Have a beautifully efficient year with just enough planning

Have a beautifully efficient year with just enough planning

I love planning and organizing things. I also love making frameworks and defining processes. And of course, I have my preferred way of keeping tabs with all of that. When I couldn’t find a 2019 planner that suited my planning and organizing style and goal setting methods, I made one for myself. If you want peek how it turned out, you can preview it here.

Planning for success

I think planning and goal setting should serve efficiency and successful outcomes. It shouldn’t become a project itself. We need planning, but we don’t want to get lost in the activity. I don’t think planning for the sake of planning is either efficient or helpful.

But just enough of good and efficient planning and goal setting can turn an overwhelming and stressful project into success.

In my line of job, I have to make long term strategic plans as well as shorter term actionable and tactical plans. Few times a year, I have to plan what my team — myself included — will be designing in the next 6 – 12 months. This plan will then be edited and updated many times during the year.

The second layer of that plan is to create more detailed snapshots that span from two weeks to a couple of months. The goal is to understand the big picture and the day-to-day actionable tasks. But waaay before putting projects on a timeline, I need to be clear on what it is that we are trying to achieve — and how.

Setting actionable goals

I’m a solid checklist girl. I like to see all things I need to do in a list form. And oh the joy of checking something off that list! So for me, it is clear from the beginning, that at some point I’ll be making a list of all the things I need to do for achieving a goal.

Sometimes — especially in the beginning — projects can seem like a massive, overwhelming undertaking. And this can quickly become intimidating. To help avoid that overwhelm, I like to start chopping the project off to smaller achievable goals — or milestones, if you will.

This helps with organizing the tasks in my head, and eventually on paper. For each goal or milestone, I start drafting next steps. These are the actual concrete things I — or someone else — needs to to in order to achieve that goal.

Once a massive project is chopped in goals and corresponding next steps, it doesn’t seem overwhelming anymore. Now, it has become a plan of action — a roadmap to success.

Gantt charts

After I know what needs to be done, I need to plan when everything will get done. And what resources I have to get them done. I’m a visual thinker and just writing things down or making a list won’t be as effective for me. So, I’ll draw a visual time line. 

For this, I like to use Gantt charts. Gantt charts are a quick and convenient way to visualize how long certain projects will take. I especially love Gantt charts for project planning, because it clearly shows which tasks or phases will overlap. And this I find critical with resource planning.

Gantt

Daily grind

After the planning is done, I get to work. Like I mentioned earlier, I love checklists. It’s my way of keeping myself accountable and on track.

If I’m particularly stressed or have an overwhelming amount of overlapping projects and tasks, I might chop tasks into very detailed to do lists. I find this very helpful, because that way I can always return to the list to check what I need to do next. And it saves my brain power for more strategic or creative thinking not having to remember all the next steps in my head constantly.

Setting goals or milestones, defining actionable steps to achieve those goals, and placing it all on a timeline are the corner stones of my efficiency. When working with a team, I will validate these plans with team members and stakeholders to make sure everyone is bought into the plan.

For each day, I make a to do list for myself. This is a list I don’t have to show anyone. It’s for me. I love the bullet journal style of keeping lists and tracking simple. And the little visual icons and lists that come with it. (What I don’t love about the current bullet journal movement is that it has exploded into elaborate art and craft activity. It’s fine and wonderful as a hobby. But it wouldn’t serve me in my hectic project schedules.)

The secret ingredient

I’m passionate about constantly improving my process and working efficiently. This extends beyond my working life, because a distracted or anxious mind is not efficient, strategic, or creative. 

There are many things we can do to relieve stress, make ourselves feel more calm, and optimize our performance. You can exercise, eat healthy, and meditate. All things that are important and beneficial.

But for me, in addition to trying to include all the previous in my daily life, practicing gratitude daily has been life changing. I’m prone to unnecessary worrying and ruminating on negative thoughts. Practicing gratitude helps me focus on the positive things in my daily life and reduces the negative thoughts and worrying.

There’s scientific proof on the effects of gratitude to our mental and physical health. One Medical has pulled together a nice and concise list of studies about the positive effects of gratitude. In short, gratitude can improve your productivity, performance, relationships, sleep, heart health, mental strength, and stress coping skills. I can’t think of many other things that have as many positive effects.

