Effective management is crucial for the success of any design project.
Without a plan, things can get out of control quickly. And no one wants to be the deer in headlights when a client asks for that design file you promised because it was lost under a soaring stack of other duties.
Design project management is particularly unruly because it usually brings together a range of skilled and qualified individuals from across the team or from a client.
And let's be real, creative minds have the potential to clash with over-demanding client parameters. This can put design project managers in a tough place as they struggle to find the sweet spot between design deadlines and nurturing creativity.
In this complete guide to design project management for marketing agencies, we’ll share more on why these teams have unique challenges and what design leaders can do to keep clients happy while delivering exceptional work.
What is design project management?
Design project management is the process of managing incoming design requests, allocating tasks to specific team members, and following through the project lifecycle to completion.
This process relies heavily on connecting two or more parties – typically the designer and requestor – to work together on delivering assets for one or more projects. The task could be anything from a webpage design, branding materials, creating a logo, or something that requires multiple assets like a digital marketing campaign.
If there’s an element of design involved (a.k.a. multiple reiterations of a creative concept), you as the project manager or lead will need to oversee all the moving parts. This means you have to encourage creativity while adhering to client briefs or team guidelines.
If you picture someone spinning plates while juggling flaming bowling pins, you’re not too far off the mark. There are many different components of a design project, but managing one doesn't have to be a high-anxiety task.
Why project management for design teams is different
Design projects aren’t like other projects.
Don't believe us? Just ask a designer how many tasks arrive on their plate with little-to-no project information, direction, or appropriate content. It will be a lot more than you think.
This is a common problem for design teams because their requests tend to require more changes and revisions than other marketing teams. What makes this even harder is that design can be such a subjective discipline.
Project collaboration is key for effective design project teams
Designing the perfect asset requires the creator to match (or oftentimes exceed) the expectations of the requestor's mental image. Designers are then forced into the unwanted role of mind readers.
Design requests demand effective project collaboration. And without harmonious collaborative efforts from both sides, there's a very real danger of hitting a bottleneck with too many cooks in the kitchen.
Finding a compromise between structure and creative freedom is hard. But the best design project managers walk this very fine line to manage clients and keep everyone happy.
How to best manage designers and set client expectations
Listen – you could write a novel on the different ways to manage designers. But there are simple steps design leads or agency owners can take to ensure designers feel empowered and autonomous in their craft.
Graphic designers, like other creatives, are specially qualified to bring your ideas to life. Businesses rely on their innate talents and acquired digital skills to create graphics that represent their brand.
But it’s not as easy as simply telling (or demanding) a graphic designer to create a new logo and hope for the best. They need direction, goals, parameters, and the right assets to effectively optimize their workflows.
It's important for project managers to get everything from the client upfront. Otherwise, your graphic designers are left to shoot in the dark and hope their designs align with the client’s vision.
You may get lucky, but most times, the client will ask for amendments or worse, ask you to start over because it’s not what they pictured. Avoid wasting valuable time (and killing the creativity buzz) by using a centralized hub for every stage and stakeholder to communicate.
Whether it's brainstorming or creating the sharing the final design file, agencies need a flexible space for designers to work with clients or project owners without creating additional work.
That's why design agencies love Teamwork. It's simple to assign task dependencies to ensure everyone understands what's needed to get the project across the finish line.
Task dependencies prevent team members from working ahead without the proper assets or information. In fact, within Teamwork, leads can set dependencies to designers that aren't available to complete until the necessary resources are provided first.
Understand how your design team best works
The combination of different creative minds makes it hard to take a linear approach to project management for design professionals.
Your art director might do their best work in the dead of night, while some of your illustrators are more creative in the morning. Find out your team’s strengths, understand how they work best, and weave that into your plan.
Give them a survey or workflow questionnaire to see where their skillset works best. Then, use Teamwork's resource allocation and scheduling features to effectively manage team members' workloads.
Teamwork gives managers a bird's-eye view of the entire team so they can see all of the assigned tasks, availability, or when someone is potentially overloaded. It's the easiest way to prevent burnout and ensure transparency between various design projects.
Breaking down the project design structure and lifecycle
Your project design structure is essential to how well your team receives tasks and finishes deliverables. Without any structure, you run the risk of double work, burnout, and angry clients.
To make things easier, we're dividing the project design structure and lifecycle into three separate phases to help you manage your team. Let's get started:
Phase 1: Planning and prepping the team
The planning stage might just be the most important stage of all. As Benjamin Franklin once famously said, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
So many moving parts need to be accounted for during any given design project. Otherwise, things will start to slip through the gaps if you're not thoroughly planning each step of the process.
