Interview with a Creative Director: Transforming the Approval Process


When new technology arises that obliterates the pain points of the past—like one that transforms your approval process, for example—it’s easy to take it for granted. To forget what life was like before. To fall into the trap of thinking that things have always been this way.

Can you recall what it was like to know you had seen a certain actor in another movie before, with no way of looking it up until you got home to look it up on Yahoo or AltaVista? Then the iPhone comes along, not to mention the IMDB app, and you have your answer long before the credits roll.

This is a trivial example, quite literally, but there are thousands more like it.

I recently sat down with a creative director, Travis Lucas, who leads a team of 6 designers and writers—plus multiple freelance designers, writers, and a video production team—at a Salt Lake City-based media company. I asked him to revisit some painful memories from his past (roughly 1994 to 2012) back before his team had a digital proofing solution in place.


Travis Lucas, creative director at Deseret Digital Media

How did you handle your approval process in the years leading up to 2012?

Lucas: We would either send out emails and copy all of the stakeholders and approvers, or we would pass around printed comps to everybody. This can be a real problem when you have at least five people approving things, on the low end. On some projects, we have 12-15 people weighing in on a design. (Yes, I have tried to reduce this number, to no avail.)


For those readers who may not be familiar with the term, can you define what a “comp” is in graphic design? What is it short for?

Lucas: It’s the common term I’ve always used for a draft of a design once it’s ready for review. It’s short for “comprehensive,” meaning all elements of the proposed design are in place and it’s ready to show to the client or the product manager. Sometimes a comp can be just a rough layout to show placement and illustrate a concept, sometimes it’s more complete and polished.


What was the worst thing about sending comps around by email?

Lucas: It was that not all of the feedback was in one place, and there was no conversation around any of the changes people wanted.

People would forget to “reply all” with their comments, which means you’d get competing feedback, and then you’d have to loop everyone back in to get someone to make a decision. Then critical changes would get missed, and you’d have to have a meeting to figure out what was going on. We hardly ever do that anymore.

We probably went through two extra rounds of comps on everything before we had a digital proofing solution. We’re now doing just 2-3 reviews on 90% of our projects—down from an average of 4-6 rounds previously.


So using a digital proofing solution saves you time?

Lucas: Definitely. We’ve been able to speed up our approval process by at least a third and enable our designers and writers to do what they do best, which is designing and writing, instead of tracking down questions and holding extra meetings trying to get stakeholders to weigh in.

And while saving time is great, what digital proofing has really done for us is reduce conflict. Our teams work together better because there’s less needless back and forth, and everyone is privy to all feedback, so it’s more transparent.


How much of the magic is in the digital proofing tool itself, and how much of it depends on how you use it?

Lucas: We still had to build rules and processes around it, and the fact that we were paying for it monthly really motivated us to figure those things out.

We’ve trained our reviewers to understand that they have to get in and out of the proofs so we can move on. And they know it’s their responsibility to suggest changes if they want the job to progress.



Do you ever have problems with stakeholders or reviewers coming in late with feedback and derailing your deadlines?

Lucas: If they don’t comment in ProofHQ before the deadline, we move forward. No exceptions. That trains them to comment or to let it go if they miss the opportunity.

One rule we put in place is this: if you miss comp one and then try to bring up a comment in comp two that should have been found earlier, you don’t get to comment on it. That ensures that everybody who really needs to be involved is commenting throughout the process, or they don’t get to have any feedback.

We had a lot of changes coming in on comp two or three that should have been noticed on comp one, which was slowing us down and causing errors. We made a unilateral move toward this, and everyone got on board.


Even with a more transparent digital proofing solution in place, do you still have reviewers who offer conflicting comments? How do you resolve those situations?

Lucas: We don’t typically get involved in reviewers’ competing feedback. It’s on them to get the specifics figured out. The only time we get into it is when we’re weighing in on design decisions. Our job is to move the job forward. We as designers don’t talk about strategy; the stakeholders do that.

Only about 10% of the time do we have to get people together to talk about conflicting changes. If somebody is mentioned in the proof, we won’t make the change until those people work out the conflict between themselves. It behooves them to look for the daily emails and make sure nobody comes in after them with a question or a concern. The pressure is on the reviewer, not on my team.


How long did it take to get everyone on board with this “any reviewer left behind” approach?

Lucas: We had to push back a few times with certain individuals, but everyone is on board now.

We had two people in particular who were causing issues by commenting too late in the process. One of them has since backed off, empowering his subordinates to weigh in for him. The other one amplified his proofing efforts, and now he always gets his changes in on time.


How has life changed for you since implementing digital proofing in 2012?

Lucas: We’re getting more work done, and we’ve cut our timelines down. We have fewer conversations about, “Okay, we have to bump this, because we went through 12 rounds of changes on that.”

But the best part is that we communicate more effectively now, and there’s less conflict—which makes our work better and more collaborative all around.


How often do you consult IMDB to find out what previous movies that one actor was in?

Lucas: Pretty much every time I watch a movie, but what does that have to do with ProofHQ?

Nothing. I was just wondering.

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