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Accelerate Your Art Department

Establishing best practices in the art department can save time and boost quality. Trimingham describes some methods you can use to initiate such improvements.

If you ask a garment screen printer how many shirts he can print in an hour, the odds are good that he’ll be able to give you a rough number. He’ll also likely be able to share with you a variety of statistics that he uses to track production tasks, such as the number of screens exposed per day, the average amount of scrap or bad shirts per week, and possibly even press downtime per day. Printers commonly have at least a good grasp of their efficiency in production, but it’s far less likely to see this same diligence in tracking the art department. In fact, for many companies, the art department is monitored by a far cruder system than any used in production. 

“Is it done yet?” That’s among the most popular tracking systems for art departments. Management asks the question and receives an answer of yes, no, or somewhat. The most common answer given defines the art department’s efficiency and productivity. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed, this is not the ideal situation. A better method for boosting productivity is to establish standard best practices for a variety of tasks and then keep track of them to find the most functional and efficient way to handle the challenges. The way to establish standards is to first evaluate your art department, then review, refine, and replace methods of creation/ separation with best practices for art tasks. Ultimately, the goal is to establish a functional tracking system based on these new ideals.

The people factor

Creating best practices for your art department sounds simple, but not everything is smooth sailing when dealing with artistic personalities. One of the foundational elements of success in implementing any of these ideas is having the leadership to push the change and express a continual attitude of positive purpose and achievement. Artists have a tendency to be a little more emotional and sensitive than the average worker, and it means everything to have new standards implemented in a positive light rather than creating the feeling that every screw up will be broadcast—or worse, recorded for a performance review. I have seen the best success in raising standards come from a combination of three basic principles: downplaying the negative and keeping the focus on achieving goals, implementing a clear and structured incentive system that encourages cooperation, and creating a celebratory atmosphere when goals are achieved.

Downplaying the negative is the most important principle—and also the most difficult. Putting time constraints in place for the first time can quickly reveal some really costly habits that need to change. The manager’s first instinct is often to start pointing fingers and detailing the problems and issues. An example of this is when artcreation tasks are logged for the first time in a strict manner for every job, reviewed in a meeting, and compared to what is actually estimated and billed. Things can get ugly in a hurry when it becomes apparent how much money is being lost by poor estimation or excessive time spent above estimates. This is where it is so critical to remain focused on the purpose of the process, rather than the initial results of an evaluation.

The purpose of evaluation and establishing standards in an art department is reaching the optimal efficiency and quality with every artistic process. People have to really care to achieve anything close to high efficiency. Criticizing and reprimanding an artist (or any worker, for that matter) produces feelings of resentment and anger that undermine the goal of getting people to care. While it is true that fear can prompt an art team to care for a short while, the end result is never close to the potential of those whose are motivated in a positive manner.

You may be tempted to take the easy path by forcing compliance and punishing those who fall short on goals. But the smart manager, who truly understands how to motivate artists, takes the long road of softly encouraging and utilizing a clear set of standards that motivate achievement through incentives and verbal celebration. This may sound very dramatic, but it’s actually comparable to offering a painter a cash bonus to finish a painting quickly vs. holding a gun to his head. Quality artwork typically requires an environment that is conducive to mental focus.

A clear incentive system can yield amazing results. For instance, artists who correctly record their time for every job for a two-week period could earn some movie tickets. How much money is earned and saved in the two weeks by the proper tracking of the art time? A lot more than a pair of movie tickets costs! Incentives are wonderfully useful tools, but I have heard a lot of grumps: “The artists are already getting paid. Why should they get anything extra for doing what they’re supposed to?” This attitude shows a serious lack of understanding about how to motivate.

Remember that the goal is to get the artists to do an outstanding job, not just an average job. An average or mediocre job by an artist costs a company much more money than can be quickly estimated. Think about lost repeat orders, additional art that could be done in extra time—like preprint designs—and how average art affects a company’s image in a service business based strongly on referrals.

Keep the incentive system fresh and creative so that it can continue to motivate. One way is to rotate incentives or have really good ones for big achievements (like a great prize for perfect attendance in a year). Involving the art department and helping its staff design their own system often encourages ownership and motivation in the process as well.