Start asking important questions like:
What is the goal of the project?
What does the client want?
A simple answer to these questions makes it easier to move on to creating a design project plan. If you need help with starting your plan, use Teamwork's design project plan template to get things in motion.
Run an inventory of tasks (both big and small as the little things can easily be missed) and plug them all into a schedule for your team.
List out every task requiring time from a designer: We’re talking about both creative and non-creative tasks needed to kickoff or complete a design project (we’re looking at you, Monday morning client Zoom calls). Ensure your team has mock-ups, first drafts, and the finalized content to get started.
Define your budget: This is where you need to align the client’s expectations with what your team can do (and let your team know how much the client has to spend). Things can get wildly out of control if a creative designer is spending too much time on a single task.
Assign tasks to your team's strengths: Who will do what and who is the best at specific tasks? It should be fairly easy to distribute these jobs, but remember to play to your team’s skillset.
Map our major milestones: Project milestones act as a guide for task details and deadlines throughout an entire project. They also help you see if you’re on track and what tasks need prioritization.
Create a workflow: Plug all of the tasks, milestones, deadlines, and team members into one workflow that outlines who will do what and when they will need to do it.
Phase 2: Executing the plan
If you plan a project well, the execution should be a breeze. Of course, there will always be hiccups along the way, but a robust design project management plan will be flexible enough to swallow these up.
At this point, your project should be underway with teams working together and design assets getting made. Executing the design task is an exciting part of the project but sometimes the most challenging to manage. Here's what to do in the execution phase:
Thoroughly communicate stakeholders: Whether your project stakeholders are internal teammates or external clients, you can't go dark. Keep communication as open as possible to avoid mistakes and mixups that could've been prevented with better correspondence.
Hold regular check-ins and meetings: We’re all sick of endless Zoom calls, but regular check-ins are key to keeping everyone on the same page. A simple 10-minute standup can do wonders for designers and stakeholders.
Set time for designing: This is the main part of the show, but more often than not, it’s the task that gets pushed back the most. Make sure your team has the time and resources available to complete the tasks. Use Teamwork's resource planning tools to view, manage, and update your design tasks.
Phase 3: Wrapping up the project
You can almost breathe a sigh of relief – the project is nearly finished. But design project management doesn’t end once the brief has been met.
In fact, your project closure process is the perfect time to figure out what did and didn't work, and how you can run a smoother ship next time. Make sure to include these steps as you wrap up your project:
Add design files to a shared folder: You never know when a previous design will be super helpful for another designer in the future. Make sure your team has access to all of the essential design files and name them for further clarity.
Give feedback to designers and the stakeholders: This is a great time to bring everyone together to discuss and reflect on what worked and areas of improvement. If you're working with clients, ensure they have a chance to give feedback, but also receive it too. Both sides need to communicate to deliver better projects.
Appropriately deliver the design assets: Whether it's SVG, PNG, EPS, or MP4, make sure your stakeholders or clients have access to all the necessary files. Within a Teamwork task, it's easy to add the appropriate design files, categorize each asset, and mark the task as complete.
The most popular design project management methodologies
There are several project management methodologies to choose for your design team. But it all depends on the size of your team, the type of projects, and who you work with.
Here are the most popular methods to ensure your team effectively completes design projects:
Agile design project management
The agile project management methodology is a collaborative approach to project management. Teams can revise a project during the process to avoid getting stuck too far into something that isn’t going to work.
This process usually involves short, sharp bursts of work that result in tests, tweaks, and adaptation. Kanban, scrum, and lean are all sub-categories of agile project management, but in each one, the work-to-be-done is added to a backlog that teams can work through.
Teamwork is the Swiss army knife of project management methodologies, so you can choose what works best for you. The agile view in Teamwork allows teams to see each task at glance and how it fits into the team.
Waterfall design project management
The waterfall methodology is a very traditional approach to project management where tasks are completed in a sequence. Tasks cannot be started until the previous one has been completed and signed off (hence, the waterfall movement).
Scrum design project management
Scrum is a branch of agile project management where work is split into short, sharp bursts known as “sprints”. Each sprint tends to focus on one specific task or set of tasks, and the work is reviewed and tweaked at the end.
Kanban design project management
Kanban is another project management framework that falls under the agile methodology. Tasks are displayed visually in a board view and work is pulled from a backlog and moved along the board until it’s completed.
The Kanban method is also available in Teamwork to easily move tasks from groups like To do, To be written, Waiting for approval, and Reviewed. This makes the workflow a simple process to manage and understand as a stakeholder.
Design project management software
There are many moving parts in a design project, some of which you won’t even think of until you’re knee-deep in a project with no end in sight.
