Doing it Wrong

I’ve been working as a self-employed designer for about six years now, and from the beginning I’ve struggled to account for my time; if it’s not difficulty keeping track of my time, it’s difficulty knowing what my time is actually worth.

I shouldn’t be having difficulty. My partner Krista has been a designer for almost a couple of decades now, and tracking her time and billing for that time has always been the way she’s approached her work, and she’s got it figured out. Further, it’s a commonly understood industry standard to estimate, track, and bill projects by the amount of time it takes.

Still further, eleven-seventeen also has had in its midst a project manager-ish person, a good friend and one of the smartest people I know, who has provided us with many wonderful insights into the dark arts of software estimation, business management, client relations, and, of course, a project management philosophy wherein the billable hour is king. As he would put it: “The only thing the business cares about is billable hours.”

The Kool-Aid Tastes Funny

I get it. I really do. But even though I can articulate with conviction the myriad benefits of accounting for one’s time, I mostly don’t do it.

Sometimes I just plain forget. I’m like that. Sometimes, if I have a number of small tasks in front of me, it seems like more work than seems reasonable to switch from tracking against one project or client to another for such minor tasks, so I just don’t start. When I do start a timer — and I manage to stay on that task and not drift off for more than five minutes — I find that I’m always fudging my sheet to reflect any number of subtle qualifications: maybe the client’s a pain in the ass and I factor in a ‘pain-in-the-ass tax’; maybe I feel guilty about taking too long and I factor in a ‘Daniel-is-sorry’ bonus; maybe I feel the project will have more worth to me as a portfolio/marketing piece, and is therefore an investment more than a short term contributor to the bottom line.

I know that every scenario listed above is my own damned fault. I know I’m not doing it right.

But there’s the rub: I don’t want to do it right.

‘Doing it right’ feels like a betrayal of something fundamental to the kind of person I understand myself to be and the nature of the work that I do. More objectively, ‘doing it right’ is at odds with what I take to be true about economics, society, and the individual.

Who I Am

I have been called, many times by friends and students, ‘the most laid back person [they] have ever known’ (I have the student evaluations to prove this). It’s in my nature to be pretty chill about, well, everything. While I’ve been accused of not taking things seriously (which I admit is mostly true), I’ve also been praised for being calm and thoughtful (which is also sort of true).

A person with my nature doesn’t ever see the world in black and white. Everything — and I mean everything — is subject to qualification. It’s pretty annoying. So something as rigid as putting a finite value on my time and labor is seriously problematic, if not damned near impossible.

This isn’t made better by my contrarianism. Often, the simple demand that I do something ensures I won’t do it.

What I Do

That I produce creative work only makes things more complicated. The value of creative work has always been difficult to define, for both client as well as the practitioner. People try, but it’s an impossible task.

Most graphic and web design professionals use an hourly rate. The RGD suggests that a studio’s hourly rate be three times the hourly wage of the designer, in order to account for overhead and profit. Freelance rates seem to fit into this model. Median hourly rates have naturally emerged, but the spectrum is really, really wide.

There are others in the profession who base cost on the potential market value of the work, i.e. what it’s worth to the client. A client with a larger market and more intense competition has more at stake, therefore the value of design work is therefore much higher than for a client in a small, soft market. A Fortune 500’s brand work is going to cost several orders of magnitude more than your local hair salon’s.

And there are other models too. The point is this: no one really knows how to value design work. Not the client, not the designer. It amounts to a guess, with the median being the result of either a gentlemen’s agreement between studios in a given market, or simply what the the market has come to expect and bear.

No, What I ‘Do’

There’s also the matter of the nature of creative work itself as a labour, as distinct from the product. I understand from experience the benefits that come from grinding away at things and achieving a (qualified) measure of mastery. Over the years, I’ve achieved some tiny success and recognition in a number of fields for no better reason than I labored at those things with an intense attention to detail for a long time; piano, mountain biking, academics, sailing, and more recently design and web development. In all of these fields, as with anything, differences between what’s good and great is measured in the nuances, and to achieve those differences requires a lot of time and effort (as well as style and talent, but that’s for another post).

