Monday, February 7, 2011

How Do You Design on a Budget?

Have you ever tried shooting a free-throw at the amusement park? The rims are usually smaller in diameter, and a little lower. (I know because I used to work at one). Though your senses tell you it’s the same distance, the fact is it’s enough of a difference that you fight the muscle memory of the free-throw line…and usually miss every time. If you’re good, you make adjustments and get a few in to win the big stuffed animal.

The process of designing to a budget is very similar: it’s a process of feedback. While experience does play a major role in understanding what can be accomplished within a budget, the ability of the designer to meet a budget requires feedback from everyone involved in the proposal.

The fact is a designer does not work the way an estimator does. Seems like common sense, but ultimately a custom designer cannot efficiently track the total cost of a design (while under deadlines that barely allow them time for bathroom breaks) like an estimator does on a spreadsheet. As we are designing we are making “big-picture” aesthetic, functional and experiential decisions as a whole that are not connected to individual components that can be itemized in a spreadsheet.

Should you expect your designer to hit the budget every time?

That’s up to you. But consider this: if your designer was taught to meet the budget the first time or they are going to get yelled at, guess what happens? Naturally, self preservation kicks in and they will pull back creatively long before they get even close to the budget. The result is they are either going to recycle designs already estimated or they are going to turn out “safe” designs that are familiar and they were able to “estimate” as they assemble the design...either way the design is going to be tired and uninspiring.

What is the designer’s responsibility?

There job is to be creative, and solve the clients problems within the time frames. However, your designer should be within a reasonable range of the budget or have clear cost-saving ideas to simplify the design to meet the budget. Depending on the project, we will try and provide a “Gold” and “Silver” version of the same concept. The objective is for the “Gold” version to provide a few future investment suggestions or “upgrade” opportunities, while the “Silver” version meets the client budget. If you are using an outside or freelance designer, making reasonable budgetary revisions should be included so you can present an accurate concept within budget.

What can you do to help your designer meet the budget?

A visual aid does wonders. When working with new clients, we ask for a visual reference of designs our clients have built within that price range. This helps us visualize what you can do with the money, and gives us something to work from…or like a speedometer, it gives us some idea when they are over the limit.

In addition, offer aesthetic and budgetary feedback when reviewing roughs. Have an estimator take a look and make suggestions that will keep the project on track. Get this information to them with time to react and your solutions will be better for it. Before you say, “our estimator doesn’t have time” consider what the lack of feedback might cost.

So the design is over budget. Now what?

From a design stand-point, it is very rare that a design cannot be simplified to a point where it comes in on budget yet still maintains the essence of the original design. The fact is this “step” usually requires deleting elements or simplifying details. This is easy by comparison to a design that comes in on or under budget, but just isn’t doing it for the client. In this scenario, how do you “spice up” a design that missed the mark in the first place? Unless the answer is obvious, go back to the drawing board, because very rarely will material changes and some dimensional logos do the trick.

From a designer’s point of view, there is no simple way to hit the budget every time other than to say it is a process of trial and error. Until someone comes out with one of those “Easy Buttons” in the Staples commercials, we will need to collaborate and work it through…like the process it is.


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