So, in order to help myself stay focused, I do a daily gratitude journaling activity before bed. Basically I list at least 3 things I’m grateful that day. If I have more time, I’ll also try to write about the feelings I’ve had during the day, as it’s been proven to be beneficial, as well. And just before I put my journal away, I read my 3 things I’m grateful today one more time and try to really feel deep gratitude towards those things.

Making efficiency beautiful

I already mentioned I’m a visual thinker. I’m also a graphic designer and I get tremendous pleasure from seeing beautiful things, especially beautifully designed layouts.

When I started to look for a planner for 2019, I wasn’t able to find one I liked. Most of the beautifully designed planners I found were either huge with overwhelming amount of activities or plain with just calendar and room for daily notes without any visual elegance.

After the initial frustration, I decided to create a planner that includes exactly the kind of project planning activities and daily exercises that help me keep focused. That is: just enough of planning — not planning for the sake of planning.

I also wanted to feed my aesthetic side, so I decided to make it the most beautiful planner I’ve come across. I made sure the layouts are elegant and flawless. So that even without any flourishes the planner pages are pleasing and beautiful.

But I also love beautiful pictures and illustrations. So I decided to add a stunning monthly opener to delight the beginning of each month. Since I started this project in halfway through December 2018, which is rather late for creating a planner, I decided to use stock illustrations. While I draw and paint, I’m not professional illustrator. So, creating those myself would’ve taken significant amount of time and effort.

I curated each illustration carefully to ensure they all match together. I added typography on them to create a connection to the month. I changed grouping, enhanced colors, and positioned the illustrations to my liking. And the result of wonderful! I couldn’t be happier.

Oh, and most importantly, I made the planner in portable size: 6 x 9 inches. I want to be able to work wherever I feel like or need to at any time. And I don’t want to drag a thick, big, and heavy thing with me. So, portability was important to me.

Want in?

Already during the process of designing the planner, I got so many admiring comments and inquiries of where to get one, that I decided to place for sale via print-on-demand service. If you want one, you can order it here.

If you love efficient planning, goal setting and tracking, and checklists, you definitely want to check out my planner. I took the most critical piece of every activity and included it in my planner. See the pictures below.

I included empty templates for Gantt charting (12 month template and 3 month template):

Gantt_bGantt_a

In the beginning of each month, I’ve added a goal planning spread with goals and corresponding next steps:

Goals

Each month also has a monthly view for goal tracking:

Tracking

Born and raised in Europe, for me the week starts on Monday. And that’s how I like to plan it. I also wanted to include simple checklists and my daily gratitude practice to my planner:

week-view

And last but not least, few examples of the stunning monthly opening spreads:

 

How to work with designers: design brief

How to work with designers: design brief

Do you outsource design tasks and find that often the end result looks nothing like what you were expecting? This is a super common friction point between designers and their clients. If this happened to you, maybe you hired an unexperienced designer — or just one without the right skills. There’s also a good chance you didn’t communicate your expectations clearly enough.

Every successful design project starts with good communication between the client and the designer. No matter how good the designer is, they can’t read your mind and they don’t know your products, services, or audience as well as you do. Well, what all things does the designer need to know? And how do you communicate everything in the best possible way?

The answer to your question is: a design brief. This is a piece of documentation that you should hand to the designer in the very beginning of the project. It outlines the goals and expectations for the design deliverable — the outcome.

Sometimes the client and the designer work together to get the design brief just right. Basically this means, you draft a brief for the designer. And they return it with questions and comments.

If you produce a design brief that both parties feel good about, your project is up for a much smoother ride. Below you can find a listing of things that are good to have in an effective design brief.

Business information

Start the brief by listing important high level details on you business:

    • Company name
    • Contact person (if someone else than you) and best ways to contact
  • What does your business do
    • A brief explanation of what your business does

Project information

    • Goal of this project
        • What is your project about?
      • What are you trying to achieve, what is the ideal outcome?
    • Project plan
        • When is this project due?
      • How many revisions you’re expecting
        • Sometimes the designer dictates this based on the amount you’re paying them. General rule of thumb is: more revisions mean more expensive price tag.
    • What is the design deliverable (the outcome)
      • What are you expecting the designer to deliver for you?
        • Is it an ebook, a website, a flyer, a business card, etc.
        • This can be one item or multiple. List everything you are expecting to be designed during this project.
  • Scope of the design work (be as specific as possible)
      • Quantity of each item
        • E.g. How many pages on the ebook or website? How many different versions of the business card?
    • What is the content (text, images, etc.)
      • Be as specific as possible (how many words, how many images, etc.)
      • Spell out if the designer has any flexibility with the content or if you’re expecting them to use your content exactly as is.
        • Typically designers shouldn’t touch the content. But in some cases you may want to give some flexibility, if you want to make sure the content fits on x amount of pages, etc. Or if you know the designer also has editing experience and you trust them.
    • Are you expecting to see design exploration?
      • If you want the designer to show you 2-3 different versions to choose from, spell it clearly out here.
        • Sometimes the designer dictates this based on the amount you’re paying them. General rule of thumb is: more exploration means more expensive price tag.

