The Rewards of Diminishing ReturnsA past university professor once took the opportunity to drill it into my (then) young head about the dangers of a design "never being done". Always one last tweak, one more thing that can be changed, fiddled with and obsessed over. He always said at some point the scale tips to where the time invested doesn’t warrant the incremental results produced. His comments aren’t an indictment of thorough, detailed design but rather a cautionary warning on how things can slip away from us if we’re not careful.
That point can be a hard one for designers – in any medium – to find. If you constantly miss such points, you might still produce great work but you are likely spending an inordinately large amount of time doing it – and time is certainly money when it comes to design. I like to think that most experienced designers develop a certain sixth sense – a kind of radar – that allows them to see that point as it comes over the horizon and act accordingly.
The real problem though is that most clients don’t have such fine tuned senses. Those points at which our experience and (sometimes) intuition tell us to stop or reverse course – or pursue another tangent aren’t there for them. They’re not trained to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of making certain design decisions – or of avoiding certain decisions. Everything is fair game – and every idea can be worth pursuing to the bitter end. It’s our job to try to help our clients appreciate the ramifications of different paths but in practice it can be a difficult thing to make your case understood every time. The less one knows about design – or has experience with it – the more subjective the process appears and the harder it is for us to stand our ground.
This is a real danger that not only threatens good design but jeopardizes timelines and budgets. Too many bad directions or gnawing on one detail repeatedly can mean wasted time and money – possibly for both parties and often for just us designers when dealing with fixed price work.
That’s where I believe it is imperative to build in artificial points in the design process. Such points can be phases in the design that require both parties to review goals, designs and directions in order to re-affirm next steps. I like to tie these to deliverables in our scope that are tied to budget when dealing with fixed work. Move past a point and going back means potential out of scope costs. If the client has 3 rounds of revisions on design comps, then every step past those becomes a significant one for them. They take your direction more seriously and consider their own ideas more closely. Suddenly, every “what-if” that occurs to them is looked at in a different light. End points become conscious decisions and not just vague notions of stopping when you’ve exhausted every variation and possibility. While we become adept at being efficient with our time when designing, it’s important to make sure we help our clients find that same balance between great design and economy of effort. Keeping that in mind can help both designer and client avoid the slippery slope of diminishing returns.