Managing the creativity of designers means acknowledging their culture and in particular understanding their needs and behaviours in relation to time.

Designers are immersed in a culture that champions originality yet judges its worth by a complex mix of societal norms. A culture that has ever shifting borders of in and out, cool and uncool.

Designers are sensitive to the opinion of their peer group. Designers place high value on authorship and owning the solution. Designers subscribe to lifestyle ahead of income and pursue esteem through creativity.

Designers are self-regulating and have inbuilt quality control. They prejudge their output more harshly than any client. Designers occupy a niche in our society where Maslow’s highest order of human need, self actualisation, is actually part of the job description.

Designers value self-fulfilment more highly than time.

Time is a fundamental problem in managing the design process. For many designers time is not money, time is quality. A recent Design Institute of Australia survey indicated that on average designers spend fifty percent more time on projects than they bill.

I know that my own business has wrestled with this aspect of unbillable time over many years. In a tightly managed business this level of overrun is unacceptable.

But in many design businesses that are characterised by small staff numbers and owner operators, this aspect of the business is not even recorded. The design management issue in these micro businesses is one of self management.

In talking to older self-employed designers I often encounter resentment about the time they give away. Discussions usually centre around how to get the client to pay for this time rather than an understanding that the designer’s behaviour and work ethos may account for the largest portion of this time.

That is, there is a conflict between the standard that the designer applies to a project and the standard that the client is prepared to pay for.

When, as designers, we are confronted with this and reach the point where we acknowledge the behavioural and business changes that would be required of us to alter the pattern, we often rebel.

We are not prepared to compromise our culture, ethics and self-image to accommodate the necessary changes. However having acknowledged the problem we are in a position to choose an acceptable level of compromise.

In owner/operator or small design practices one method is to apply a modified hourly rate calculation method to the problem.

That is, calculate and acknowledge the actual time that you are prepared to work in a year, set the income level you are prepared to accept, set the hourly rate that you can realistically present to your client base, then work out how many extra hours are available in excess of those required to make your target income.

Don’t forget to allow for administration time and your actual business over-heads. This budget of extra (unpaid) hours can then be consciously applied to jobs that you select as being worthy of extra effort or those that fulfil personal goals.

So rather than fundamentally changing your culture you at least acknowledge your behaviour and choose the best value you can get out of your willingness or need to spend extra time.

By keeping a record of the extra hours you spend against your budget of available unpaid time you take personal responsibility if your income level falls below your target.

This is not dissimilar to the behaviour of larger small businesses that operate by monthly budget targets rather than focusing on the efficiency of each individual project.

If budget targets are being met then the overruns on some projects are looked on as a fact of the give and take of business. A conscious decision is made not to expend energy and resources worrying about business controls below a particular level.

Maybe not a textbook correct approach but certainly one that reduces stress levels in small business. Here once again is an acknowledgement that design businesses are not solely about money and efficiency and that designers are motivated by other cultural influences and needs.

The conflict of culture between designers and business exists in all scales of design organisations. In larger design practices or departments the problem shifts from one of self-regulation to one of supervision.

Design supervisors get the best outcome from designers if they understand and accommodate the cultural values that designers hold. For many designers the payment for time spent at work is more than their monetary salary.

Other aspects of payment relate to their ability to exercise their creativity, the availability of time to explore solutions, the degree of ownership they feel for their work, freedom for self-direction in projects, the shared design culture and mission of the workgroup and the status of the workplace in the eyes of their design peers.

We are all aware of design businesses that don’t have this equation in balance. For example design businesses that provide great peer recognition but allow the young designer little autonomy or ownership.

Or design businesses where creativity is stifled in order to drive high levels of throughput. These businesses tend to have high levels of staff turnover which can in turn be a significant factor in the efficiency and profitability of the business.

At the procedural level there are, perhaps, two critical stages of the design process that should be the focal point of managing creativity. The first is the creation of the right environment to generate and nurture project concepts.

And the second is allowing the right conditions for the detailing of the concept. That is, the two project stages where having time to explore variations and refine details pays the highest dividends.

One could say that the role of a design manager should be to shelter the design team from the pressures of time wherever possible but particularly at those stages that make the most difference to the quality of the project. No project is without its time constraints but there is usually some flexibility about the distribution of time within the project.

The trade-off is that the design team needs to acknowledge that excess time spent in one area means speeding up other more mechanical aspects. Once again we are talking about consciously manipulating the use of time to acknowledge the nature, culture and needs of the design process.

Of necessity this article only scratches the surface of the ways time and creativity interact in design businesses.

I believe that it is important for designers to take responsibility for the way our design culture and attitude to time affects our experience as professionals in the business community. Use your understanding to improve your design process and to choose where and when you’ll substitute income for self-fulfilment. 

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