Client expectations

  • What are your expectations? How do you want the designer to work?
      • Does the designer have free hands to do whatever they want? Or follow your direction tightly?
    • Are you expecting something creative and unexpected? Or rather follow traditional styles and thinking?
    • What are the non-negotiables?
      • If you already know that you have strict rules or limitations you want the designer to follow, spell them out clearly here.
        • E.g. Never use red color. Or only use the imagery you provide. Or your audience is old people and you don’t want any font below size 14 pts used. Anything that is non-negotiable for you.

Brand compliance

If you have a brand guidelines documentation separately, you can give them access to that. And you don’t need this section. However, if you don’t have your brand guidelines documented anywhere, then include a section for it here. You want to keep this section rather brief. You’re including it so the designer understands the look and feel you want to convey. And to make sure they are creating designs that comply with your brand.

    • Tagline or slogan if you have one
    • You audience
        • Description of your audience
      • Demographics
          • Age 
          • Gender
          • Geographical area
        • Needs and desires
    • What makes your business offering unique
      • What is the unique value your brand offers to your customers?
    • Brand personality
        • Keywords (3-4 keywords that describe the personality of your brand)
      • Description of the personality 
        • What are the defining characteristics of your brand?
  • Visual guidelines (You should have at least a one sheet document that includes the visual identity guidelines)
    • Logo
      • Primary logo
      • Additional logo lock ups or versions if you have any
    • Colors
    • Fonts
    • Design elements (icons, illustrations, graphics, etc.)
    • Photography style

Working with designers is not difficult as long as you have good lines of communication with them. With a solid design brief, you can get a good start for any design project. You know what they say: well planned if half done.

Have you had difficulties working with designers? Tell your story below in the comments.

Catch you soon,

Aino


P.S. If you haven’t already done so, come check out my free Facebook group DIY Brand Design & Strategy for Soulpreneurs where I teach soulpreneurs like you to build their own branding and create their own designs. 

How to manage your designers

How to manage your designers

In the 14 years of my career, I’ve had 7 employers and equally many managers — some of whom I still think of with respect and others with less so. For example, one manager tried to damage my career by lying about my work behind my back, and outright broke the law by reading my emails. Another one, in a different company, used me as a psychological crutch running through all his reasons for each business decision with me during phone calls that sometimes lasted for hours. The same guy — also the owner of the company — sabotaged the payroll so much that in the end I lost 3 months’ worth of pay checks (my advice to all young designers: keep your eyes open when you’re considering a job at a new and unknown startup). I also had one or two managers who were great people, but had little creative direction to give or were more or less disengaged. And then, of course, there were couple that were absolute gems.

Managers are important to employees wellbeing. According to Brigette Hyacinth, the author of The Future of Leadership: Rise of Automation, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, “A Gallup poll of more [than] 1 million employed U.S. workers concluded that the No. 1 reason people quit their jobs is a bad boss or immediate supervisor.” This means your immediate supervisor or manager has the biggest influence on whether you resign or stay. On the company level, this has major effect on employee retention (ability of an organization to retain its employees).

And any company should be concerned about employee retention: in 2016, the employee turnover cost US companies $160 billion a year. For an individual company, the cost of replacing an employee might range between tens of thousands of dollars to 1.5-2x annual salary. And the most valuable players are the quickest to leave: only about half of high performing employees are satisfied with their job and one in five intends to leave their current companies within six months (Harvard Business Review, November 18, 2014). Sometimes, there are company policies at play and managers can’t easily affect them. But many other things they could. While competitive compensation still ranks as the most valuable aspect of a workplace, things like supplemental training, flexible working location, and flexible schedule are all in top ten (Harvard Business Review, November 18, 2014). And these, among others on the list, are things a good manager might be able to arrange.

