Graphic designers must master many visual disciplines in order to create work that will make an impact. Designers are students of form, composition, color, type, contrast, imagery, and pattern. A good designer knows how subtle effects of font choice, or image size, or color balance will impact their designs. Designers will labor over font sizes, experiment with layout, and get up close and personal with print proofs, scrutinizing with a loop for any flaw. Once, as a pre-press production artist, an art director asked me to have high res copy printed at 110% and then shrink it back down on a particular office copier in order to achieve just the right amount of softness on the type–and that was just for a caption on a two page spread layout! I was not happy, but he was a great designer.
Designers, the best ones, will go to great lengths to achieve their goals. They are painstaking in the disciplines of graphic design.
But designers, who are also business owners, rarely apply that same kind of diligence to business disciplines. And neglecting these disciplines will eventually have serious negative effects on their creative work. After all, desperate cash flow situations, impossible schedules, frustrated clients, burning the candle at both ends–these will all put so much pressure on an artist that focusing on design becomes almost impossible.
Business Disciplines for Designers
Freelancers, and owners of small design firms, have to fill many roles: bookkeeper, CFO, controller, traffic manager. And these tend to be the roles they like the least. Yet if a firm’s finances get out of whack, the entire output of their practice can be compromised. Designers need to have focused time to practice their core design disciplines–but preserving and protecting that time requires that they become disciplined and efficient in their basic business management practices. Lack of attention here will eventually overwhelm most design practices.
Among the basic financial and business management tasks designers must engage in are invoicing, reconciling bank and credit card statements, reviewing balance sheets, reviewing profit and loss statements, keeping cash flow projections current, and evaluating time spent on projects. If business owners don’t keep up with these basic tasks they will soon be overwhelmed with other problems. Those who neglect these eventually burn out and close up shop.
Where to Find the Time!
No doubt is takes time to take care of business. And it’s often these kinds of tasks that get pushed to the back burner when project deadlines are fast approaching–or have already passed by! But the longer these tasks get pushed off, the more time consuming it will be to deal with them. And often “later” never comes, and so the problems mount. That’s not a good cycle.
The irony of not being able to find the time to take care of business tasks is that, if you had been taking care of them, you would likely have more control of your time. Lack of time is almost always connected to lack of profitability, and lack of profitability gets hidden when you’re not giving attention to your business dashboard.
Breaking the Cycle and Regaining Business Discipline
For the sake of your success, not to mention your sanity, you need to get a hold of your basic business responsibilities. If you do, you’ll find that you’ll be less hurried, less frantic, and therefore more focused on your core disciplines of design.
If you’ve neglected these things for some time you may need to take a business retreat to get things straightened out. It’s worth the investment to restore some order to your design practice. You may also need to implement some systems in order to make this easier and more fruitful in the future. Check out these past articles (Time, A Nonrenewable Resource, The Details of Tracking Time) to get started.
But here’s the secret to maintaining your business disciplines once you’ve gotten them straightened out–weekly updating.
Maintaining Your Weekly Financial Administration
You need to set a time every week to get all your financial administration complete and up to date. The reason weekly updating is so important is because waiting longer causes every detail to pile up–and when they mount up they don’t just add to the time it will take to process them–putting them off multiplies the time it takes to complete them. If it takes an hour to process a week’s worth of financial activity, if you put it off until next week, it will likely take you three hours the following week. The first week’s tasks get added to the second, but combining them adds additional complexity to the task. (And if you couldn’t find one hour this week, what makes you think you’ll find three hours next week?)
The reason for this multiplication is due to our short term memory. When I balance my checking account and credit card statements on Friday afternoon (the time I set aside for my business tasks), it takes me about twenty to thirty minutes. That’s because it is easy to recall each transaction that happened this week. But if I wait a week or two, I have to think much harder to remember older transaction–I might have to research several of them. Or if there is a mistake in my books, if something doesn’t balance, when there are only one week’s worth of records to sort through, it’s easy to straighten out–but if I have three weeks (or three month’s) worth of data, it takes way longer to isolate the problem. These same complications hold true for evaluating time reports. If I am missing data, or realize that I’ve overspent time on a certain task, I can identify the causes much more readily during the week the events took place, when they are still fresh in my mind, than if I wait even one more week. If I were to only look at my time reports and finances on a monthly, or quarterly basis, any anomalies or problems are way too far back to recall–and much too late to fix.
But if I review my business and financial tasks weekly, the process is usually simple, and doesn’t take much time at all. For me, it’s usually around thirty minutes, sometimes less. At the end of the month, when I do final reconciliations and evaluations, it may take a bit longer, but not much–if I’ve kept up along the way.
Back when I was running a larger firm, one of the ways I instilled this discipline was to set my weekly updating time outside our normal business hours (or outside my normal office location). This helped to avoid distractions, and helped to establish a good habit. Sometimes I’d come back to the office in the evening, when it was quiet, put on some jazz, grab a cold drink, and devote an hour or two for sending out invoices, balancing my accounts, updating cash flow, and checking time status on projects. For a freelancer, or owner of a small firm, if you commit to a regular weekly time, maintaining these practices should not take very long at all.
If you can apply the same rigor that you bring to your design disciplines onto your business tasks, you’ll establish an ordered environment in which your design practice can continue to flourish.