Tag Archives: Project Management

Recommended Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists

If you haven’t already, go and read the first part of this mini-series on Deliberate Practice and Continuous Learning.

Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists

Over the past week I’ve been looking at job openings for VFX artists, mainly in America, Canada, and the UK but I wasn’t very location picky. Here are the assumptions I’ve made based on the criteria they claim to desire.

They tend to split into two broad categories; Software and Techniques, and Personal traits. Because both categories seem to be integral I’m going to cover each in turn.

Software and Techniques Wish List

For any of these subjects deliberate practice is easy to define (relatively). You can start out on each topic by picking up a good textbook or course and once you know enough of the basics you can set up a plan to practice those daily while you experiment with new things on the other side. There are hundreds of tutorials for each (or at least a few) and plenty of resources available.

Because its less of a challenge to figure out how to get started I’m going to keep this part fairly simple. Here’s a list of techniques and pieces of software that came up during my research.

Software:

  • Maya
  • 3D Studio Max
  • After Effects
  • Nuke
  • Photoshop
  • Python (scripting)
  • Unreal Engine (mostly with games)
  • Shake
  • Cascade
  • Mental Ray
  • Houdini
  • Mel (more scripting)

Techniques:

  • Particle Effects
  • Composite Layers
  • Rendering Optimisation
  • Light Rigs
  • Roto Mattes
  • Blue/Green Screening
  • 2D Painting Skills for Mark-ups
  • Compositing
  • Integrating live action with miniatures or CGI
  • Use textures and 3D meshes in effects
  • Performance and Resource Management (games again)
  • Fluid Dynamic Particle Effects
  • Graphic Shaders
  • Procedural Modelling
  • Real Time Particle Systems
  • Scripting
  • Stylized lighting and Mood Lighting
  • Traditional Art Skills
  • Photography
  • Digital Image Manipulation
  • Stereoscopic 3D

Quite a list! I’m going to go through most of the techniques on this blog in the next few years, and probably some of the different pieces of software.

Traits of a Perfect Employee

These are, in general, much harder to practice and develop. Personally, I think this is because defining them is tricky; how do you cultivate being proactive, for example?

Hand on heart, I don’t know if any of this will actually work. Yet. I’ve only tried out deliberate practice on a couple of them and even on those I’ve tried the progress is slow (though noticeable). I’ll list my translation of the traits I found (you’re welcome!) and then I’ll go into depth on one for an example. If you’ve been practicing already, or you’re really good at some of these, drop me a comment and let me know how it went for you.

  • Understanding of Light, Colour and Composition
  • Demonstrate you’re a team player and can get along with multiple disciplines and backgrounds (I’d recommend building connections for this part)
  • Be able to talk about different types of art, your preferences, and why you like one style vs. another
  • Build change into your workflow and try not to flip out when things change last minute
  • Show you’ve improved your skills over time (*cough*Continuous Learning*cough*)
  • Be proactive and take initiative
  • Take direction from peers and supervisors with grace
  • Keep to schedule and deadlines
  • Create quality work
  • Perform well under high stress (or, presumably, manage the stress so that it never reaches ‘high’)
  • Communicate well within the team
  • Problem Solving
  • Spend time consuming projects from your industry (Different types of games for games, TV programs for television, etc)

Keep to Schedule and Deadlines (my example)

Anyone that knows me, knows I struggle with this one. Not because of bad time-keeping but because I have this habit of taking on far more than I can achieve within a specified time frame.

In fact, and I’m not proud of this, I don’t think I finished a single practical project in my degree year. Fortunately my ideas and paperwork were good enough that I passed anyway – that didn’t make it feel much better to me. After a month or so of not doing anything at all (ok, maybe two months) when the course finished I finally dusted myself off and decided to do something about that.

I found a project management solution that allowed me to time myself doing tasks, create milestones, multiple projects, and anything else I needed. I also went through the Personal Effectiveness Program book; some chapters were more helpful than others but I’d recommend giving it a read and following through as much as possible.

Armed with those tools I set up projects, learned quickly that everything creative was taking longer than I’d estimated and a lot of the other tasks were taking far less time to complete. The next time I scheduled a task similar to one I’d completed, I looked at the difference between estimated time and actual time and adjusted it accordingly.

I learned that I wasn’t nearly as productive as I’d thought initially and scaled back on the work I scheduled for each day, prioritising the tasks as I went.

