Reducing costs in higher education publication design projects

3 years ago  •  By  •  0 Comments

Everyone in the higher education sector is feeling the pinch. This is the year of the tight belt.

What makes it harder is that budgets are being cut, but essential projects still have to see the light of day and look even better than before… for less.

Here are some tips for working within constrained budgets at your university or college. Most of these tips will be helpful if you outsource your design, but they are equally as important when using your in-house studio. It’s easy to forget about the financial consequences when you’re not working as efficiently as possible — when there’s no invoice or dollars being exchanged until after the project.

This is project management 101, it’s not meant to be condescending. You may get nothing out of this information yourself, but chances are you know someone who could use it.

If you can do it yourself: do it.

Designers are usually pretty accommodating folk. If you ask a designer to take on part of the project that you could or should do yourself (e.g. checking accuracy of ATAR figures in supplied text), they will probably oblige, but there’s a cost associated with the time they will spend doing it. Either it unnecessarily eats away at the defined budget, or increases costs in author’s corrections (depending on your arrangement).

It’s a bit like renovating. Doing the demolition work yourself will save you a bomb. The builder will do it for you if you ask — but is it necesary?

Guesswork costs money

A designer will collate the information you give them and paint a mental picture of what you want. If you haven’t spent adequate time preparing your content prior to handover, your designer may have to spend unnecessary time deciphering your instructions, calling additional meetings or teleconferences with you, or worse still designing their way down the wrong path thinking they have interpreted your instructions correctly.

Don’t be afraid to give too much information in your instructions. Your designer would much rather spend extra time reading a cartoonesque scroll of instructions than find themselves at 3am Saturday morning redesigning a college prospectus when clearer instructions could have placed them under their duvet, instead of in front of an iMac.

Is your text really THE text?

A good designer will labour over the look of every paragraph in your publication. It’s not just about non-breaking spaces — making sure ‘Vice-Chancellor’ doesn’t break in two at the end of a line — it’s about ensuring every paragraph forms a nice shape, that the line forms, creating a speech pattern, mimic how the text would be said in conversation. This is part of the reason great publication design takes time.

You can imagine the horror (and budgetary implications) when page after page of a course guide have been crafted down to the space between individual letters, and then a ‘ding’ in the designers inbox announces the landing a Word file of revised text.

Whichever way you look at it, the work has to be redone.

Too many cooks spoil the broth… especially when each wants their own flavour to stand out.

It’s inevitable in creating a major university publication that players from across campus will have a hand in various parts of the project. It is however vital that the designer has one point of contact, that feedback and amends are vetted by that one person, and that the designer receives consolidated information, one hit at a time.

Nothing sets the wheels wobbling on a big project like having to work out which of the four contradictory sets of changes the designer should listen to. Not only is it a recipe for disaster, but ramps up the time spent attending to these contradictory author’s corrections.

The word here is consolidated. Picture yourself in these two possible situations.

1) Receiving 15 rounds of consolidated content changes — each round via a concisely annotated PDF over two weeks; or

2) Receiving a PDF from the content manager at the Department of Architecture at 11am, then an email from the content manager at the Faculty of Business at 11:30am listing several alterations (some of which contradict Architecture’s) and then a Word file at 3pm from the project manager that contains entirely new text (rendering all the alterations from our friends above as redundant). Now, repeat and rinse each day for 2 weeks.

Author’s corrections are inevitable. However you can see which of the above is the more efficient way to work. Scenario 1 is done once. Scenario 2 has been done three times and quite likely still isn’t correct — there will be disagreement because nobody is consolidating the information.

Concepts. Are we all in the loop?

Concepts, whether for page spreads, illustration styles, or folding techniques aren’t just your opportunity to approve. This is the time to be gaining approval from the decision maker, no matter how high up the chain. If they need to approve the final piece, they need to approve the concept.

Of course the Vice-Chancellor or President has better things to do than look at a concept layout of two pages, or a folded mock-up. But they would rather do that now than see that you have had to pay twice for design work because the designer was given sign-off that they would never have given.

Of course it’s infeasible for every brochure concept to be given the nod by the VC, so ensure that the person with the responsibility (often the director) makes the decision. It makes financial sense.

Once the mould is cast, you know what to expect

When you are reviewing design concepts, it’s vital that you know what you are looking at. Most publication concepts will involve at least one sample spread showing how the book will look overall. The style proof is the foundation on which the entire publication will be built. It shows you how big the headings and text will be, how the images will be treated etc. When the publication is complete, the headings will be the size they were in the concepts and the images will be treated how they were in the concepts.

The time to communicate that the headings are too big or small, or that you don’t like the font, is not when the layout of the first full draft is complete. That’s like telling a builder, once the walls and roof are up, that you’d prefer a concrete slab to the current wooden floors — it is going to cost.

A change of font, or even font size, can have massive consequences ranging from having to rebalance many of the pages, or being forced to revisit the layout of every page. Situations like this can bump up costs by 100{c2bc4dcc82a24c7a0a4780d09ca51e05a889725c4a6e53b8bbcdcdf364f60b87} or more — it’s like doing the job again.

Square pegs and round holes

If a portion of text in a designed publication needs to be replaced, make sure you replace it with a similar amount of text. Obviously too much text won’t fit the same space, but even a greatly reduced amount of text can have time intensive ramifications that affect the bottom line.

Countless hours are spent beautifying, optimising, balancing and polishing a spread in your faculty guide. If you resupply the text at a greatly differing word count, all of that beautification, optimisation and balancing needs to be done again. The designer couldn’t have seen that coming and it wasn’t included in the initial quote. Prepare for extra charges.

Tailor your requests to your budget

In these tight times it’s important to understand the cost of the voyage you are setting off on. Every problem has several solutions, and each solution has a potential price tag attached.

If budget is an issue, it is vital to ensure that what you’re asking for isn’t going to blow your budget. Do this BEFORE you set your designer off on their creative sailing. Don’t make assumptions


You may have thought developing a set of illustrated characters to represent your residential college was less costly than producing an 80 page prospectus, but this may not be the case.

Remember… design isn’t charged by the kilo.

Put the right person at the wheel

Or at least keep one hand on it from the passenger seat.

Project management for design and publication is a big job. The smallest mistake, oversight or assumption can have major repercussions that start with a dollar symbol — whether it’s an outsourced or in-house project.

With this in mind, we beg you to make sure that your project manager understands how the design process works before putting them in charge of a job. An inexperienced project manager can turn a little job into a design and budgetary nightmare. If you’ve dealt with designers before, it will pay for you to help out your inexperienced colleague — remember that assumptions and inexperience cost.
In most cultures its considered rude to question a colleagues experience, so its unlikely a designer will ask the appointed project manager “have you done this before?”. For this reason, anything the project manager feeds the designer will be assumed as edible, and in turn fed to the project. If the project becomes ill, it is usually treatable, but at an expense.