Processing the Process Process

The mindbending title of this article was purposely chosen to showcase the kind of confusion most creatives experience when confronted with having to create, implement or follow directions, procedures, SOPs or policies—pretty much everything involved with working within a corporate environment. Designers who are required to follow process either freeze like a deer in headlights or, worse, rebel against the corporate machine and attempt to stick it to “the Man” by ignoring the rules and doing things their way.

Well, if you're a creative team manager, you're now “the Man,” and if you're not, you're working for the Man on his turf, in his game, and you need to play by his rules. And by the way, these rules can actually get you to a place where you can spend more of your time doing what you really love: design.


Commit this to memory: Proper Process Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.

Every creative group—no matter what company it's in, how large or small it is and regardless of the services it offers—needs SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). The primary purpose of process and procedures is to standardize, document and, most importantly, dictate the flow of work moving through your creative department. Other benefits include ensuring that there are effective means of communication between you and your clients, your peers and other departments in your organization; that quality controls are in place; that your staff understands expectations and can be held accountable to those expectations; and that new hires can walk into your group and quickly get down to the work of designing great creative for your company. Now, take a breath—it gets harder.

It's not enough to have your SOPs in your head. Your team can't read your thoughts, neither can your clients or upper management, and it would be a very bad idea to rely on the accuracy of their or your memory. Your SOPs need to be carefully and clearly created and documented. If your group is large (10 or more people) or you have a variety of complex project types, you might want to bring in an outside consultant for this phase.

Documenting your processes and procedures is a painful process that can frequently fall by the wayside in the face of time sensitive projects, but you need to acknowledge its importance and be disciplined in completing your SOPs. The conundrum is confounding—you can't complete your SOPs because you're constantly faced with putting out fires, but the fires won't ever go away until you implement rigorous SOPs. You really need to acknowledge that many of the fires you face everyday are a result of a lack of process or a lack of alignment from your team, your clients and your company around existing process. If you don't believe in the positive power of process, just ask yourself how many times you've had to redo a project because there wasn't a creative brief, how many times files have been lost or overwritten due to sloppy archiving practices and how many times the lack of quality control has resulted in frustrated clients at best or reprinted jobs at worst.

The Plan Plan

So it's time to do the work.

Simply put:

  1. Write down the process as you believe it to be
  2. Meet with your team to refine it
  3. Review it with your clients and other departments that your group interfaces with to confirm accuracy and validity
  4. Refine it based on feedback
  5. Get final buy-in from key stakeholders and staff

Your final deliverable should be a flowchart that details the life cycle of a project. After all that work, you're only a third of the way there. Lucky you.

You're on the Detail detail

Your flowchart is a compilation of steps required to complete a project recorded in chronological order. Every one of those steps in your process has tasks associated with it. The tasks often involve multiple staff. You need to create the work instructions by the staff member associated with a particular step. If the step is a project kickoff, you might have an account person involved who needs to set up a kickoff meeting, a designer who needs to create a preliminary brief and a print buyer who needs to initiate a spec sheet. The work instructions are a drill-down from the broader, more high-level workflow flowchart.

A key point here is that there may be policies associated with tasks. A policy is a rule that must be followed, which is distinct from a task, which is a function that should be performed. An example of a policy that is associated with a task would be: all assignments given to outside photographers must have a purchase order cut before the assignment begins. This is very different than the task description, which would be: the art director creates a PO upon initiating an assignment with an outside photographer. Policies must be followed; tasks are more fluid and subject to judgment calls if there is no accompanying policy.

The final deliverable for work instructions is generally a chart that lists the participants in a particular step and describes the tasks each needs to perform at that step.

An embrace is not a hug

You now have your workflow diagram and the associated tasks or work instructions. Now comes the hardest part—as if getting to this point wasn't painful enough. You need to work with your teams, other departments and your clients to ensure adoption of your group's SOPs. Training and education of course come first. You can hold seminars, create hard-copy training materials or web-based educational modules. Certification through testing to ensure understanding of the SOPs is also a good idea.

Most importantly, though, is to create a mindset in which your team and your clients recognize the value of the SOPs and their adherence to it. It's pretty much a carrot and stick affair. The carrot? For the designers and copywriters it's the promise of smoother workflows with less time spent tracking down lost files, deciphering unclear communications, fewer rounds of revisions and more time to do what they love which is of course design. For the client it's cleaner, better, quicker service and deliverables. On the stick side, it's poor performance reviews and low merit increases for your team if they don't adopt the SOPs, and substandard work for the clients. If you have a formal HR staff review process in place, you can set goals and objectives for your teams around the adoption of your SOPs. If you do your job right, your team and clients will embrace the SOPs—but be patient, it will take time. It's important to note that you'll need to reinforce adoption of the SOPs even after initial training and buy-in. It's easier for people to ignore rigorous process than to follow it.

With pain, there's gain

Obviously, putting SOPs into place won't happen overnight and it will be challenging and downright painful most of the time. Once you've successfully implemented your SOPs, though, you'll find yourself and your team functioning in an exceptional work environment, with more time to do what you love and more successful projects and happier clients than you ever could have imagined. As they say in Corporatese, that's a pretty good ROI by anybody's standards.

About the Author:

Andy Epstein started his career as a freelance designer and illustrator with clients as varied as Bacardi, Canon, Bantam Books and Merck. Jumping into the world of in-house in 1992, Andy created and grew in-house design teams for Commonwealth Toy and Gund. He later restructured and expanded the hundred-person creative team at Bristol-Myers-Squibb and consulted at Johnson & Johnson. After a three year stint at Designer Greetings leading an in-house design team responsible for the company’s product lines and Point Of Sales materials, Andy moved back into pharma heading up a 65+ managed services team at Merck.

Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative”, a book on in-house design, in partnership with F&W Publications in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, an association dedicated to providing support to in-house designers and design team managers. Most recently he was head of INitiative, the AIGA program dedicated to in-house outreach and support where he expanded on his efforts to empower in-house teams and raise their stature in the design and business communities.