This was my form of continuous improvement; I’m still not very good at it but I’m more accurate than I was and I’ve gone from 1-2 hours of solid ‘real’ work a day to 2-3 (sometimes more) on average. Since I can see just how ambitious every idea I come up with is now I can allocate enough time to work on them (one of the benefits of setting your own deadlines for your own ideas) and the failing to learn process is much simpler.

To summarize the steps in a general way, here’s what I did:

  • Identified a problem in my skill set
  • Set up a method to track why there was a problem
  • Using the information gathered from tracking, determine what my ‘basics’ were (For this example those were estimating accurately, allocating work coherently, and paring back non-essential tasks)
  • Practice those basics every day and track improvements

Once I reach a point where I can successfully take a project from start to finish without extending the deadline then I can start to be more adventurous in how I practice. Yes I’m aware that sounds terrible (this would be a good time to point out that I can work on other people’s projects to schedule easily enough).

Your Next Steps

Have a look at that huge list and decide which part is most relevant to you. Then comment below saying which one it is, and I’ll respond with how I would start to work on it were I in your shoes.

That way, we can start together. Get the ball rolling with your comment just now (I dare you).

Continuous Learning and Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists

Why should I care about Continuous Learning?

Continuous learning is one of those things we hear a lot while we’re in school or college, usually within the first week of the year and as some magical thing that will help us throughout our lives.

Unfortunately, that’s usually all that’s said on the subject. If you’re lucky you get a bit more about why you should be doing it, or even a couple of pointers for things to practice that will be ‘useful in the industry’.

Continuous learning or Deliberate Practice, however, is one of the most important skills you can cultivate. Not just in this industry (though my research over the past week suggests that its a desirable trait), but in life in general.

It allows you to take skills you’ve learned, multiply them (over time) and if followed through it can make you a true expert in your areas of interest. I could go on, but I learned most of what I know from these folks;

 Let’s Define Deliberate Practice

For the purposes of this post I’m going to define deliberate practice as follows;

“The continual act of regularly taking a skill you have and practicing both the basics and pushing your understanding.”

  • Continual = you don’t stop.
  • Regular = Daily, Weekly, Fortnightly (I wouldn’t recommend monthly, but it could happen).
  • Skill = Measurable activity or set of actions. Think modelling with low polys, texturing to a certain resolution, and so on.
  • The basics = The very foundation of your skill. What you’re taught first when approaching the topic – the basic tenants of your craft.
  • Pushing your understanding = Going further than you ever have before. Possibly even than anyone has gone (I’m resisting a star trek quote here, but you get the idea).

It’s hard work, on a regular basis, over a long period of time. This isn’t a magical bullet solution (and because of that I fully expect most of you to ignore this!), you won’t become amazing over night and it’ll be more boring than anyone really wants to think too closely about.

Your friends, family and significant other won’t get it. Guaranteed.

It will give you both increased skill in your ‘area of expertise’ (for want of a better phrase) and a framework which you can use to learn just about anything with a little creativity.

In the visual effects industry in particular it’s vital; technology and techniques move far too quickly to approach learning them with anything less than a creatively made, flexible, framework. Our bread and butter as 3D artists changes every year or so (looking at Autodesk here) and we have to get used to software features appearing and disappearing all the time. Going beyond that, technological advances mean new techniques, new pieces of hardware, new software, and new requirements at our heart.

Assuming 2012 doesn’t herald the end of all we know, here’s how I’d recommend approaching these challenges for a visual effects artist. At least to begin with – you’ll come up with your own ideas and tailor it to your own plans eventually.

First, Make Time For It

Finding time is the first major hurdle when you approach anything outside of your normal routine. It’s not like we have time where we’re doing literally nothing – every single one of us can effectively fill our 24 hours a day.

Working on the assumption that no one can alter time or be in more than one place at once, we’re going to have to make sacrifices to fit all this in. I’d recommend an hour a day as being fairly manageable though you’ll know how much time you can spare. I’m not about to guilt you or point fingers at some of the things we fill our time with, but here are some points to keep in mind:

  1. It’s been mentioned multiple times that it takes 10,000 hours of continuous practice to become an expert.
  2. Focusing is not easy. After a bunch of practice and really watching where my time goes I’ve discovered that I can pay attention and work hard for approximately 2-3 hours a day. (Note: I work longer than that, but never very effectively)
  3. Exercise can usually roust you from sleepy inactivity, especially after work. I recommend dancing.

