Lean Mean Designing Machine

As project manager of the great team behind Coffeebot: An Online Series, I am in charge of setting up milestones and deadlines. Once I was aware I would be the PM, I instantly knew how I was going to structure our production/design process. As mentioned on our website and in previous articles, I am not an animator. Instead, I am a web developer (A proud one too!) and in the web world we have this great process called “lean design”.  Lean design is not only limited to web design. It can be utilized in any field. The web world has just been talking about it a little more lately. Therefore I thought it would be beneficial to my team and our collaborators if I finally explain what lean design is and why we have chosen to go with a process like this.

Lean design is all about feedback. It is about doing a lot of little rough sketches of different ideas for a project instead of selecting one idea and completing a perfect mockup for it.  Trying different ideas and testing them out on paper over putting a lot of energy into just one idea, allows you to discover problems earlier rather than later. It is about constantly sharing your not-so-perfect work with your teammates and clients to make sure you are all on the same page. Working on something in a bubble for weeks will only make your work suffer. Doing so is assuming that your team and its client will accept the idea 100%, which is rarely ever the case.

Let me give you an example of what is NOT lean design. Imagine you are working on a project for a company. They have given you a month to come up with a logo for their new shoe store. At the start, you ask them about their store.  What kind of shoes they have, what their target audience is, what makes them special.  After some basic info, you have a logo in mind and get straight to work.   After a month of working alone, you show your friend the logo. It’s not really what they wanted and expected . So now you have to work on it for another few weeks, trying to get it just right.

Well, there’s a different way to do things. With lean design, you are aiming to get as much feedback as possible. In the first example, things could have been avoided if you just shared you logo concepts with your friend the first week. Your friend could have told you right away they weren’t feeling it and you wouldn’t have wasted week of work. If you keep that process up, and keep showing your work and getting critique weekly, or even daily, by your friend, now you are lean designing.  Try to treat your “clients” as teammates more than, well, just a client. That way there are no surprises at the end with someone going, “This wasn’t what I was imagining at all.”

Hopefully this sounds familiar. You may have had to do a project for school and completed it without checking in with the teacher once. You hand it in and the teacher gives you a less than great grade because you didn’t provide everything your teacher wanted. This could have been avoided if you check in with your teacher a week before it was due and showed them a rough draft.

Our team has always been using this lean process (whether my team members realize this or not). We are constantly checking in with our teachers and presenting our early ideas and concepts. In this case, our teacher and collaborators are our “clients”.  We treat them like part of the team. We seek out their advice and incorporate their input.  We only do small burst of work before we stop ourselves and go, “We better have someone else check this out.”

We take this concept and apply it to other parts of our project as well. Instead of drawing one or two great depictions of our main character Glenn, we have over a hundred small rough sketches of him. We would sit in Eric’s apartment and sketch and sketch and…sketch. Until we were seriously sick of sketching. Then we would go home and come back another night and do it all again. We then took all of our concepts to a collaborator, Jamar Nicholas, and asked him which direction he was leaning towards. This way, we don’t spend a lot of effort on one sketch and realize it sucks.

We even chose our project idea in the first place because of its lean nature. Instead of spending 9 months on one long animation and only getting the major feedback AFTER it’s due, we are releasing several small shorts and comics throughout our senior year. This way, we get feedback very early on.  And instead of redoing these shorts and comics if they are not up to par, we plan on keeping the revisions to a minimum. We will be taking that feedback and applying it to the future creations instead.

Anyway, I hope that clears things up on what lean design is and why we think the process best suits us. If you are interested in reading more about it, please check out the link below. Remember, lean design is all about increasing feedback and communication. It’s trying to stop people from working in a hole and then expecting their work to be unanimously accepted.



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