Fast, good or cheap?

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I first came across this phrase about 15 years ago as I struggled to explain to a roomful of serious looking ad-men that whilst I was young, relatively inexperienced, had (in retrospect) over-long hair and worked off a borrowed table with a borrowed Mac, if they chose me to design their brochure I would take my time, it wouldn’t be cheap but it would be a damn fine brochure.

‘˜Oh’, piped up one of the suits ‘˜so you’re saying it’s fast, good or cheap, pick any two?’ And at that moment I was introduced to a phrase that would drop neatly into countless conversations ever since.

For most designers, their clients sit across the table and do their darndest to get the project done really quick, really well and for as little as possible. And of course we’ve all been suckered into that, duly done everything at light speed and felt more than a little short-changed at the end. But of the beauty of fast, good or cheap is that it forces the client to think about the transaction that’s taking place.

‘˜If you want it fast and good, well you’ll have to pay more’. Or ‘˜of course it will be great, and yes we can do it for your budget, but you’ll have to give us more time’. And I suppose this is technically possible too: ‘˜well if you insist we’ll do it quickly and cheaply (but it will be useless)’.

It has regularly dropped into conversations over the course of johnson banks’ life because of our weakness for cultural/ethical/charity projects, a sector notoriously underfunded. Any conversational gambits that can extend the length of time on these projects will help enormously.

But it’s not just to do with the money – it’s also the need for a decent gestation period. Some ideas just don’t come in a flash, they come after months and months of discussion, analysis and head scratching. (In fact some of our clients might say that ‘˜slow, expensive but good’ was a better way of describing how we work).

We’d thought from the beginning of our project for Save the Children that loosening up their house-style would help them, but it wasn’t until we were four or five months in that we chanced on the idea of getting children to draw their typefaces for them.

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It was only after our ‘˜traditional’ brochure for Daniel Libeskind’s extension to the V&A had been rejected that we gambled and suggested to them that they stop doing a brochure and send a paper sculpture instead.

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But over the two decades that I’ve been using this phrase, it seems to have grown-up. I discovered recently that it has a proper name: The Project Management Triangle, no less. Or (and I like this one) The tyranny of OR (as in fast and good OR good and cheap OR fast and cheap).

You can visit websites that have neatly animated push-me-pull-you diagrams that show you how it works. It has its own flickr page. I’ve found that in Maupin’s Tales from the City, Mona’s law says ‘˜You can have a hot job, a hot lover and a hot apartment, but you can’t have all three at the same time.’

You can apply it to real life if you switch the words to ‘˜Work, sleep or play, pick two’. It mutates into other languages – Bueno, Bonito y Barato (that’s ‘˜good, pretty and cheap’)

Conversely, some people seem to be lobbying for all three, recently dubbed ‘˜The genius of the AND’ (as in fast AND good AND cheap). Current record-sleeve design darlings, Non-Format, recently admitted that their modus operandi was ‘˜we end up doing it all quickly, well and for no money’ which was probably a phrase that had their accountant shaking slightly.

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Because it’s a three-way, rather than two-way decision (a trilemma rather than a dilemma), or to be more precise, a two-out-of-three-lemma, it will probably always appeal as a verbal triptych. And whilst it’s a conversational gambit that can only be used once (and with the right kind of client) it remains one of the fastest ways I know to make people stop and value what we do just a little bit more.

By Michael Johnson

Thanks to roadorama for the top pic