Next Time on ‘Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists’

Yes, it’s a bit of a tease but my ultra long post just wasn’t focused enough to cut the mustard (though why anyone would want to, I’ve no idea).

This will continue tomorrow with specific techniques and traits that my research into job postings has uncovered and how to use Deliberate Practice to improve your own skills. As well as a fascinating example from yours truly. Well, ‘somethin-ating’ anyway.

In the mean time, your next step is to make some room. You know where. Commit to some deliberate practice, mark out a time on your calendar daily (I like google calendar for this), and prepare yourself.

Also, comment and let me know what you’re taking time from to do this instead.

 

Two Types of Purpose

In the first post we talked about why having a purpose behind your work is important.  I also mentioned briefly that there are two types of purpose we can use in creative projects, this post shows how to create both of them.

In order to succeed, wildly, you’ll need:

In order for your project to ‘work’ to the best of its ability you need two different types of purpose.  Rather than belabouring the point at this stage, lets dive in and take a look at how to make them.

Creative Type Definition

Creative purpose gives life and soul to your projects; it deals with the higher meaning, why you want to do it, and what change you’re trying to make in the world (or whatever social group you’re comfortable with).  Without this, even if you have an amazing business purpose the idea itself will be a shell, possibly uninspired and definitely lack spark.

Creating the Creative Purpose

Look at your life and what matters to you.  Think about what you believe, feel the things that tug on your heart, and start from there.  The creative purpose is the most personal part of any project; I couldn’t and probably wouldn’t tell you how to find it.

There aren’t any road maps to defining what’s right or what you want to say and it’s different for every person.  In my opinion this is why we’re able to have so many different art forms and artists; not one of us thinks in exactly the same way as another, and we all have different messages and things we want to talk about.  This part can take a long time to find, and to get ‘right’.  You’ll know it when you have, sometimes you have to start work before it’s fully formed (that’s another issue entirely) however I’d urge you to wait until you have at least a rough idea before beginning.

Creative Purpose is your cornerstone after all, it’s worth taking the time to do this part properly.

Structuring your Creative Purpose

The beauty of the creative purpose is that there’s no iron-clad structure.  Often a simple statement is enough.

That is, as long as the statement conveys the following points to you (and those you work with!) whenever you read it:

  • The change you want to make
  • The circumstance you want to improve
  • The emotion you want others to feel
  • The message you want to send
  • It has an emotional connection with you; you should feel it in your gut

Example: Creative Purpose for July’s Themed Posts

My creative purpose for this month’s feature series reads something like this:

Provide clarity to creators so we can see more awesomely cool stuff.

Ulterior motives aside, that works for me.  My logic follows that we can’t make our absolute best projects without having a reason for doing so, and sometimes we can start with one and lose it along the way (or without one, which is scary but we’ve all done it).  By defining both types of purpose there’s a clear direction for us to travel in, since I believe this is really important and I want to be around to see some really well written games, animations, scenes, stories, etc… This theme was born.

Business Type Definition

On the other hand the business purpose gives structure to the idea.  What you’re making, what targets you’re trying to reach, who will use the finished product, and so on through all the more practical concerns.  This determines how successful your project will be at getting the message out and/or making money.

Building your Business Purpose

Before you can write your business purpose you’ll need to make three main choices.  First you’ll have to decide what you’re making; can’t go far wrong here and your creative purpose might point you in the right direction.

Second, what you’re trying to achieve.  This is a little trickier and speaks to your motives more than anything else.  Maybe you have a product and you’re trying to generate more sales.  Or you have a website / blog and you’d like more visits and views.  Possibly you want to win a competition, or get your message out to the greatest amount of people possible.  Aim high, but not cripplingly so here, and be specific.  Instead of saying something like ‘I want more people to visit my site’, go for something like ‘I want 50 people to visit my site per day by 1st January 2011’.  Constrain your goal.  Make it achievable, but not too easy.  Really go for it!

The third and potentially most important decision is about who you’re trying to reach.  Do you have a specific target audience (if not, why not?)?  Who would you most like to connect with?  How do they spend their time?  Are they students, working, not working, within your industry, in a specific age range, location, gender… There are a lot of questions you could be asking here.  As with your ‘goal’, your target audience has to be specific.

