Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services, Inc.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but is that true from a metrics perspective as well? If a page of text (roughly 350 words) takes 2.3 hours to create, does that mean a picture can take between 6 and 7 hours to create and still be cost effective? How do you measure the value of a graphic? Of course, the answer to these questions varies. Does the graphic stand alone, or will it require more words just to explain it? Does the graphic serve any purpose or is it gratuitous simply providing a visual break to dense text? Effective graphics require just as much planning, preparation, and process as the text they support, if not more. As a result, their development needs to be tracked separately and metrics analyzed to fully understand the impact on project schedule and budget.

Note: This article addresses static media only, including line art and illustrations, photography, and screen captures. Although many of the considerations are similar for animations, video, and audio media, the actual metrics are widely different, and they are best to consider and track separately.

What to Include

Most often, the time spent creating a graphic request is tracked with the writing time. As writers create text, they should be envisioning graphics and putting in placeholders and descriptions of the graphics they want to see. Asking writers to track this creative process separately results in arbitrary splitting of hours without meaning. Graphics tracking typically starts when the actual creation of the graphics begins.

When estimating and tracking your efforts to create static media, allow for the following activities in addition to the base time required to create the graphic:

  • Style guide. Just as each project should have a writing style guide documenting the specific standards for the project, it should also have a graphics style guide to ensure consistency across graphics. This guide should include items such as screen resolution, standard image sizes, color palettes, line weights, callout styles, and so on to be used throughout the document.
  • Handoff meetings. Plan for handoff meetings between the person who has requested the graphic and the person creating it. Because graphic requests can vary widely even from a single writer, the handoff meeting ensures that the graphic artist understands what is wanted from the beginning and is not left to interpret the instructions alone. Further, the handoff meeting allows for brainstorming and tradeoffs. The artist, trained to think visually, may have better ideas than the word-based writer. Or the writer may be requesting complexity when something less will do. Handoff meetings allow for a crosscheck that the requests will fit within the budgeted amount, and if doubtful, enables alternate plans and compromises to be made before the time is spent
  • Drafts and reviews. Just as you allow time for text to be edited, allow also for graphics to be reviewed and comments addressed. Although it seems obvious, this step is often not planned for depending on when graphics are developed. Frequently, graphics are developed after the first draft review of text is already complete, and so they never get that critical first look. Ultimately, issues are then found on the later passes of the complete documentation, when changes are more costly and there is less time to fix them.
  • Set up. Often images such as photographs and screen captures are considered almost instantaneous. After all, it only takes a couple of seconds to push a camera button or press Print Screen on a computer. However, setting up the shot can take significant effort. Photo shoots might require creation of a shot list, scheduling of locations and models, and setting up appropriate lights. Screen captures often require creation of databases and scenarios to ensure that appropriate content is shown on the screen when it is captured.
  • Research. Frequently, original graphics are not required, but you might find suitable images from stock photos, clip art, or other existing images. Even though these images already exist, you still need to plan for the time it takes to search for those images and, if required, obtain appropriate permission to use them. Remember also to plan for the cost of these images in your budget, and ensure that you have given appropriate credit. Just because you can find a graphic on the internet, does not make it public domain, and in fact, the abuse of these images can make it even more difficult to locate the real owner of the copyright to obtain appropriate permissions. In some cases, you might find it faster to create a similar image on your own.
  • Repurposing. Graphics are an item that most organizations understand reusability. While they might not reuse text, they can see the ease and benefit of reusing images. In the event that you are reusing images from another source, make sure you schedule time for adjustments to conform to the current project’s style guide or to readjust the image to fit a new image size appropriately. Keep in mind, for example, that simply resizing an image with text embedded could make the text completely out of proportion with the rest of the document or unreadable.
  • Metadata and categorization. Graphics are often the first thing that a corporation begins to reuse. However, images can only be reused if they can be found easily. Be sure to allow time for artists and photographers to categorize the images. With photography in particular, keep in mind that although the current documentation set might only use one photograph, typically a photography session includes dozens or even hundreds of photos that should be sorted, named, and categorized immediately. Plan for that time with the current project, or it’s likely not to get done

Dependency Factors

Very little data exists for the cost to develop an “average” graphic because it is virtually impossible to define that average across industries and image types. The time it takes to develop a graphic depends on a variety of factors:

  • Subject matter. Obviously some subjects are more difficult to illustrate than others. Interestingly, difficulty of subject matter in writing content does not necessarily correlate with difficulty in illustrating that same content. A highly technical illustration might be simple to describe in words, and vice versa.
  • Level of detail required. Given that frequently technical documentation is meant to simplify concepts for the audience, illustrations might be quite simplified from a real-life object. However, the more realistic the drawing required, the longer it will take. Consider whether images need to be in 3D or whether they can be flattened to 2D. Look at the use of color and shading. Clearly, the more intricate the illustration, the longer it will take. Consider in situations where lifelike images are required to use photography rather than line art.
  • Availability of source. Artists tend to work faster if they have a real item to reference, rather than working from a vague concept. Even simple stick figure sketches from the writer about what is needed will provide some guidance on the direction the artist should be taking and speed up the overall process. Be careful, however, of locating images on the internet and asking your artist to duplicate it or create something similar. Despite popular belief that if you change an image by 10%, it’s not copyright infringement, you are at risk whenever someone might say you based an image on the source image.
  • Tool. Clearly some tools are easier to use than others, and some are better suited for specific types of art. If you are using the wrong tool for the job, it can greatly impact the time it will take to complete the image as designed.
  • Experience of artist. As with all disciplines, the overall experience of the artist will impact the time it takes to complete a piece of art. In addition, however, look also at the experience of the artist working with the specific writer. After working with a writer for a variety of projects, artists will learn to interpret writer requests faster and more accurately than new artist/writer pairs.