All companies want to attract top talent. While design is team work, key individuals can make an entire team thrive. The right talent challenges everyone to raise their bar. Having top talent in the team can also be motivating simply because their choice to join the team makes everyone feel a bit more worthy: we are good — someone amazing chose to be one of us. Often times, top performers have  perfected their design process and they can help a team to do the same thing to their shared process. And of course, top talent will lead by example, and it can be inspiring just to watch them work. But top performers also know their value. They might leave a company very quickly if they are not happy, because they can. They will always find a new opportunity.

There is a lot of research out there on how to retain top talent, as I already referred to in the beginning. But it is not just about filling someone’s calendar with training, allowing them to work home when their kid gets sick, or letting them decide whether they want to come to the office by 8 am or by 9 am. Keeping any designer happy is about figuring out who they are, what drives them, and how you can help them thrive — both professionally and personally. Below you can find my thoughts on what would’ve made me stay in some positions I left due to not feeling supported.

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1. Wellbeing

Maybe the single most important thing manager can do for a designer is to care about their wellbeing. Are they working too much? Are they having to juggle too many projects? How is the work-life balance? Have your one-on-one meetings and ask how they are doing. Signal that you want them to stay home when they’re sick or when they’re kid is sick. Let them know, you are ok with a mental health day, if needed. Think: what can you do to make their life easier so your top talent can focus on work instead of the stresses of life. Remind them that family comes first and that you are aware of it.

2. Respect

Respect their time and input. Don’t invite your top talent to meetings that do not require their attendance. Or alternatively you can give them the autonomy to decline any meeting invitations they don’t see necessary.

Respect their expertise. Unless you have comparable background and have extensive experience in design work, don’t force poor design decisions on them with your authority. Nothing is more frustrating than having to take orders from someone who has zero understanding on what they are talking about.

Human decency and respect is undervalued. Please, treat anyone and everyone you hire with general respect, and maintain professional composure at all times. This means no yelling, no throwing things, no petty behavior, and no retaliation. (Yes, I’ve had managers who showed these behaviors, unfortunately. How did they ever get to be managers?)

3. Supplemental training

Top performers are curious life-long learners who are constantly looking to improve themselves. But it is critical that they feel this supplemental training is in service of their projects, current role, or future opportunities. Supplemental training does not serve as a benefit or perk if it is useless waste of time. Talk with your top talent, find out what they want to learn. What skills are essential to their role and would benefit them in future, as well?

4. Flexibility

Flexibility for name sake is not helpful. Trust your team, and let them decide where to work and when. Together you can come up with rules, such as certain meetings you do in person or times when everyone should be available. But if your take on flexibility is measured in one or two hours, that is hardly flexible. Flexibility goes hand in hand with wellbeing because it allows employees to take care of their health and that of their family.

5. Autonomy

No one likes a hovering manager, and your top performer the least. This doesn’t mean that as a manager you can’t check in with your team to see what they are working on or that are not accountable for you. But it does mean you drop micro managing their every move. You chose to hire a high performing top talent, now let them do their magic.

6. Motivation

Unless your top talent is also the owner or a partner in the company, it is likely this is not a position they are planning to stay in for life. And that is ok. The job market is changing, people rarely spend their entire career in one company anymore. And it is actually advised to change jobs every three to five years these days. Don’t worry, three years is enough to transform your design team to a thriving unit with the help of highly performing designer(s). The reputation of your team will attract new top talent when one leaves.

What does this have to do with motivation? Signal your top talent that you understand the current market and you are not expecting them to stay forever. Instead, find out what their career goals are. Then make a plan together on how you, your team and company, and their new position can help them move closer to their career goals. When a top performer sees their position as a milestone on the way to where they want to be, they will put 120% effort in making their project, themselves, the team, and you successful.

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Managing designers can be challenging, but it helps if you have a design background. If you worked as a designer, you were in the receiving end of design review and feedback sessions. And you have first hand experience on what the design process is like. Having design background, you’ve probably also worked with all kinds of designers and know that there are as many personalities as there are designers.

Some time ago, I was working for an amazing creative director who not only was a great people manager but had just the right combination of hands on design guidance and “throw you in the fire” attitude. She could identify her team members’ strengths and weaknesses, and knew how to push us to the right direction so we could grow and become better designers. She was also always professional and had a solid process she drove forward. After leaving that kind of supportive and inspiring leadership, I’ve found myself wondering if I’ll ever get a manager like her again.