Structuring your Business Purpose

Unlike the creative purpose your business purpose has a generally accepted format.  It takes the form of a short sentence covering each of the three areas we just discussed.  You can almost copy/paste each section into the structure below:

A [what you’re making] for [target audience] in order to [business target/goal].

Example: Business Purpose for July’s Themed Posts

Continuing our example from before, the business purpose for this month’s themed features looks a bit like this:

Create a series of blog posts for creative professionals looking to make their own, successful, projects in order to revive my blog and bring visitors per day up to 45 by August 15th 2011.

Since it’s a blog project I’m running my first section was a given (I actually cheated and had the form before my creative purpose because I had a specific slot to fill per week).  My target audience was defined in a fairly broad sense because this particular set of blog posts can be applied by multiple disciplines, since I have a few creative avenues myself it makes no sense to over specify at this stage.

However, I did pin-point it to creative professionals (people working within creative industries, or wish to, with the skills required) and a mindset (looking to make their own, successful, projects).  The mindset it key at this point because it focuses the direction of each post back to an ultimate goal – partially defined in my creative purpose.

As for my target – I’m a blog owner that’s had a semi-dead blog for the last year due to time constraints.  I needed to come back out with a bang though traffic doesn’t grow overnight.  45 people seemed a fair goal, and by placing the deadline half way through next month each post should have time to gather a little momentum.

Next Time

This week we’ve gone through the process of creating our own creative and business purposes in order to define our projects and give ourselves definite goals.  In the next post we’ll be taking a closer look at finding these purposes in existing projects; both client defined and personal.

Right now though I’d like you to choose one of your projects (or things you do) and come up with both a creative purpose and a business one.  Comment below and let me know how you got on.

Until I’m 60 or so…

Subconscious Interface Test - Mixed Emotional Colours

Look at the shiny, emotional colours... Don't they blend nicely?

Where to begin.

I suppose I could start at the beginning as per conventional wisdom, but really, where’s the fun in that?

My super secret project that I was planning on unveiling near the start of summer changed. It had been a tutorial interface for videos, downloads, etc, but I got bored and changed my mind. It’s sitting half planned on the back-burner, cooling its heels in the waiting room alongside a couple of tutorials I could mention, leaving the way clear for me to do something much more fun. Drum-roll please….

The new college project is:

A digital imaginary friend/mirror that you can talk to as easily as you talk to yourself and actually gain some sense from it.

Subconscious Interface Test

When getting to know you, the entity doesn't use colour.

Not a sliver of 3D involved you’ll notice, but I do have pretty pictures of proposed interfaces (that’s what those things dotted through the post are). Instead there’s a large chunk of programming, another large chunk of psychology, and a portion of colour theory and digital typography.

Over the course of its development (which I’m optimistically stating will be finished in approximately 40 years) I’ll be posting strange, interesting, or useful facts about the project along with a smattering of more lighthearted posts and maybe some 3D stuff if I have other things to work on. No posting schedules – I dislike announcing those anyway, obvious reasons – and absolutely no promises. But it’ll be fun, I can tell you that much.

For me, at least.

Right now I’m working through the planning stages in college so that I can pass my course (like a good little student), posts will likely reflect that for the next little while and I’ll be sporadic at best. In the meantime if you feel like helping out, comment below with any opinions or thoughts on the project and if you haven’t already please fill in the survey over here.

Concept; The Impact of a One Sentence Purpose

I love the beginning of a new project.

You’re given a set of parameters to adhere to (or very rarely a clean slate), you have a specific amount of time and usually some form of budget or lack of one.  With those parameters and limitations you’re then set loose to come up with an idea.  Blank slates excluded, it’s usual to have some form of a goal defined for you and a set of targets to reach.

Increase sales, redefine brand x as being for people y, launch a product, make one person say ‘wow’, educate, entertain – there are a lot of reasons for what we do, sometimes on a day to day basis.  The important thing is to know which one of these goals is the most important for any given project; which one matters above all else and, if delivered, would count the project a success.  Setting your main goal, defining its purpose and scope, and wrapping it up into one neat, concise sentence can make the difference between a tight design and a sloppy one.

Golden Goal Rule (Not ‘the one who has the goals makes the rules’ though I was tempted)

All goals should answer one simple question in order to be effective; ‘What’s the point?’