Once you determine your group’s average time, look at these factors when estimating a new project. For example, if your images on average are very complex, complexity is part of your metric and no adjustment is required; however, if your images are typically simple and the new project requires a higher level of complexity, you’ll need to adjust your estimates.

Interpreting Your Media Metrics

Most often significant differences between planned and actual budgets occur in three areas:

  • Number of graphics. When estimating, it is very difficult to guess how many graphics you might have in a document. The first thing to look at when you see graphic time skewing high or low is how well you are tracking to the estimated number of graphics. You might find, for example, that because most writers think textually, not visually, that they are not requesting as many graphics as expected. Look at text density and determine if you are too text heavy. If this trend continues, be sure to involve your graphic artists in early planning and brainstorming so that they can provide ideas for when graphics might be used.On the other hand, you might also find a trend in the opposite direction, with many gratuitous graphics, graphics without a clear purpose, being requested and created. Some writers will work formulaically and request images just to decrease line length or to ensure that every page has some kind of image on it, whether or not it adds anything to the discussion. Ensure that all images have a purpose and were planned for.
  • Level of detail. Especially, when you find graphic time trending higher than expected, examine the level of detail being put into the graphic. Although it certainly could go the other way, most errors in detail are in providing too much, thereby taking more time than allocated. Just as writer might agonize over selecting the right word, artists agonize over the right shading, color combos, and so on. The result is subtleties that absolutely make a difference in the overall appearance, but that might not be worth the time.
  • Clarity of the art request. The quality of the art request is also a big factor to look at when you see your numbers skewing either direction. You will likely find that the art requests from some writers are far easier to follow and complete than from others. Don’t assume that differences in efficiency between two artists are directly related to their personal skills alone. Be sure to do crosstab comparisons of artist performance working with specific writers. If you notice trends that indicate a difference between writers, look at the graphic requests and talk to your artists about what makes the difference, and create best practices for your writers to follow in terms of graphic requests.

You might also find it beneficial to track graphic hours by draft or where in the process the graphics were created. For example, graphics created simultaneously with the writing might result in significant more late changes as text is edited and changed in a manner that affects the graphics. Even though waiting until the text is approved might seem to affect calendar time, you might find that there are less changes and the process takes less time overall, despite the late start for graphics. In general graphics changes are more costly than writing changes, so it’s important to schedule them when content is stable.

Remember that graphics work is by nature more easily scalable than many other disciplines. You can’t ask an editor to read every other word, but you can ask your graphic designer to work in black and white or to leave out time-consuming details. If you find yourself tracking over budget in media, consider how you might simplify the illustrations or even cut back on the number to be produced.

However, also protect your graphic designer’s time. Far too often, since graphics work occurs frequently at the end of the development process, graphic designers are asked to make up the time when other disciplines have gone over. Be sure you aren’t just asking them to make up the time without giving up another part of the triangle. Yes, you might be able to scale back, but you can’t just ask them to do more (or even the same) in less time.

Media Tracking Pitfalls

The most significant pitfall in media tracking is not doing it at all. In small shops where a few people wear all the hats, graphic development, especially for things like screen captures, are simply folded into the writing time. This practice can explain the widely swinging hours/page metric in an organization as a highly graphical book is compared to a highly text-based book with large differences in cost.

At a minimum, try to track at least some information about the number and complexity of graphics developed to keep with the overall hours/page. You might be able to see trends for books with a high proportion of graphics compared to ones with a lower percentage of graphics. In addition, this data might provide justification for the addition of a graphic artist to your department. If writers are spending a specific percentage of their time developing graphics, which they aren’t trained to do, you might be able to build a case for handling more content with an artist who would be more efficient and would free up the writers to do what they do best.

If you are tracking graphics development hours separately, be sure to include qualitative metrics about the number of graphics created new, modified from an existing source, or reused with minimal to no changes in your wrap-up report. If you do not capture, for example, that there was a high percentage of reused graphics resulting in a significantly lower hours/graphic average, management might expect lower graphic development time on all graphics in the future. Even this data, however, can be insufficient as most often graphics are not tracked individually and you are left to figure out a formula that relates the cost of revised graphics to new graphics. For example, if it took 10 hours to complete one new and one revised graphic, how do you determine how much of that 10 hours was for the new graphic and how much for the revised graphic? Although you might not want to do this for the entire project, consider tracking a small section by graphic to see the trends for new and reused graphics.

Dawn Stevens is a Senior Consultant at Comtech Services, Inc.