One of my favorite courses in college was (no kidding) Operations Management 230. I was fascinated by the challenge of gleaning efficiency from various systems. Little did I realize that much of what I learned in that class would be useful during my design career.
No seriously. The rules and theories I learned in OM230 were very specific to the world of tangible supply and demand, but they can easily be applied to other areas.
Take one of the most well-known: the Law of Diminishing Returns.
The Law of Diminishing Returns states that in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant, will at some point yield lower returns. While it does not imply that adding more of a factor will decrease the total production — a condition known as negative return — this condition is in fact quite common.
“But how does this apply to the design discipline?” I hear you ask…
Well, let’s take a look at a classic paradigm: the client/designer relationship. At the beginning, everything’s great. We dive in and start work based on the kickoff meeting and as much information as we’ve been able to glean. Things are running along smoothly at first, but as the project progresses creativity and productivity can often hit a peak and then taper off — this is most often caused by designers working too long without input/feedback from the client. This is universal among all designers, regardless of their level of experience. “Working in a vacuum” is one of the main causes of designers missing the mark when it comes to client expectations.
We’ve all had an experience like this: at some point during your work effort, you hit this feeling that you’ve spent all your creative fuel and continuing to bang away at this particular problem space in a vacuum will not be as productive. It’s at this point when we seek out our peers, team members, or mentors to get “a gut check” or solicit feedback. This effectively refuels us creatively by injecting new thoughts and ideas or a different perspective on the problem space.
But this is only temporary, and is no substitute for direct client interaction. It is far more valuable to “bring the client along on the journey” of the project. While the goal is certainly to surprise and delight the client, the surprise should come from exceeding their quality and creativity expectations rather than springing something on them after three weeks of no interaction.
The same can be said for other activities like brainstorming, color explorations — even image searches. In our experience managing the stock and news imagery needs for MSN over the years, we have found that the vast majority of “suitable image choices” are found within the first few minutes of a search (if the search criteria are clear and accurate). We realized this because when we reviewed the choices to make a final selection, the image chosen most often by the stakeholder (a.k.a. the “client”) was one of the first 3-5 offered. And the occasions where none of the images where deemed “suitable” at the time (often due to the feeling that “something better must be out there”), a subsequent image search rarely produced a superior result (except in cases where the search criteria was altered).
So how do we “bring the client along on the journey”, so to speak? The easiest way is to establish a series of regular interactions where the client is invited to share their thoughts and feedback as a part of the creative team. These interactions should be frequent and early enough in the project to glean the most benefit — doing so introduces a compounding factor, thus increasing the marginal return of each effort-curve, and by extension, the overall return of the collective effort. As with any relationship, interaction encourages intimacy. As designers become more intimate with the needs and preferences of the client, the interactions may become less frequent but more productive as trust is built.
The effect of these interactions is that they reset the effort-curve, and any effort applied to the project after each interaction point builds on the effort before — thus elevating the project progressively closer to the client’s level of expectation. Additionally, subsequent effort-curves have a longer span — more “staying power” if you will — due to increased clarity on the part of the designers (and increased comfort on the part of the client). Interactions can take many forms — be they face-to-face, remote, or email-based— but the key is to interact and do so as often as possible over the course of the project.
So how will we know when we have met or exceeded the client’s expectation? More often than not, the client will tell us — often enthusiastically. And over time, reaching that level of expectation becomes quicker and easier because of your collective shared journey with the client.
The Law of Diminishing Returns as it relates to the creative process is much more subtle and much harder to quantify than in a tangible process like manufacturing, so it is important to “design consciously” — staying aware of how you feel as you progress through various phases, and knowing when to “refuel” will help you avoid designing in a vacuum. It will make the best use of your time, and ensure that your work yields the optimal return.