Let me explain.  If your example goal is something like ‘Increase number of clients by summer’ it’s easy to get diverted.  There’s no reward built in and there’s no definite point at which you can cross it off your list as complete.  Not very motivating and if you ever venture into the land of late nights/early mornings for this sort of goal you’re likely to start wondering if you can just forget about it instead!

At least, I would.  Raw stubbornness can only take you so far.

Goal++

Let’s go back to the point at the start of the project where we’re all happily bubbling away over new ideas and dancing around gleefully at the thought of having something fun to do (maybe that last part was just me, but you get the picture).  Right then you may know perfectly well what you want to accomplish and why, or at least you’re in the best place to figure it out.  While you’re enthusiastically yet diligently writing out your initial plan (right?) it’s worth taking a moment to write this sentence:

[Action] [Object] to [Goal] for [target audience] (by [timescale]).

Let me wash the mud off the window:

  1. Action:  Create, Redesign, Realign, Launch, Increase, Decrease
  2. Object: Tutorial interface, website, logo, ebook, sales, bounce rate
  3. Goal: Make sharing easier, to reflect the new branding scheme, for a more professional look, to teach people how to skip, from 5% to 10%, to 60%
  4. Target Audience: students between the ages of 16-25 studying 3D, adults working in offices full time, sophistocated young investors, children 6-10 years old, teenage girls with an interest in drawing, visitors from USA.

Formatting the first example so we can see it properly:  Create a tutorial interface to make sharing easier for students between the ages of 16-25 studying 3D.

Why bother?

Someone asks you what you’re doing? You can tell them your statement.

Get stuck or muddled part way through the project? It’s right there to remind you of where you’re going.

Focusing too much on an unimportant area of the project? That statement brooks no excuses.

Of every piece of planning I’ve ever done for a project this is the quickest part, and also the part that provides the most benefit (says the planning addict that usually has at least 10 pages of stuff).  It’s also the part that’ll make you want to throw the most objects our your window, but that’s another story.

Do you stall at the start line?

It starts with ambition, and possibly talent.  You come up with this really good idea in response to a brief you were given, you’re sure you can finish it within the allocated time, you’re all fired up and ready to go kick ass!

Then you sit down to work and your mind goes completely blank.

Overwhelm is a wonderful thing

In fact, the larger and scarier the end product the better chance you have of creating something truly amazing.  Or doing the whole crash, burn, stress, scrape thing.  The beginning of a project around the time the actual work starts is always the scariest for me; once I’m working I can keep going without much trouble and create something on time.

The Unspoken Choice

When it’s time to work you can decide to stand by your plans, or chicken out and minimize them.

Phrased like that most people are going to say ‘of course we’ll go for the former!’.  I believe you.  Now lets move on and look at how we can actually do that without accidentally reverting to the other path.

Speaking as a Professional Minimizer…

The fear there is based around whether you can produce to specifications before deadline.  It’s not whether you can do it period, it’s the time element that makes it harder.  Because I absolutely hate being undermined by ‘silly fears’ like that, I have a few coping mechanisms:

Break the product down – Decide what you absolutely have to create, what would add value, and what would make it look prettier.
Focus on the Necessities – Write down what you need to do that day to get started.
Pick on the Smallest thing – Finish it as quickly as you can, and score it off your list.
Breathe, then do the next thing – The breathing is important.  Enjoy that you have one thing done, then launch into the next.

The Feel-Good Factor

Some people like to use the ‘Tackle the biggest part for a specified amount of time’ trick instead of the knocking out the smallest task.  That may work better for you; after some trial and error it doesn’t help me much unless I’ve already completed one task.

Either way, the point is to do something that can quickly give you a sense of accomplishment.  Once you have something it’s no longer ‘Oh god, how do I begin?!’ it’s ‘Ok, what’s next?’.

How do you get around it?

Review: Zoho Projects

Last week we talked a little bit about project management in terms of one of the overall principles (The Project Triangle).  This week is our first review week, so we’re going to talk about different one piece of software we can use to manage our projects and deliver them on time.  Or at least estimate how far overdue they’re likely to be!

