Estimating Work with Designers - The Stoplight Method

Explore the Stoplight Method in our latest blog post—a strategic approach to estimating work with designers that balances creative freedom with structure. Learn how to apply this method to keep your design projects on track without stifling creativity.

Estimating Work with Designers - The Stoplight Method

You’re a startup founder (or leader) with big ideas, goals, and ambitions. The designer working on your product may have their own set of objectives or ideas on how to go from Point A to Point B when designing your product. You don’t want to step on toes and limit their creative freedom. After all, it could produce some of the most stand-out solutions. But you also have deadlines to hit.

An estimated 65% of companies struggle with failures related to people and organizational miscommunication. Not aligning with goals can be a costly mistake. Estimating work with designers is one component of this potential concern.

How to Estimate Work with Designers

Navigating the design process in a product development environment can be a bit chaotic and unpredictable. Design doesn’t always follow a linear path. However, there are strategies to help ensure there's ample balance between structure and creative freedom. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is through the Stoplight Method.

Consider, for a moment, the red-light, green-light game you used to play with friends in elementary school. Unleashed, you run as fast as you can towards the finish line, but when the leader says, “Stop!” everyone must freeze, reevaluate their strategy, get back on the same page, and go again.

The Stoplight Method isn’t quite the same, but it helps to continuously support that intense drive and passion while still creating spots along the way to keep everyone on target.

Creative Combustion on Rails

The Stoplight Method allows founders to align their needs with the creative workflows that designers need to accomplish their best work. The goal is simply to reduce frustration and keep everyone working towards the same objectives overall. When you implement this as one of the best practices for estimating work with designers, you'll notice a marked improvement in workflow (and in designer satisfaction, too!)

Unlike the project in mind, this method is a straightforward process to implement and works to prevent future miscommunication and delays once in place. Here’s a look at how it works.

Step 1: Identify complexity

The first step is to identify and clearly define the complexity of a specific deliverable. Align that into one of three categories:

• Hard (red)

• Medium (yellow)

• Easy (green)

Step 2: Set a date

Initially this date is a bit more aspirational. However, you need a date or end goal timeframe in mind. Designer project time estimation itself isn’t always simple. What you believe is the amount of time or difficulty for a project may not be accurate from the design point of view. You will need to learn how to calculate designer hours based on that designer and the tasks at hand to get this timing process right.

Step 3: Set up check-ins

The final step is to put check-in meetings in place ahead of starting the process. These meetings are meant to provide a way to monitor progress between the first estimate of the due date and the current progress toward it.

Here is an example of how it may work in the design process.

• The Task: Put together a moodboard for the marketing site redesign based on brands that inspire us

Assign the Difficulty: Medium

Set an Aspirational Date: Friday

Check-in: Wednesday at Noon

Why does something seemingly so simple work so well to keep founders and designers on the same path? It creates a way to ensure that both parties have a shared understanding of the expectations, including what, when, and how.

The result is that it minimizes the risk of disappointment occurring on either side of the process. It also helps to:

• Reduce the need for constant updates

• Allows designers to focus on their projects and develop their energy to the goal

• Helps designers remain productive

• Keeps teams working in a forward motion

Getting aligned up front avoids unnecessary checkins which come from an absence of shared expectations. Every time you pull a designer away, even for a brief check-in, you create a block in the road. They cannot always just pick up at that point but must go back a few steps to rev up to where they were. Let's explain that a bit further.

Protecting Their Time

Designer workload planning is a core component of creating a successful relationship between you and the designer. Recognize what goes into this process fully before committing to it.

As a founder, you have a lot of work on your plate and sense a lot on the line. You feel the pressure and need to keep everyone on track. It’s even thought to be your job. However, as a founder, if you are asking for a project update, that’s derailing.

It seems like a minor step for you, but for the designer who is eager to meet your expectations, this interruption can be disruptive. It's not that the designer doesn't want to provide an exceptional product or work to meet your objectives. However, every bump in the timeline slows them down in achieving those goals.

What happens when you, as a founder, ask for an update? It directly impacts designer time management.

The designer feels pressured to halt their work to provide an update. That is both time-consuming when it isn’t planned, and it is counterproductive to your goal of moving the project forward.

Consider that designers often experiment and iterate within their files. These are not just simple documents with the beginning designs moving forward in a simple step-by-step process. Instead, designers view their files as creative sandboxes. It’s where they are working, creating ideas, building, starting from scratch, jotting downs down, and so on.

That means most designers do not want to share their unfinished work. Doing so could lead to misinterpretation of their process and thinking. While you believe you are simply working towards managing design project timelines, for the designer, it’s more than inconvenient. It’s tasking on their creativity.

More so, there are some designers that do not want to design openly in tools like Figma, even if you believe this to be ideal. It helps to reduce a significant amount of pressure from being observed. For the best outcome for your project, you need to minimize any pressure and frustration on the part of your designer so they can perform at their very best.

When you deviate from a structured approach like The Stoplight Method, misunderstandings occur. Harm impacts the working relationships. Even though project budgeting for design tasks must be considered and planned for, these unplanned for updates get in the way of achieving any success.

What the Stoplight Method Really Does

As you work on calculating design project costs for your next project, consider how to implement the Stoplight Method. This takes some skill and careful design project scheduling to balance your need for updates and their need for creative time and robust work.

By following the Stoplight Method, you encourage project success in several ways:

• Founders respect communication boundaries.

• Freelance designer rate calculation includes these stop points, allowing for the designer to clearly expect and be compensated for them.

• There is more effective and harmonious collaboration throughout the entire working relationship.

• There’s a culture of trust and reliability built into the process, which moves this (and other projects in the future) forward with less turmoil and frustration.

Just as you would for budget planning for creative projects, you also need to budget time management. Doing so can transform the relationship and the success of your next project. It can create a smoother, faster design process.

Try the Stoplight Method with Your Designer

Do you want to partner with a professional designer to help you level up your design process? At NUMI, we connect you with a designer that knows how to leverage their design skill to achieve your best outcome. Reach out and hire a designer today.

Tap into the most driven engineers and designers on the planet