumb and the freedom of creative storytelling is exhilarating.
Even better however, is coming up with an idea that, as I continue to explore – pulling the proverbial thread – just gets stronger and stronger. You look down at your sketchbook and when you look up in what feels like 15 minutes your toddler now has a beard and is asking you for the car keys. Time literally flies because you’re having so much fun. Sometimes when I am in that solid conceptual zone, I don’t even want to get up to go pee. True story. Completely serious. And when I am completely convinced of an idea, present it to my client and I see them get it and the light turn on for them too – there isn’t anything much better than that. Unicorns and rainbows, dogs and cats hugging on every street corner, cotton candy and giggling babies – it’s all love, man.
To me, design is comfort – that old friend who never lets me down. It’s an opportunity to put on some good music, get my favorite caffeinated beverage (sense a familiar theme here?), follow the concept as my blueprint and go to town. As the project evolves from this grand conceptual idea into something more physical, tangible or interactive, my excitement and anticipation builds. During this phase I really like the exploration of supporting elements and details that increase engagement, from paper selection, the specification of special printing techniques, the development of infographics or the use of new technologies to tell the story. In my opinion, details are everything.
Production can be a mixed bag. And by that, I mean the concept and design phases often include-top level messaging with some level of detail. But, as with many details in life, when things get real and the project has to be built using real content and data, there can often be a disconnect. This phase is less about design and more about engineering. How can we maintain the integrity of the concept and design all the while adding the seven new bar charts Brad emailed, a new section of copy from Sarah, key images that don’t have enough resolution and a last-minute cover change per the CEO? This is the phase when people really start to pay attention and some big changes can be made as it becomes more real. That’s not to say that these decisions are recklessly being made by my client either – after all, my direct contact is also a conduit from executive leadership who doesn’t always have all of the historical context of the project. That being said, my job during this phase often requires me to re-engineer things to accommodate any requests/rewrites/additions that come my way, and to re-educate, when necessary, to maintain the creative and strategic integrity of the project. Simply put, I have to know when to responsibly push back and when to responsibly re-engineer.
If the project requires/includes it, printing can be awesome fun. To me, it is a completely immersive experience – the smell of the inks, the sounds of the press, printing on the actual paper specified and the application of tactile, finishing touches like foil stamping and embossing – and one I most look forward to each time. And when printing is just one piece of a larger branding effort, integrated with new web development, the fabrication of sales presentation materials, ad specialty promotions and a new strategic language, it’s even better. Seeing it all come together – the culmination of months of hard work – is very satisfying.
One might think that the best part is reviewing the final piece, and while I do feel a sense of accomplishment once the project has finally gone live or delivered, I’m usually so exhausted at this point due to long hours required to get to press or populating content at the eleventh hour that it’s hard for me to get amped about it. That’s not to say I don’t care about the project anymore – I’m just a little burnt out. I flip through or scroll through the final product and quickly scan it, but I don’t really want to look at it, fearing I might find a mistake – I’m looking at you “certified pubic accountant.” At the same time, I’m rarely 100% satisfied with anything I do. I can still look back at my favorite projects and think, “If I had only…” or “I wish I would have…”
The Best Part
This came as a shock to me. Why? I love to create. I live to create. It’s the one thing I would do even if I wasn’t being paid for it. Also, I’m a total, card-carrying introvert. So please understand my surprise, after some deep introspection, that my favorite part of any engagement is my relationship with the client. Nothing beats when I am in sync or just click with a client! And that’s not to say that it means they are just pushovers, letting me do whatever I want and agreeing with everything I say – but there is a mutual level of respect. It’s a true partnership, and the client is happy to look under the hood with me to determine challenges and opportunities. They may challenge me or push back, and together – that is key – we come up with a solution. My client is more of a friend – and I am fortunate enough to have many good friends now who started as clients. This friend trusts me – they didn’t hire me as a pair of hands, or to execute their vision. They entrusted me to use my talents and expertise to tell their story or solve their problem – and it’s those types of working relationships I value the most. Even some of the more mundane projects I have worked on over the years were definitely more memorable and satisfying because of my relationship with the client. And when I think back to the high points of some of my favorite projects, my mind goes directly to my interactions with others on the team during the process, not to the design I came up with, the color I chose or the photography I used. This is how I knew – it’s all about people for me.
To Doug, inspiration is life, an energy, something you can breathe in and ingest – more sustaining than the finest caffeinated, gluten-free, protein-packed, responsibly-sourced substance on earth. Doug's true passion is helping non-profits inspire change through strategic design.