The Tools you Need

If any of you have worked on a project before with any degree of planning or scheduling you’ll know that there are some things you’d really want from any piece of software you were using to track it.   Things like time tracking, GANNT charts (visual representation of timeline), schedules and tasks, deadlines, and reminders by email.  And if its a really complex project you’re going to want to be able to identify tasks you need to complete before you can tackle another; no one likes getting to the last part of a project and realising they don’t have the most vital piece of information.

No one particularly likes to do these things by hand because of the amount of time and effort it’d take.  Having done that at least once with only myself and Excel, I’d be the first to say that an integrated solution saves time and leaves less room for error.

In an ideal world you’d have one piece of software that can do all of those things, and do them in an intuitive, efficient way.  In an imperfect world sometimes a piece of software that does the vital things correctly works just as well, especially if you’re not paying massive amounts of money for it.

Here’s where Zoho Projects comes in.

Zoho is a company that created online versions of most desktop applications we’re used to using in our daily lives (normally from Microsoft), and Projects is their answer to, well, Microsoft Projects.

On a free account you can manage one project from start to finish with the more basic functions it deems necessary for an individual.  It also grants you 10MB of storage and leaves out time tracking and bug tracking completely.  The next branch up gives you unlimited projects and more storage space, but still no time or bug tracking and you’re charged $99 a year.  In order to have full access to all features you’d be expected to pay $699 a year; though you do get a lot for your money, it’s a little out of most people’s ‘casual expenses’ price range.

Being the cheap soul I am of course, I went for the free version.

The Good

When you create your first task it becomes instantly obvious that they spent a lot of time working on that area of the program.  First you create a Milestone which is basically a Goal with an optional deadline.  Then you create a task list for that Milestone (you can have multiple, this is ideal for task chunking) and go ahead and add your tasks.  You can either leave them with only a name, or in advanced options you can set a duration or start and end dates, a priority, and how complete the task already is.  Very handy.  To mark a task as finished you just click the check-box next to it; easy peasy.

Once created, you can see any overdue or upcoming tasks from the project dashboard.  Along with just how late you are and when it was meant to be finished if you do slip a little.  With the upcoming tasks it also shows you the due date and how long you have until that date, all in all, a nice little feature.

If you need to see how close you are to completing a project at any point you can look at open or completed tasks in the report section.  This can be in list view or GANNT chart view, and if you need less detail you can view the GANNT chart with milestones instead of individual tasks.  My only gripe here is that you can’t view both open and closed tasks in the same chart, though on a practical level that’s not the end of the world.

The Bad

There’s one feature that I really need, that Zoho hid away in the corner and didn’t do much with.  Task Dependencies.  Since I quite often have scarily complex projects on the go, I really need to be able to see what needs finished before another thing can begin.  Technically you can do this within Zoho Projects, but to get there you have to click through to a separate ‘Dependency View’ within the tasks list (which I missed entirely the first few times I used the software).

Once there you can set up dependencies within projects.  So long as they don’t overlap at all.  This caused a bit of a problem, since setting up projects so they don’t overlap is a bit of a nightmare after the fact and there was no option to ‘adjust start time’ automatically.  After about ten minutes trying to make more than one dependency work I gave up.

The other problem it has is within the Calendar view.  Instead of showing the names of the tasks or milestones due on that day it’ll tell you that you have x amount of tasks and y amount of milestones, until you click on the day itself.  Then it’ll give you the task titles etc.  While this isn’t a disaster, showing the titles when you only have a few tasks (a la Google Calendar) would be much nicer.

The Verdict

Zoho Projects has a long way to go before it can be a direct rival to Microsoft, however as a free solution it doesn’t do a bad job.  If my choice was using this or nothing then I’d use this (or possibly go back to creating gannt charts, but that’s because I’m a bit odd).

So long as you keep its limitations in mind it’ll be able to get you through your projects with no real problems.

Project Management for Creative Perfectionists

Are you a planning fanatic or do you prefer to just dive in?

Since this post is based on a tweak to project management and how to use it to sidestep one of the most irritating design problems you can come across (in my opinion) it’s probably going to appeal more to the fanatics among you. If you do just dive in, it’s still worth reading – there’s something for everyone to take away.

For the duration of this post we’re going to define ‘projects’ as on-going, unique tasks that require you to be creative, and have a deadline of some description. This isn’t the only sort of project the concept applies to; it’s just the one I have experience with. Feel free to adapt, prod, poke, and squeeze it into your own situation as we go through.