Nothing could be worse for a hardworking artist to hear than “Yup, that’s great, now get back to work.” This is especially true when really big goals are met. Artists crave positive feedback and appreciation. Though many don’t want to admit it, the desire to be appreciated for their talents drives emotional people to an art career in the first place. Many young artists feel this so strongly that they will work for next to nothing just as long as the art they do is appreciated. Celebrate achievements in the art department. Make sure those who contributed are recognized and congratulated. This will help to push everyone toward the next goal and keep that good feeling channeled into the art department.

One talented manager that I worked with said that he treated compliments like golden opportunities to really reach someone’s personality. He claimed to always be very specific and focused in his appreciation so that the artist would know he was serious. If you think about it, such a compliment can have a lasting, if not permanent, effect on any person.

Evaluating the art department

The necessity of objectivity often makes evaluation difficult. If you have a small to mid-size company, consider getting an external, experienced opinion instead of calling a manager or artist to judge their own methods. The goal in evaluation is strictly the collection of information. A common mistake in evaluations is making judgments during the process and then acting without a complete picture of everything that is going on. It’s more effective to collect information about the different areas and tasks that go on in the art department as completely as possible. Don’t rush to judgment.

Proper evaluation involves the gathering of a lot of information about the department’s daily tasks. During the collection stage, categorize the details of each task and how long each takes, then record the outcome. A simple Excel chart can work for this kind of recording (Figure 1). Conduct this kind of evaluation for at least a couple of days, if not a week or two, to get a good sampling of information about time spent on tasks. Gathering information from just a day or two of work can be misleading, especially when the art department has a crazy day. Once you’ve collected the information, total it and determine averages to get a snapshot of a typical day in your art department.

Reviewing, refining, and replacing tasks

Tallying and averaging the information you gathered will make clear where some extra time can be squeezed out and which issues need to be addressed. Focusing in on the goal of efficiency and review each task be reviewed for its necessity, priority, function, and profitability. I normally assign a grade to each attribute and then look for time wasters. One company’s review of tasks revealed that there was a significant amount of time spent in customer consultations and approvals over the phone. This, combined with a labor-intensive method of generating multiple e-mail proofs for customers, meant that a good chunk of the daily art time was tied up in approvals and consults on the phone and Internet. The art director would never have believed that so many hours per week were tied up in these tasks had the organized information not been presented to him.

A review step is important in the evaluation, organization, and management of the artwork itself. The artwork that comes into a printing company can generally be categorized as simple, intermediate, or complex for creation and separation purposes. You can make the following designations: 1=simple, 2= ntermediate, and 3=complex (Figure 2). It’s critical to know how much of an art department’s time is spent on the level 1 art vs. level 3. This also helps to isolate any waste in the processing of less profitable jobs and create a realistic picture of the level of art that is typical for the shop. Establish the art stats and then take a serious look at efficiency in handling art that meets criteria for levels 1-3. Separation tasks can be similarly graded and tracked to find out how long they take. Review each step in the art department and consider how you can use the information you gather to motivate a consistently higher level of quality and efficiency.

Tracking the art department 

Your evaluation and review might be finished, but these tasks should never be over completely. Establishing a procedure for continually tracking the time that tasks take in the art department is an important step in eliminating time wasted on tasks that rank as low priorities. Some relatively inexpensive computer programs can, without a lot of hassle, track time spent on projects. The software can also keep everyone up to speed when an art job goes over budget. Even if you don’t bill for it, information about this extra time spent is a great sales tool to motivate customers to repeat orders and referrals (we go the extra mile for you—or the extra hour). Indeed, there are more complicated systems that will track substantial details about each job and how much time each step requires to complete. Larger companies are the ones that typically implement a database tracking system to assess jobs and follow processes and revision steps.

A word of warning is necessary here. Any detailed system of evaluation invites the impulse to micromanage every task. You’ll totally defeat the point of a review when your analysis of information each day takes more time than the results will deliver. The goal is something similar to traffic lights in a busy intersection. The evaluation of the process in the art department shouldn’t create a backup in the flow of work in that area. Tracking, reviewing, and adjusting the art flow through the department should always consider the whole—not just its parts. Don’t slow everything down in an effort to adjust small areas.

Careful observation and review will give you a great chance of finding significant amounts of extra time and profit in your art department. If you remain a positive force and help the artists create a more productive environment, then you’ll soon realize just how efficient your art department can be.

Thomas Trimingham is an award-winning art director, illustrator, and separator who has more than 16 years of experience in the screen-printing industry. He can be reached at ttrimingham@yahoo.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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