Project Design: The Game-Changing Power of Documentation


In my past career in AV I have worn all the hats that the owner of a small- to medium-sized custom installation company has to wear. From a project perspective this can be anything from installer, to project manager, to salesman and anything and everything in between. Not to mention the numerous business related roles that need to be dealt with as well.

In the project managers role I remember how tricky it was to communicate to the installation team exactly what was required and what the intention of the end result would be. I can also remember how much easier it was to communicate this to them once we had dedicated one of our team to fully designing and documenting each project.

Prior to this we had always taken great care with the information and documentation we gave to the electrical contractor who would be running the cables on site. The same can be said of the information we would develop and pass on to the sub-contracted programmer. But then for our installers there was very little else to work from — no rack drawings, no elevations of TVs, no detailed cinema designs — you get the picture.

It might seem strange but at the time the thinking was that we had to ensure the information we provided to third parties was water tight, so if there were issues after they had completed their works we could tie the issue down to them, not us. We thought of our installers as part of our team and therefore if there were issues with their work we could deal with them as we went. This turned out to be a big mistake. We ended up with TVs being installed in the wrong rooms (even on the wrong walls), keypads and touch panels installed close to each other that would not be aligned or that looked unsightly, etc.

It was only after we started working towards ISO9001 certification that we realised that this was very wrong and that not giving our installers detailed information was killing our profitability on projects. Some tasks were having to be done twice and then there was the cost of the remedial builder’s works on top.

Basically, by providing our installers with complete design documentation, not just plans and schematics, we had made the project manager’s job easy.

It was at this point we decided to appoint a full time designer, but this turned out to be more difficult than it sounds. Really good designers with the skills we needed were few and far between and when you found one their salary demands were pretty steep. We decided that the only way to move forward was to appoint one of the directors to the design position and as you might have guessed by now that director was me.

This decision had the most profound effect on the business in its whole 10-year lifespan. We went from being a team of four to being a team of twelve in less than a year. Profitability increased but, perhaps most important, our clients were happy.

Now we were no longer relying on our installer’s skills and training on how to put a rack together (and getting varied results depending on who was doing the work). We no longer had the wrong TVs installed in the wrong rooms and our keypads and touch panels were beautifully coordinated. Basically, by providing our installers with complete design documentation, not just plans and schematics, we had made the project manager’s job easy. This allowed us to expand the team and take on more installers, all working under one project manager all feeding out from the designer’s desk.

This also had a knock-on effect that the guy helping us with our ISO9001 certification had hinted at; now we were no longer reliant on our installers to service systems based on how they had chosen to install them; all the documentation was at our fingertips. We could assign any installer to service any of our jobs, even a new one, knowing that if we gave them an hour or so in the office to go through the documentation they could go to site and service the system in question with confidence that what they would not create a different unexpected issue with the installation. Suddenly we were able to sell service contracts with confidence and even started talking about this during the sale process with the customer.

This may seem like a big claim for what on the surface may seem like a small part of the project process; rack and equipment elevations but without it you are leaving the heart of the system, the rack to chance. Our motto now may be ‘when everything is designed projects flow to completion’ but take my word for it, it was learnt the hard way, I write in the hope that my lessons learnt will help you avoid the same pitfalls on the road to success in custom installation.

Keith Jones studied Product Design at Central St. Martins where he graduated in 1996. Since then Keith worked in numerous high end audio outlets, culminating in owning and running his own AV installation company from 2001-2008. After a career break he started Jones designs in August 2009 which has recently morphed into a Ltd. company called designflow, with his business partner Kelly Ashforth. Designflow aims to increase awareness of design in AV and help installers win jobs and create proper documentation for them.