Design management – now there’s a boring title

I’m just back from a week away – our first proper break since Christmas and that’s far too long. What should have been an early summer break during fabulous weather (though tragic from a climate crisis point of view) turned into an early Autumn break of rain and wind, with enough decent intervals to get the bikes out and discover that Herefordshire is a damned sight more lumpy than we were expecting – or hoping.

Anyway, I’m happy to say that gaining that extra bit of distance – that shift in focus – between staring out of the window at rain-swept woodland and having my nose pressed against the computer screen has delivered an epiphanal moment. Here it is.

How long does it take to create a lighting design? And how much time does it take to nurture and nourish to coax and cajole that design into being? And what’s the imbalance between what you can charge for (that’s the design) and what you can’t (that’s the farting around and running about after everyone else).

You might call it design management – but I don’t. Design Management is a thing that assumes that you’re in control of something. Rather, I’ve always seen it as a kind of shepherding. You have an idea; you make a design; build a specification out of it and then give it away to control the unruly elements that then turn up in your inbox and on your phone – contractors, manufacturers, clients – all asking YOU why this is like it is . . . and when you say this, what do you actually mean and can’t it be like this instead?


And – yes – I’ve always said that all this comes with the territory that the lighting designer has chosen to occupy. my bad.

Here’s the epiphany.

I’d always looked at this project oversight malarkey in a positive way, a sort of happy, glowing, technicolour way – think Maria leading the Von Trapp bratlings across the mountains to safety, always with a song in their hearts . . . tra la.

No – that’s not right.

How about: ‘I will take the Ring to Mordor . . .’. Yes, there’s still a mountain involved but the journey involves haunted swamps, giant spiders and a Gollum sitting on your shoulders waiting to destroy you in their next email. No Technicolour landscapes, just grindingly grey conversations about things that shouldn’t need discussing, if everyone had done their job as they should have done in the first place.,

The manufacturer with incorrect dimensions on their website so that, should you ever want to rely on those dimensions you’ll find that things don’t fit and the structure that you’ve designed needs to be rebuilt . . .

The client who, having agreed that ceiling-mounted fixtures are just the ticket asks, “why are those fixtures ceiling-mounted?”

The contractor who sets a ghost hare running by misunderstanding the type of LED drivers that they’re installing, suggesting that the wiring (that they installed) is incorrect – which it isn’t.

The contractor who, after being told specifically that a permanent live WILL be required to those fixtures . . . doesn’t install a permanent live. And the walls are finished and the decorating is done.

The contractor . . . I could go on, but my heart’s not in it..

Of course, the eventual reward is the same. A great job and a happy client. A design well realised.

The difference is whether you arrive their with a song in your heart and a dance in your step – or exhausted on the back of a bleedin’ giant eagle.

Is there a point to all of this?

Well – yes there is. And it took me a few days of waking in a warm comfortable bed worrying about nothing more than where lunch would happen that day. And not having done the 3am wide-awake thing trying to second-guess where the next piece of shit was going to come from so that I could find a way to duck it.

Times are hard, as we know. And we really MUST learn to take care of ourselves. In my training years I spent time in a contracting office alongside a guy who was the best jack-the-lad that I’ve ever come across. His mantra? “They’ll have to get up early in the morning to catch me”. He put so much energy into avoiding the day job that he’d have had an easier time just getting on with the things he was being paid to do. But where was the excitement in that?
I guess that, in his way, he was a creative who got his kicks from all the blagging.
In another life he’ll be a designer.

So my advice is this: cover your arse in the most efficient way that’s available to you. Use the people around you to spread the load and try to know more than the guys who’ll be coming after you. Because the aim is, ultimately, to DO LESS but still turn in work that is exquisite and beautiful.

Oh – and when the orcs are coming at you, share what you’re experiencing with someone else. Don’t keep it to yourself. Your name’s not Frodo.

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Thanks to Deviant Art for the Frodo Baggins image

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