A lot of graphic designers I know believe they have a procrastination problem. Having worked in the design world, gone through design school, and now having entered the realm of game development, I’m convinced it’s more a lack of project management education in the curriculum. In this first part I’ll be exploring the bad work habits we pick up in design school. Later, I’ll delve into reasons why we procrastinate and what I’ve learned about project management from making video games.
As a graphic design student, you learn to work within a certain process. Usually you are given a task (make a brochure, a logo, etc.) and you develop a brief taking into account the target audience, the client’s needs, whatever.
Modern graphic design tools (read: The Adobe Suite) are complex, but allow for even a moderately practiced user to bang out finished work within a span of a few hours, depending on the complexity of the design. This means that once a student gets a handle on the software, the actual execution of the design is one of the easiest and shortest parts of the process. If you have a solid concept, you can wake up early, throw together an Illustrator file, print it out on the school’s laserjet and have it ready for an 8am class.
But why would a design student wait until the last minute to do this? Well, because the hard part is coming up with that concept. We are taught that our first ideas are the most cliché, that we must perform exhaustive research, paste together elaborate moodboards, and fill our notebooks with hundreds of thumbnails and doodles. Once you have properly filled your soul with information and inspiration and plumbed the depths of your mind for that wonderful, original concept, you can sit down and actually make the damn thing.
Now, I’m not here to demean the process. The process is still vitally important. The thing is, if left unstructured, the process conditions you to procrastinate. Imagine you have a project and a due date. You know that the design process is the most important part, and that the longer you spend ideating and refining, the better the final product will be. So you are trained, project after project, to spend as long as possible in the undefined wibbly-wobbly creative zone so that you’ve got the best possible idea that the time constraints will allow when you actually execute the design at the last minute.
Many design students are extremely successful when they work like this, and most design school projects are small enough in scope to allow for this unstructured process to succeed, which reinforces the wait-until-the-last-minute behavior. The problem is, when you need to tackle a bigger or more complex project, this behavior will destroy you. A poster or a logo might be relatively easy to execute once you have your brilliant idea. A multi-page website, though? A full-fledged identity, complete with standards manual? A magazine? An exhibit? A video series? A video game? That wibbly-wobbly creative zone process isn’t going to serve you well. You need structure, or else you’re going to wind up with terrible compromises, all-night crunches, and blown due-dates.
In design school you learn a lot about the process, but very little about how to work, which is critical when, you know, you want to do work in the real world. So how can you develop a healthy, more structured process if you don’t know anything about project management? Next time I’ll start talking about procrastination and the fear of finishing, and what I’ve learned from making video games that will help improve your work and life as a designer.