Your lack of preparation does not constitute my emergency.

Doesn’t matter what type of media you consume, they’ve all full of medical stories. Recently I read an article about an emergency department in one of our major hospitals. It was about the tactics staff used to avoid being overwhelmed by others’ demands or request on their time.

The parallels of an emergency department with a designer’s life are many: client’s often present their problems as emergencies and designers are often overwhelmed with the tasks at hand. It’s like an emergency department, there’s just less blood. 😉

Seriously, it goes without saying the crises in our life doesn’t even come close to the crises facing an emergency nurse, but I was gobsmacked at how valuable and how relevant the tips were, so I’m sharing …

Dealing with emergencies

I’m a great believer in lists. My methodology is to zip through the easy stuff first to get a few runs on the board before I settle down to the more time-intensive projects in the afternoon. This article argued that may not be the best approach … better to think like someone on staff in an hospital emergency department and take it one step at a time.

Step 1. Decide whether the ‘item’ should be on your list at all

Not everyone who arrives at hospital needs to be there – some could be fixed with a quick visit to their local GP.

Moral for a creative: Take time to identify tasks that could be deleted entirely (i.e. those that are really not that important in the grand scheme of things) or could be outsourced to someone else – preferably someone billing less than you. For example, if paperwork is consistently taking time you don’t have, consider outsourcing to a virtual PA or bookkeeper. Makes perfect sense if you can bill $150/$200 an hour and the bookkeeper bills $80.

2. Take time to understand each task on your list

Triage staff assess each patient individually as they arrive. They ask questions to get to the root of the problem and don’t take anything at face value.

Moral for a creative: Think about the tasks don’t just robotically list them. Triage the task as you write it. Is it one task or should it be broken down into small tasks (some of which may be able to be delegated to others)? Triaging as you go avoids blowing a deadline when you realise there’s more to a task than first thought.

3. Arrange your list in terms of urgency

Emergency departments do not operate on a first come, first served basis – patients are categorised by a triage nurse and treated based on their need. And if you keep showing up to an emergency department with successive emergencies, chances are you won’t see the doctors quicker. It may just have the opposite effect.

Moral for a creative: I note deadlines alongside the tasks so urgent projects are not forgotten. When I’m really busy I also note the amount of time I think may be needed and I draw a line under a ‘days’ worth of tasks, pushing the rest onto the next day.

I started doing that when I worked for a particularly chaotic, disorganised (self proclaimed) marketing guru. Every time he entered the studio with a ‘brilliant idea’ needing top priority, I would (respectfully) point to my to-do list and ask help to re-prioritise the other ‘urgent’ jobs he had given me. Worked every single time. His lack of preparation did not constitute my emergency.

4. Be adaptable

Emergency rooms are chaotic, new patients arrive unexpectedly and staff have to be flexible.

Moral for a creative: Know your clients. There will always be genuine emergencies, but if your to-do list is always hijacked by unexpected projects, start to factor them in. Instead of listing five tasks to do in a day, list four, or set an hour aside each day for demands that pop up.

Better still, take action to take back control:

  • instigate a ‘fast lane’ and charge more for emergency work, clients will quickly reassess what is urgent and what is not
  • always do profit and loss on projects by client to ensure ‘busy-ness’ translates to profit, and
  • instigate a process to re educate any ‘problem’ clients to analyse why their work is always urgent.

5. Have systems in place

Emergency departments rely on their triage processes and systems. Records document a client’s previous presentations, the diagnosis, the results and future expectations.

Moral for a creative: It doesn’t matter what your process is, it’s just important to have one. We won a court case for a client because we could unarchive data proving the exact date a product was delivered. They were so thankful it meant we had that client for life – their work paid for the software we used many times over.

It doesn’t really matter what the system is, it just matters  you commit to a system (that is not random bits of paper).

6. Keep it personal

Once admitted, a patient is allocated a nurse. There is clarity in communication. Everyone knows exactly who to ask for more information.

Moral for a creative: See the title of this article. Don’t get overwhelmed by others’ demands, or their requests for your time. Remember to document your to-do list, not your ‘what-other-people-think-I-should-do-when-they-want-me-to-do-it’ list.

7. Ask for help

Emergency departments have clarity about who is in charge and where to go for help.

Moral for a creative: Understanding your tasks and the time each one needs means that you should also be able to identify bottlenecks and the potential to overshoot a deadline. That’s when you need to ask for help. Options include delegating, outsourcing or asking the client for more time (earlier rather than at the last minute).

8. Take a break

Emergency departments run 24 hours a day but staff have rosters, and breaks and work in shifts.

Moral for a creative: The advantages of regular rest to ensure good mental health are well-documented. Anyone who regularly works long hours knows they are not working to capacity at the end of a long stint.

What do you think? Got any problems/questions? As always, happy to discuss further, just email.

Carol Mackay

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About Carol Mackay

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with research, mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of my previous career is at
My current work can be viewed at and

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