Here it is, the final post of the series. Previously I covered the bad habits we learn in design school and the fear of finishing that leaves us pulling our hair out, scrambling to finish at the last minute, and missing deadlines entirely. This time I’m going to finally dig into what I learned from working on video games that fixed the way I work. I think it will help you as well.
I read a book recently that presented a humorous image of a farmer looking over his pasture full of cows standing around eating grass. The farmer shouts at the cows, “Get to work, cows! Quit standing around and let’s make some milk!” Of course, the cows are supposed to represent artists, and the farmer is the evil management type who doesn’t understand that you’ve just gotta let the cows do their thing, man! Let the magic happen!
This analogy appealed to some smug section of my brain at first. It’s true, there’s something magical that goes on in the heads of creative people. We get used to people treating our talents as some mysterious, unquantifiable gift, and it’s easy to start to buy into it ourselves. We solve problems and come up with ideas while showering, while strolling around the block, or even while dreaming, and it creeps into our heads that we should be spending all our time doing those things. My sensitive artist brain won’t produce its art if I just sit at a desk all day!
Let’s get one thing straight: You are not a cow. You do not get to stand around transmogrifying the mysteries of the universe into delicious art-juice that some nice farmer gently squeezes out of you. I hate to break it to you, but you are the farmer, and it takes a lot of work to run a farm. There are cows in your head, and you’ve got to take care of them. You have to feed them right, you have to milk them, you have to process and pasteurize and package and ship the milk. Every day.
It doesn’t matter how many long walks or showers or dreams you have if you don’t ship the milk.
Ok, enough with the cows, let’s get down to brass tacks. In game development, we’ve got teams of people working across multiple disciplines over months or years on large, complex, ever evolving projects. Picture the results if we had no method of project management. What if we just had a project and a due date? How would we know what we could get done in that time? How would we know if we were behind or ahead of schedule? How would we know what to work on every day?
In our studio (and a lot of other software/game studios) we use a method called Agile software development with scrum. I can’t claim myself to be an Agile expert or evangelist, and I’m not going to be writing a comprehensive guide to Agile development. There are already entire books on the subject, and it’s mainly focused towards software development, not graphic design. Instead, I’ll be talking about the parts that I have found to be beneficial to my process as a designer.
Hopefully, as a designer, you already have the ability to define the scope of a project. That is, everything that needs to get done. It might be a logo. It might be a logo and a website. It could be a logo with a website, exhibit, video series, poster, whatever. Already we are starting to break the project into more manageable chunks.
This is a good start. Something like “make a logo” is still too big, though. We need to break each of these down into bite-sized chunks we’ll call “tasks.” For instance, making a logo could be broken into: Research audience and competition, create mood board, sketch ideas, develop three possibilities, finalize best logo, and prepare final assets for delivery. It’s important that each of these tasks are not so small as to be useless, but small enough that you can walk through the whole task in your head, imagining everything you’re going to be doing to get that part done.
Once you’ve broken all the parts of your project into tasks, you need to estimate how long each task will take to complete. This is probably the most difficult step, but also the most important. Time and project scope are inextricably linked to each other. You can’t change one without affecting the other, and you can’t really know how much you will be able to get done without knowing how long it’s going to take you. Estimating time is a valuable skill that comes with practice, so do your best knowing you don’t have to be right on the money, and that you can tweak your estimates later. If you’re not sure how long something will take, be pessimistic in your estimate. If it’s a quick task, estimate in intervals of 15 minutes, and after 2 hours you should round up to the nearest half hour or even hour. If a task gets to be more than two days’ worth of work (16 hours) I take that as a sign that it needs to be broken down further.
Now that you’ve got all of your tasks estimated, you can add those estimates together to find out approximately how many hours the entire project will take to complete. Figuring how many hours of work you complete in a week, you can tell about how long it will take to complete the project. If you find that the project is going to go over the deadline, you will have to adjust time by adjusting scope. Look at your tasks and find which features you need to cut to deliver your project on time. Resist the urge to convince yourself you can pull it off if you work 80 hour weeks, or just do everything twice as fast as usual. You are a human being, and you have a number of hours you can effectively work each day before you start to ruin your life. Be honest about your capabilities and your work will be a joy instead of a nightmare. We are breaking down the work so that you don’t have a breakdown, got me?
