Why are the Graphics Late? Tips to Avoid This Question



A colleague of mine always refers to the graphics as the redheaded step child of a project. (Note: This reference comes from the Middle Ages when red-haired people were to be avoided at all costs and step children…well, just remember Cinderella. So apologies to all redheads reading this as well as step children and step parents.) Graphic development—from writing text to identifying photographs and doing graphic layouts—is one of the most complex tasks in a project and it is often given the least attention. Until, that is, the graphics are late, the fabricator is threatening additional charges, and the opening is only days away. Then everyone from the project manager to the client is asking:
“Where are the graphics? Why are they late?”
Unfortunately, by the time these questions surface, it is usually too late to fix things short of throwing additional resources—people and money—at what is now a problem. Too much time has elapsed. The opening date is looming. Worse, by the time these questions are voiced the project atmosphere is akin to a witch hunt, looking for someone, anyone to blame for the delays.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Here are some tips developed over my career to avoid late graphics.

1. Start early
Take whatever time allocated for label writing/review and double it. Maybe triple it. Start early. In my experience, each fifty-word label represents about 6 hours of work from the first draft to the approved text. This assumes that the primary content research has been completed, the intent and focus of the label has been determined and all of the information about the label—where it is located within the exhibit, its purpose in the exhibit and the graphic design—has been gathered. Six hours assumes a relatively simple review process between one writer and one or two reviewers, writing and reviewing two drafts. More reviewers and more drafts add more time.

2. Identify the reviewers
Who needs to review and approve the labels? Many museums use at least three reviewers to ensure accuracy, clarity and value to the reader. In the best circumstances, these people work as a team with the writer from the beginning to discuss the criteria they will use to judge a “good” and “done” label.
The review process bogs down if reviewers have not been part of the project from the beginning or are not given clear direction about review criteria. For example, if the project team decides that contractions and informal language are acceptable, but a reviewer is not informed of this decision, time is wasted as the confusion is sorted out. New reviewers added mid-way through the process also cause issues as time is taken to bring the new reviewer up to speed. Projects really suffer if final approval rests with someone, often the CEO, marketing director or university dean who has not been part of the review process at all. Nothing is worse than having to rewrite everything because the approver changes the review criteria.

3. Know everyone’s schedule
A realistic schedule keeps everyone on task and work flowing. Everyone knows when they will receive information and when they must complete their work. Problems arise when suddenly a reviewer is unavailable because of previously scheduled vacation, travel or other work commitments. The writing/review schedule falls apart. This also happens when the writing/review schedule is developed in isolation. A client cannot review labels at the same time as they are reviewing design drawings or approving multi-media story boards. Even in large projects, there are usually one or two key people that are involved in every detail and these people become bottle necks. A realistic schedule anticipates these bottlenecks.

4. Develop samples
Write a set of sample labels that illustrate the style, tone and graphic look envisioned. Include the label reviewers in this process. Work through any misunderstandings about audience, tone, style, or vocabulary. Put the samples out on the exhibit floor to get audience feedback and incorporate this information into the samples.
The samples become the standard bearers for the project. They ensure that tone and style don’t drift away from the original intent and they give reviewers—even those that come on board late in the project—something to follow.
Problems arise if multiple reviewers are reviewing labels based upon their individual ideas of what a label should be or the intent is unclear. Comments are inconsistent and the writer doesn’t know what to do. It takes time to sort out the issues and arrive at a new consensus.

5. Have a kick off meeting
This meeting should include the graphic designer, label writer, reviewers, approvers and the fabrication team. Fabricators always ask for the graphics early. I’ve worked with fabricators who want the labels done the day their contract is signed. I can’t blame them. They know that GRAPHICS ARE ALWAYS LATE. So of course they will set an early date. The trouble is that this is an unrealistic expectation that sets a bad tone for the project.
This issue can be avoided if everyone sits down at the beginning of the project to review schedule and discuss sequence. Labels are not written simultaneously. Something has to come first. Labels are often written in batches based on their location in the gallery, but the fabricator needs certain types of graphics before others. Big headers that have lots of hardware and must be mounted into the building structure may have a long lead time. Knowing this, the graphic team can create a schedule that puts certain graphics first so that the fabricator has something to work on in the shop while more complicated or content-specific graphics work their way through the writing/review process.
The kick-off meeting is also a time to review the graphic numbers so that there is no confusion about numbering down the road. I have seen projects come to a complete halt as numbering is sorted out.
Remember, too, text that provides instructions about interactives can’t be written until the interactive prototyped is approved. The label writer wants to know if the crank, button or lever is on the left or right of the visitor and what the visitor needs to do, see and notice. These labels tend to be very complex, especially if science principles are involved. A mutually agreed upon schedule lets everyone know when these labels can be written.

6. Keep to the schedule
That means everyone. It does no good if a writer turns around a draft in a day or a graphic designer spends all night finishing a graphic layout if a reviewer can’t meet the review deadlines. A day or two—if everyone is informed of the change—can usually be absorbed by the schedule, but a week or more, especially if there is no communication within the team, may mean that by the time the label comments are received, the writer is busy on another project or the graphic designer has other commitments. One week can turn into one month if no one is watching.

7. Appoint a graphic project manager
This person’s primary job is to wake up every morning and make sure that everyone has everything they need to move forward with their work. Too often this task is left to someone already overburdened with managing project details. Hiring an additional pair of hands for a few months is cost-effective compared to cost overages a fabricator may charge when the graphic production requires overtime or rush charges.

8. Be responsive
That means everyone. I make questions from teams I’m working with a top priority. I know they are waiting on my responses. Even if that means I have to say, “I will get back to you in 24 hours.” Everyone knows the issue is on my radar. The same holds true for fabricators and designers. It is human nature to put problems aside. If someone doesn’t get an answer to what they need, they go on to something else. Sorting through emails, trying to determine the status of a particular label is another time waster.

9. Done is good
Repeat this mantra: Done is good. Once a label is approved and the graphic completed, call it done. Do not go back over approved graphics unless there is such an egregious error that life as we know it will cease to exist. It’s a label, not the Magna Carta. Presumably all facts have been checked and all typos removed before the label has gone into production. Let it be.
One day all labels may be delivered on screens. This takes the fabrication step out of the equation, but there will still be someone—the web manager perhaps—who will ask, “Where are the graphics?”