This attitude of craft is at odds with the ideology of the billable hour. I know from intuition and experience that producing good work takes time and effort and a constant attitude of refinement and pushing boundaries, and a big part of me feels that it’s not fair to ask clients to foot the bill for me to grow as an expert. They pay for my expertise, yes, but not for my training.

(Aside: Maybe I’m wrong about that. If I want my work to be good and fulfilling, it requires that I push myself (and the client) along, that ideally every new thing I produce is better in some regard that the last thing I produced. I try to do this as much as reasonably possible, but it’s one of those things I factor into my time-sheet fudging.)

Frank Chimero gave a talk recently (and lovingly posted the transcript on his website) in which he argues in favor of ‘doing things the long, stupid, hard way’, or, in other words, honoring craft. While working to this standard may not be practical for most designers (and their clients) – at least with the current time tracking model – it should remind all of us why we are doing what we do, that we are working as creative professionals, that we are responsible for making new things or better things that should create many different kinds of value, not necessarily just economic.

What I Know

I’ve had the treat of studying and teaching Philosophy for most of my adult years. A residual benefit of this has been a high-level understanding of the variety and interplay and patterns of ideas over the span of human history, and how those ideas have informed (and been informed by) the mucky paste that is human cultures, politics, economics, arts, and generally the ‘things we do’. I know that the current Western mode of thought — the ideas that have been defining global economics and culture for the past century — is only that: a mode of thought. It isn’t ‘true’ in any objective sense, but merely what seems to be floating our collective boats for the time being.

One critique of modern capitalism makes the keen observation that giving a person money for his labor has a brutalizing effect on both the laborer and the business owner; reducing a person’s value down to how much economic value he can produce by the minute (whether in terms of profit or product) in turn reduces that laborer down to a ‘thing’ with no inherent value beyond his economic capacity. The business owner, at the same time, is dehumanized by being compelled to objectify the laborer. And around it goes, an ugly little cycle that chews through our greedy souls with .

For some time, there was some hopeful talk of everyone eventually being lifted out of this cycle by technology, but that hasn’t exactly manifested and now only the die-hards still hang on to that notion. So we’re left with a compromise.

I recently watched the Creative Mornings Toronto video of Jon Lax of Teehan + Lax in which he explains the historical basis for the billable hour, and makes the case that tracking and billing for our time probably isn’t the best way to value our work. While he didn’t offer any concrete alternatives, he did say that Teehan + Lax doesn’t track their time (to which our project manager-ish person said, flatly, “He’s full of shit.”). The best Mr. Lax could offer was the asking of the question (which, in my mind, is always at least as important and providing the solution); isn’t there a better way to value our work than reducing it down to a measure of efficiency and maximum profit?

Doing it Right

So, yes, there must be a better way. Now most people would take that to mean a better method of accounting or evaluating. Perhaps we ought to be shifting focus to the ‘better’ part of that sentence, that we should be focused on the how and why of what we do rather than the how much, or how fast, or how efficiently.

That’s not easy. The rest of our system at the moment is so heavily tilted toward maximization or just micro-accounting that it’s almost a kind of contextual coercion to maintain status quo; we don’t really have a choice in the matter, unless we are prepared to face the real possibility financial hardship. Mr. Lax says they don’t track time, but instead look at the income statement and the monthly expenses as the least granular kind of balance sheet, and that’s enough for them. Everything within that is flexible, which supposedly would then allow room for designers to focus on craft and purpose, but there’s still that hard eye on income and expenses, so I’m not sure how it really solves the problem of evaluation and billing.

Well, maybe that’s just me chasing my tail. I’m not content with the common platitude of ‘if you do good work and care about what you make, the money will come.’ That only works for the lucky and talented few. The rest of us will need to find another way.

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