Introducing today’s example

Our example refers to an Infomercial I have to create this semester in order to pass two (or more) of my classes. Up until now I’ve been horribly over-ambitious with every project I’ve undertaken, and this one is no exception. To pass it must have film footage, interactive elements, and be based on selling an existing product to a target audience.

The Famous Triangle

Step into any Project Management class and one of the first things you’ll be introduced to is the ‘Project Triangle’. While there have been some murmers of it becoming outdated, a lot of working project managers agree that it’s still a good way of viewing work and priorities.

Like all triangles it has three corners; Time, Budget, and Quality. The idea is that you can choose two of those corners to be fixed, and the last is where you’ll make sacrifices should they become necessary. For example, if you have to complete your project by a certain date then it’d be your main priority, and you could choose whether to sacrifice Quality and keep within budget, or sacrifice the Budget and keep within quality.

In another example you may choose to keep the Quality at all costs; then you can decide whether the budget or time is more important to the overall success of the project.

Whenever you keep the two corners you chose at the start of the project within bounds, even if the last corner gets blown out of proportion you can still consider the project itself a success. In theory this means that if your priorities are time and budget and the quality turns out to be very poor the project itself was still successful, though it’s possible others outwith the project may not agree.

Time and Quality

Continuing with our example I choose the two corners that most college students would; Time and Quality. Especially since I’m in my final year the Quality is important (that was a no-brainer decision) and with deadlines being more concrete Time had to be the overriding consideration.

However, there’s no wiggle room in the budget (unless I choose to spend out of my own pocket) because for college projects budgets don’t exist. Considering Time is our immutable corner, that leaves Quality as the only area in which I can cut back if necessary. Obviously this is flawed, but we’ll get back to that in a moment.

Let’s talk a little bit about the relationship between Time and Quality. Deadlines often mean that Time can’t move, or the project has failed. Everyone wants to do their best work to get the best grade possible. How many of us have, at some point, designed a project that was far too ambitious given the time available then had to scramble at the last minute to make it fit?

At that point, are we happy with the sacrifices we’ve made to get it done on time? If you’re anything like me, I doubt it. Sure, you’re happy you got it done on time and therefore haven’t failed – but it looked so much better when you imagined it! Oh, and if you’d had just a little more time, say a week, then it would have looked so much better!

Yet, when you have more time, you choose a more ambitious project. Same results, but a little better than before in technical capability (because you’ve learned a few shortcuts).

The problem there is that you always feel you could have done better, and never truly show your best work. Using whatever your piece was in your portfolio actually makes you a little sad, and you just know that no one else is going to see what you’re capable of based on that… right?

Let’s reframe!

Recognising that cutting Quality rarely left anyone feeling good about a project is probably what led to the modification of the triangle to what you see above. Quality has been moved to the centre as an ideal or goal, and Scope has taken its place as the third corner.

In real terms, this means that when you have constraints of Time and Scope, and you really need to cut Scope – you can remove features and maintain the Quality of the rest. For a student, that means you can cut out the ‘awesome’ extra parts and deliver your best on the main core of your product. When it comes time to add it to your portfolio, you don’t have to worry about how much better any particular area could have been with more time, and anyone looking at it can get a better idea of where your skills currently are.

Shifting Quality to an ideal or goal also gives focus to your triangle – the questions move from ‘How do I do x within y amount of time?’ or ‘How can I cut costs so that z will work?’ to something like ‘What’s the best way to get the right level of quality within x time/budget?’.

In short you move it from a passive ‘I’ll just do what I can’ to an active ‘How do I make this better?’ with regards to the level of work you’re producing. Emphasis moves from what you’re doing to how well you do it, and so far I see no downsides there.

What this also means is that the scope of your project is considered properly at the planning stage. If you know you only have a few months to create something, there’s no way it’s going to be the same scope as something you’ll have a few years to create. When you bring it into the discussion you can fine-tune your ideas into something manageable for the time or budget available. And you can do it without pulling all-nighters towards the end. Maybe.

As you go through a project it’s really tempting to add more and more features; small things that won’t take much time to implement but that could look really cool. Again, by bringing Scope into the discussion you have a way of analyzing these small additions and deciding (even if it’s further down the line) whether to drop them.

(For the record, this ranks very high on my ‘I wish I’d known before…’ list)

Getting to the point; How do we use this?