Project management software streamlines the process and ensures nothing slips through the gaps. It can keep a track of how long you’ve spent on designated tasks, automate deadline reminders, assign goals to specific team members, and act as a central communication portal for everyone involved in a project.
Here are some other common types of design project management software you might want to consider:
Communication tools let you stay in touch with clients as well as discuss internal affairs with your team or share design files. Having access to all conversations in one place eliminates the need to scroll back through endless email threads.
Through software like Teamwork, everyone stays up-to-date with communication between departments and stakeholders. It's simple to address questions and share information from one easy-to-access place. Teamwork Chat lets you carry out video calls with one person or an entire team, which is ideal for remote teams.
Graphic design time tracking software
Time management or employee time tracking software tells you exactly how much time a certain task has taken and whether your team is on track for set deadlines. This also helps you keep track of your budget by logging the billable hours a designer has spent on a task.
Use Teamwork to keep an eye on the time spent on each task so you can better plan and allocate projects in the future. The visual overview lets you see the time blocks of a project in one quick glance.
Resource management tools
As we mentioned earlier, identifying, assigning, and managing resources is a crucial task for project managers. However, it can be tricky if you don’t know the capacity of your designers or who has what skill set.
Resource management tools make it easy to determine your team’s talents and accurately assign the right resources to the right projects without going over budget. Avoid burnout and keep your clients in the picture by inviting them onto your projects for free.
With the help of calendar tools, everyone involved gets a visual overview of what’s happening and when. This lets your team manage their own time and avoid working in a vacuum.
It can also allow you to visualize the various projects that are underway at any given time so you can manage your overall workload. The Teamwork calendar feature pulls together tasks and deadlines to create a visual representation of current projects as well as which team member is working on what task at any given time.
File storage software
Storing and maintaining files is crucial for design project managers, especially since there tend to be several iterations of each asset. File storage software allows everyone involved to access the files in one place. Again, this eliminates the risk of an asset getting lost in an inbox and it prevents designers from working on the wrong file.
How design teams can avoid poor project management
Bad project management is the curse of any design project. Your team is relying on you to lead the march and give them direction. Without it, designers might not have the full autonomy to flex their creative muscles in the way you want them to.
If you want to avoid disaster, follow these tips to keep your project management strategy precise and effective:
Tip 1: Review internally first
Get everyone on the same page before you meet with the client. The last thing you want is an awkward moment in the boardroom because you didn’t discuss or review assets beforehand.
Tip 2: Collaborate together – not alone
Make it easy for your team to work together. Not only does this boost team morale and make the project more enjoyable, but it also avoids instances where someone works on the wrong draft or outside of the brief.
Teamwork makes collaboration easy by syncing calendars, providing regular team status updates, and keeping everyone in the loop at all times. You can add comments to tasks, and send messages to make sure your whole team knows what’s happening in real-time.
Tip 3: Add some buffer time for the unexpected
If you’ve been a project manager for a while, you know that things rarely happen on time. Clients might take longer to review than anticipated or team members could suddenly call off sick for an extended period of time.
Projects often have to pivot because nearly anything can derail a project from its original plan. Schedule in buffer time to ensure you’re not constantly running against the clock. Creativity is hard to squeeze out of time-crunched, weary designers.
Instead, use Teamwork to set team members' capacity through the Workload feature. This will allow everyone has a built-in buffer for when the inevitable scope creep arrives.
Tip 4: Avoid communication overload
Communication is important, but there’s a fine line between the right amount of communication and micromanaging. Requiring your team to check in every minute of every day is overwhelming and detrimental to their creativity.
Avoid over communicating by adding your team and clients to Teamwork and letting them see updates on the project’s progress for themselves.
Tip 5: Respect and defend actual working time
Your team is important. Their needs are important. Clients are notorious for scope creep. Juggling all these things is hard, but it’s crucial that you respect and defend the actual working time of your team.
Don’t schedule calls when they’ve blocked out time to be creative. And as we mentioned earlier, provide your team with plenty of uninterrupted time to actually design.
Tip 6: Walk the tightrope between structure and creativity
This is perhaps the hardest part of managing a design project. Creatives are renowned for being free and passionate about their work. However, team leads need to ensure designers are working together and toward a common goal.
Give your team the chance to run with an idea, but be prepared to use the brakes and slow them down when they veer too far off track.
Keep clients and creatives happy with exceptional design project management
Managing a design project is fun but never easy.
It requires building a robust structure around a creative pursuit - something that’s difficult at the best of times, even when there’s no opinionated client on the other end.
The key is to ensure everyone is on the same page by playing to the strengths of your team, scheduling even the smallest tasks, and keeping communication wide open.