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  • Nancy Soulliard

How to minimize last-minute design projects and strengthen strategic design

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

Strong communication about the importance of pre-planning is key to minimizing rush projects.

A few years ago when we were all traveling to conferences, I was scheduled to attend the University and College Designers (UCDA) conference in Portland, Oregon. As an in-house creative director, it's always helpful to meet and hear the perspectives of colleagues at other institutions. Ahead of the conference, other designers on the listserve began discussing some of their biggest issues with clients: rush jobs, unending proofs and lack of clear communication about how clients affect the completion of a design project.

I piped up with a perspective from the other side. After years of honing our design process, communicating the importance of it and clearly describing each person’s role in getting a project to completion on time, my team and I have minimal last-minute projects and can easily manage the few genuine rush projects we’re tasked with.

A designer needs goals to shoot for and boundaries to work within to focus on creativity and shape a project to meet it’s communication goals.

A designer needs goals to shoot for and boundaries to work within to focus on creativity and shape a project to meet it’s communication goals. Being reactive and hurried does not allow for strategic, error-free work. A strong workflow process that all stakeholders are on board with gets a project done smoothly, on time and on budget.

What process works for your team?

There are so many types of projects a design team creates that there’s not a one-size-fits-all schedule for everyone. A strong process and project management system are important to consistently meet realistic deadlines. As you begin to formulate a process, it’s helpful to have a strong sense of what touch points with key decision makers are needed. Plan enough creative design time into the schedule as well as proofreading. It’s important to begin to build your plan from a deadline and work backwards.

Over the years my team and I have honed a pretty solid 5-week process from project initiation to print or digital distribution. This process begins after the initial client creative discussion and content is submitted. Clients know they will receive 3 drafts of a project to review and provide feedback. Any delay in sending feedback to the designer results in the schedule being pushed. This keeps the designer from needing to make up the time when a client provides feedback later than anticipated.

  1. Draft 1: A first draft that aligns with the creative brief discussed in the creative kick-off meeting. This may be a few ideas that will need to be pared down by the client. Clients can also weigh in on imagery and update text as needed at this point.

  2. Draft 2: The second draft should be more focused and closer to the final piece. By this draft, my team has had the project proofread so the client can review the text that may have been refined.

  3. Draft 3: Ideally, this is the final draft for the client to review. This incorporates all of the feedback, updates and looks like the final project. We have the project proofread a final time before it goes to press or is finalized to be sure all of the information is correct.

The final 2 weeks of the process are when the project is at press for production. We add more production time for mailing and variable data as needed.

A project management system that fits your process, projects and team

Once you establish what type of process works for your team, finding a project management system that matches your needs is the next step to improving your workflow. There are many project management systems that work for different types of team needs like Basecamp, Wrike, Workfront and many others. After significant research into a customizable system for nearly 1,000 yearly projects, we rolled out our project management system, EasyProjects, a few years ago. Among other features, it allows for a linear, chronological creative process, auto alerts and tasks dependent on responses. We created training videos, documents and invited our clients to learn about the process and system in info sessions.

Where to begin the creative process?

Have one place and person for creative project intake. So many teams are inundated with emails and inquiries directly to individual team members that it becomes hard to track where a project begins and the information about it. We’ve trained our clients over the years that a project inquiry begins with our intake form and all communications about a project are within the project management system.

The intake form is where we get some initial information about the project including:

  1. accounts to bill

  2. anticipated deadlines (If it’s less than our 5 week minimum, we discuss a compromise in our creative kick-off meeting or before that meeting is scheduled.)

  3. a sense of what the initial goals and deliverables of the project are (This sometimes changes once the creative discussion happens.)

  4. Who to invite to the creative kick-off meeting

In our creative meeting to kick off the project, we focus on:

  1. Goals

  2. Audience

  3. Deliverables and distribution

  4. Deadlines

  5. Stakeholders, approvers: defining each person’s role in the process

  6. We wrap up the meeting with an explanation of how the process works and expectations of each project member

Any time someone inquires about starting a project in any other way, I send them the intake form and remind them to start there. At the beginning of the form, it states our expectations for timelines. As new employees join the organization, we send them a document outlining how and when to work with our office so they know how to begin a project properly. Over the past few years, this has really minimized projects being missed or lost in email.

Building awareness and embracing the process

As we established our basic workflow process, we checked in with key team members and stakeholders to build awareness and buy-in and have them weigh in on any issues they foresee. Our proofreader informed us of the amount of time generally needed to review different types of projects. Our director let us know the types of projects she needs to review and when in the process it would be ideal for her to weigh in. At every creative project kick-off meeting, we reiterate what clients can expect of the process in our project management system. This gives them a chance to ask questions and understand how they affect the project process. If they respond to drafts quickly and approve their project early, it can be completed early!

Working with the outliers

Of course, there’s always exceptions to the rule. We still get occasional priority, rush projects but with our other projects on track, we have the bandwidth to handle them. When clients are habitually missing our 5-week minimum time-frame, we reiterate to them our process, describe the importance of time for creative work then schedule a creative kick-off meeting for the correct timeframe a year later to help get the project on track the next time. It’s important to always be adaptable and have a system that schedules can be modified to meet a variety of projects and timeframes.

To view projects created with this process, please visit

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