Something to keep in mind when you’re looking at your estimates and the deadline is that you should leave a good amount of wiggle room. Know that things will go wrong. You might get sick, your car might break down, your computer might explode. Also, you will want to go back and improve or polish parts of your design. You aren’t going to simply tear through the project and call it done. Design is an iterative process, and you are going to reflect and adjust your course as you go. How do we manage this? Collect tasks into what we call “sprints.”
A sprint is a level of hierarchy between tasks and the whole project. They are usually one or two weeks. I like one week sprints because it allows for faster iteration. Basically, you start the week by planning your sprint. Pick which tasks you’re going to complete in the sprint, again keeping in mind how many hours of work you will realistically be able to get done. This is a commitment as much as it is a goal. It’s ok to push yourself a bit if you know your limits, but you should be realistic about what you can accomplish in a sprint.
It’s important to prioritize your tasks when you’re deciding what to tackle first. You should tackle the most important, hardest, and riskiest tasks first. If something is really risky or difficult and could turn into some huge disaster, it’s better to find out at the start than to have it blow up in your face two days before the deadline. Also, by tackling the tasks that are most important to the core of the project first, you will leave the least important things to be cut if you run short on time towards the end, and your overall project won’t suffer as much.
When the sprint is over, take some time to reflect upon it. Did you have trouble completing all the tasks in time? Or did you finish everything with a ton of time to spare? This is a great time to reexamine your time estimates if you are consistently overestimating or underestimating tasks. Maybe your velocity (the number of hours you actually worked in a sprint) is not as great as you thought it was, and you need to put fewer tasks in your next sprint, or even look at cutting scope. Also, take what you learned and make any changes you need to make to the project. If you need to go back and do more sketches for your logo, make a new task with an estimate, add it to the project, and adjust accordingly. If revising your sketches now means that you won’t have time to finish a video at the end of the project, you can figure that out now and decide if it’s worth the trade-off.
Similarly, if you decide to skip a day of work to watch a season of Downton Abbey or something, you are cutting features from your project. Realize that you don’t get that time back. Every lost work day cuts a chunk out of your final product.
If you’ve done a decent job at estimating your hours and you’ve been realistic about how much work you can get done in a week, though, you will be right on target. You won’t have to worry about whether you’re going to finish. You will just get to do what you (hopefully) love to do. Make good things. Know when you can take a break from making good things. Get some sleep. Be happy.
So you have your project, you have your tasks and estimates, and you’ve got your sprint planned. You’re ready to start your workday. At work we have a quick, informal 15 minute meeting called a “scrum” wherein everybody working on a project gets together, tells everybody else what they did yesterday, what they will do today, and if there’s anything stopping them from getting stuff done. This is a great way to keep everybody in a team on the same page, and helps people communicate any issues that they might otherwise forget about. Like, “Oh, yeah! Judy, I need those art assets so I can finish the encyclopedia pages today.”
What you did yesterday and what you will do today. Even if you are not working in a group, you should start your workday writing these out. It’s a great way to create achievable short-term goals for yourself and also reflect on your progress. Some people procrastinate because they’re not sure where to start, they don’t know what they should do. Figuring out what you’re going to do that day is easy because you already have a prioritized list of tasks you plan to complete for that week. As long as there’s work to do, there’s no wondering how to move forward.
I’ve stressed the importance of estimating your time, but it’s equally important to log the actual time it takes to complete your tasks. Seriously, get a timer, and write it down. Check and see how your actual time compares to your estimates. I write this stuff down in my sketchbook every day, and it’s amazing how much more in-touch I feel with my work when I track my progress this way.
Remember that time and scope are connected, and you need to have a firm grasp on the time it’s taking you to move through the project (your velocity) in order to know what kind of scope you can deliver. This is also how you see how many hours of work you actually complete in a day, which will help you plan sprints and entire projects more accurately.
After exploring the bad work habits we pick up in design school and the unrealistic expectations that cause us to procrastinate, we finally took a look at how to manage a project. I’ve always loved design, but learning these project management skills has helped me love it more. By structuring the process, it’s helped me to be more present, more aware, and more relaxed in my work and life. I can say that working this way has absolutely made me a happier person and a more competent designer. I’ve seen too many designers get overwhelmed and stressed out by big projects, so I hope that by sharing what I’ve learned, some of you will successfully banish the painful parts of doing what you love.