None of those concepts are new, in fact a google search for ‘Project Management’ will have you tripping over them before you can say ‘Search done’. If I’d really wanted, I could have just pointed you to various other websites and articles, wished you luck, and called it a day. Those parts were just the introduction; this next part is the bit that makes the difference.

Knowing about the updated triangle and the addition of Scope is great, but knowing how to apply it in the real world is better. I found resources on how to practically apply it to creative projects a bit thin on the ground when I was buzzing around like a headless wasp looking for answers. Having struggled with this for years (despite being organized with my projects to the point of obsession) I finally hit a realisation last week, the day before deadline (storyboard, not project – still a big deal).

With the infomercial I’m working on I’ve done more market research than in previous years; I got to know my intended audience, the product, the current audience, and method of communication. I looked at other advertising campaigns to see what worked and what didn’t, and I immersed myself in brand style.

Then I happily skipped off to draw up the first plan for the introductory video. Pitch one rolled around a few weeks ago, the first idea didn’t stick. That was ok, because it was horribly technical and anyway the new idea was much better.

The second pitch happened the day before the storyboards were due in (of course by this stage they’d all been drawn out). Attention was drawn to how ambitious all areas of the project were, how little time I had, and that the story itself didn’t quite gel properly.

Honestly? It was depressing. And demoralising. And with the deadline the next day I had a choice to make; try and fix it, or ignore an obvious flaw in the plan and carry on regardless.

The next morning I drew up a plan that I believe is actually possible and works better than the other two combined. The revised storyboard was submitted on time and I didn’t have to draw as many frames either. The only thing that changed was I suddenly started looking at time and taking it into account when designing.

Again, How?

Because I’d worked on projects involving 3D and Filmed footage before I had a pretty good idea of how long each part would take. Before while I was planning I’d plotted it all into a tighter schedule than I would have liked, telling myself that so long as I stuck to the plan I’d get through it.

When I looked at it that night when time was already critical I finally sat down and looked at how I could eliminate or scale back the more time-consuming elements. In this case it was the animation. I also re-worked the story and script, but how that works is the subject for another post.

Switching mindsets from creative designer to project team let me make massive time cuts and brought my enthusiasm back too (added side bonus).

More than enough about what I did though! Let’s break it down so you can use it too.

Step One – Define your timescale

It’s a good idea to work out how much time you have for each stage of your project before you start planning how to use it. Write down all the parts of your project (planning, design, parts of the product you need to create, etc) and your final deadline. Add any other deadlines you have before the final deadline as well; this will help when you have to schedule everything.

Working back from your deadline, write down each section and how long you can afford for it to take and still be finished on time. If it helps to have a rough idea of a project at this stage then work with that too, but at this stage the sections are more important than what you’re going to do with them. Once you’ve worked that out, see if there’s any wiggle room (in my project if I want a more complex video I have to make the game less complex) between sections and make a note of that too.

Step Two – Brainstorm

Sit and scribble for a while. See where you might want to take your project, write it all down, and hold nothing back. This is by far the most fun bit – have fun!

Important Note – Message

The most important piece of advice I can give you here though is to decide what the point of your project is before you go anywhere near the design stage. The point is to deliver the message, not always to create flashy, beautiful pieces of work (unless that is your message of course).

Step Three – Refine your Idea

Once you know what you want to do and how long you have to do it, take your idea and figure out how. This means (for me at least) writing down what tasks you’d have to do for your idea as it is, working out how long those would take, then seeing where you can make changes in the idea to use less time and keep the message.

Since all projects are different, I can’t tell you exactly what to cut and what to focus on. If you know your project and your message well, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with this stage; the point is to know that you have to go through it before you start work.

Parting thoughts

Simply following these steps won’t magically make your project a success, but it should help you free up the time you need to make it shine (rather than spending the duration scrambling to fix all the features you’ve added!). Practice. See if it works for you. Or better yet, if you have a method of your own share it in the comments.

It’s time to step up and make the things we could make ‘if we had more time’ with the time we already have. We can do it; and I get to say ‘I told you so’ when we rule the world.

Further Reading and References

Project Management PDF by Marion E Haynes
Project Management Basic Principles – Project Smart

Scope Creep Management – Project Perfect

Traue – Let’s grow your Business (first image was from here)

Graphing the Triple Constraints of IT Failure – ZDNet (second image)