AKA: Manage an Efficient Design Practice When You’re Your Own Boss
“For what we are about to see next, we must enter quietly into the realm of genius.”
-Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein, 1971
Congrats, you’ve struck out on your own with an independent design practice! Welcome to the growing club of self-sufficient designers willing to tackle any challenge, from the renovated coat closet to storefront signage. We don’t often find ourselves with the luxury of being ‘choosy’ with what work we can take on – we’re happy (and lucky) to have enough design work to sustain us as we get our start. For me, this situation has resulted in a growing list of design projects with a diversity of scale, project emphasis, scheduling needs, and types of client engagement. An assembly of asynchronic inputs requiring very different outputs at different rates and with different degrees of resolution. This conglomeration of design projects is my Frankenstein – disparate project parts that come together to work as a whole being – a design practice – and hopefully one that has enough character, health, and energy to stretch life expectancy to its maximum. I continuously tinker with the pieces of my Frankenstein – ever searching for ways to increase efficiency and better synchronize the disparate elements into a cogent whole. This essay is an attempt to extract and reflect on how I have mediated between the various design problems entrusted to me – to research and think about how to make the management of my practice more efficient, and hopefully, extend its life. This effort is a design project supreme: how to creatively structure your own practice so that it works for you, and not the other way around.  While I can profess only my immediate and recent experiences, I have already landed upon a handful of important methods to fine-tune my efficiency. It’s time to tame your monster.

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Step 01. Show Up
My two-year-old son loves Super Grover 2.0 on Sesame Street because he has super powers.  Super Grover 2.0’s super power is simply that he steps to the plate and puts himself out there.  The tagline for this segment in the show (which is great for its deceiving simplicity) goes: “Super Grover 2.0: He Shows Up.” The first step to design practice is to show up – to practice – to sell yourself and put your Frankenstein out there. Intelligence, creativity and ideas are never great until someone has access to them. Thinking and  talking about doing something are very different than actually doing something. Taking the risk of exposing yourself and your thinking to the rest of the world is necessary.  Showing up is step one.

Do or do not. There is no try.
-Master Yoda

Step 02. Bouldering
Ok, you’ve successfully landed some work. Congrats! Time to prioritize. Analyze the design needs for each project and prioritize their respective needs regularly and rigorously. I call this act: “bouldering.” Imagine filling up a container (the time you have for a given day) with rocks (things to do); some rocks are boulders (tasks to deal with ASAP) and some are pebbles (the less critical tasks), how do you make them all fit? The biggest tasks, the boulders, should be handled first, then fill gaps with the smaller tasks,  the pebbles.  The same principle applies to managing different project needs: at any given moment, the most pressing and important problems need attention first in the day and everything else can follow. Spend a little time on less pressing tasks in between big tasks to maintain a relationship with all current projects. Especially if you’re balancing multiple projects, this step is a requirement as priorities constantly change.

Rinse and repeat.

Step 03. Tune Out to Tune In

(and use tunes!)

Do you know when your most productive times are? If not, use a timing app such as Toggl to document how you use your day for a few weeks of work. Over time you’ll learn which are your most naturally productive times of day. Block these out for your most important work (see Step 02 above).  This productive time should be protected as you schedule meetings or other events around the work you have to do.  We are what we repeatedly do – blocking out time to repeatedly do your best work is what sets a profession apart from a hobby. Tune out from all else during these productive times – close the email tab, get out of Google Chat, and set your phone on silent.  Only by removing the plethora of technological distractions that engulf us at all times can we truly focus on the work. This focused time is called “Flow.” For me, music helps tune out the noise, and tune in to priorities and achieve Flow. Noise-canceling headphones just add an extra layer of focus in spaces occupied by multiple people. For music I recommend non-vocal music, or vocals that you don’t know in a genre you know and love. For me the Radio Paradise radio station on iTunes rules the day.  It’s an array of eclectic music that never gets too heavy-handed and distracting, but is always new.
Step 04. Mark Magic
Track your progress with measurable markers.  This will provide you a metric with which to gauge your work and help you motivate to focus on work during the lulls – moments when project deadlines or a calling client might not be present to provide that extra kick in the pants to get things done. Set small, attainable goals that can be reached in the relatively near future – this helps break down enormous efforts into manageable pieces, and provides you with regular feedback about your time efficiency and focus.  Use a task list to record tasks by project, and set due dates within the week ahead (of course also include those externally imposed deadlines). Then at least you’ll know when that extra cup of coffee will be needed before the day is done but your To Do list is nowhere close.

Analyze, execute, adapt, and endure.

Taming your Frankenstein takes training, but it is a critical moment in the development of your design practice. Now go – step out into the world, organize your time, focus on your work, and set achievable goals!  These four steps will help to control the monster you’ve made and make it your minion.

May we all have formidable Frankensteins!

Megan Panzano Megan is an architectural designer and educator currently working with her independent practice, studioPM, and teaching studio at Harvard’s GSD. Her practice focuses on designs sensitive to the changing needs of use across built scales. She’s also a mom to a great-energy-ball of an almost-2-year-old. When she can find a spare minute, it gets used up quickly reading about architectural representation or tackling a home-improvement project. Previously, Megan worked as a Senior Design at Utile, Inc. in Boston and with Venturi Scott Brown in Philadelphia. She holds a BA in Architecture from Yale and an MArch I with distinction from Harvard’s GSD, where she was the Kelley Thesis Prize winner in 2010 for her project, “A Living Archive.”
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HOW TO FACE YOUR FRANKENSTEIN by Megan Panzano is licensed under a
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