The Ultimate Guide to Design Project Management
Effective management is crucial for the success of any 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 document you promised” because it got lost under a soaring stack of other duties.
Design projects are particularly unruly since they bring together a range of different skilled and qualified individuals.
Let’s face it, creative minds have the potential to clash with client parameters.
For project managers, there’s a struggle to find the sweet spot between sticking to deadlines and nurturing creativity.
What is Design Project Management?
Design project management refers to the management of any kind of design project. It does what it says on the tin. This can be a website re-do, branding a new company, creating a logo, or producing multiple design assets.
If there’s an element of design involved (a.k.a. multiple reiterations of a creative concept), you’re going to need to oversee all the moving parts and encourage creativity while also adhering to strict client briefs and guidelines.
If you’re picturing a circus clown juggling five plates, three batons, and two fire pois, you’re not too far off the mark.
But, while there are many different components of a design project, managing it doesn’t have to be a nightmare.
Why Project Management for Design Teams is Different
Design projects aren’t like other projects.
There are likely to be more changes and revisions needed than other types of projects, simply because design is such a subjective discipline.
It also requires the collaboration of multiple skills and input sources. There’s the very real danger of too many cooks spoiling the broth - or, in design terms, too many creatives spoiling the mock-up.
Staying organised is crucial if you want to encourage creativity to flourish while keeping ambitious deadlines intact.
“Organizations routinely kill creativity with fake deadlines or impossibly tight ones,” says Teresa Amabile, professor at Harvard Business School. “The former create distrust and the latter cause burnout. In either case, people feel overcontrolled and unfulfilled—which invariably damages motivation.”
Finding a compromise between structure and creative freedom is hard. But the best design project managers are able to walk this very fine tightrope to facilitate a happy, creative team and ensure clients get what they want.
Project Management for Design Leads: How to Manage a Design Project
You’ve just got a new design brief in and your team is raring to get started.
What happens next?
Understanding How Your Design Team Work
The combination of many different minds makes it hard to take a linear approach to project management for design professionals.
Your illustrator might do their best work in the dead of night, locked away in their basement, while your art director might be an early bird who gets their best work done right before their 7am yoga class.
Find out the strengths of your team, understand how they work best, and weave that into your plan.
You can give them a survey or questionnaire to answer or, if your team is small, conduct one-on-one meetings with each person.
The Structure of Project Design
The Beginning: Planning and Prep
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.
Start by asking:
What are the goals of the project?
What does the client want?
Then you can move on to creating a design project plan.
This is where you run an inventory of tasks (both big and small - sometimes the smaller tasks get brushed under the rug) and plug them all into a schedule that suits yours’ and your client’s needs.
List out every task - we’re talking both design-related tasks and other miscellaneous building blocks (we’re looking at you, Monday morning Zoom calls). Include mock-ups, first drafts, second drafts, and final designs here too.
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 let loose with Procreate and no budget.
Assign tasks - who will do what? It should be fairly easy to distribute tasks, but remember to play to your team’s strengths.
Map our major milestones - milestones act as soft deadlines throughout a project. They help you see if you’re on track or not. Think about when you’ll stage feedback, when your halfway-point check-ins will take place, and when that logo will finally be finished so you can move on to the social media graphics.
Create a schedule - plug it all into place with a schedule that outlines who will do what and when they will do it.
Set up folders and communication portals - create new folders in your chosen program to ensure everyone has access to everything in one place. You can also use this time to create new communication channels especially for the project.
The Middle: 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 plan will be flexible enough to swallow these up.
At this point, the project is underway, your team are working together, and designs are getting made. It’s the most exciting part of the project, but it can also be the most difficult to manage.
Here’s what’s involved:
Communication with stakeholders - don’t go dark on your clients. Stay in touch and communicate regularly with everyone involved. Mistakes and errors happen through miscommunication (or no communication), so nip this in the bud by being open at all times.
Hosting 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. Just a quick go-around gives your team the chance to share what they’re working on, where they’re at, and what they’re doing next.
Designing assets - duh! This is the main part of the show, but more often than not, it’s the easiest part to manage. After all, you’ve got skilled creatives on the case and a watertight brief to work to. The hard part is getting all the assets delivered on time and looking like they should.
The End: Wrapping Up
You can almost breathe a sigh of relief - the project is nearly finished and you’re almost at the point where you can wrap it in a neat little bow and archive it forever.
But graphic design project management doesn’t end once the brief has been met.
In fact, the aftermath of a project is the perfect time to figure out what worked, what didn’t work, and how you can run a smoother ship next time.
This part of the processes involves:
Delivering assets - make sure your client has access to the right files in the right size (and make sure no assets have slipped through the gaps).
Feedback and debrief - come together with your team and reflect on what went well and what could have been better. Were there any mishaps along the way that could be avoided next time?
Honing your design project management process is key to creating a slick experience in the future for both your team and clients.
Afterall, who doesn’t want clients walking away with a spring in their step, shouting about the great experience they had?
Design Project Management Software
We keep harking on about the different moving parts of a design project, but there’s a reason - there are so many different moving parts. Some you won’t even think of until you’re knee deep in a project with no end in sight.
Cue the trusty project management software swooping in to save the day.
Today, advanced tech and tools have everything you need to carry out design project management in an effective way. There’s a tool for everything, whether you need an aid for communication or a place to store files.
Design project management software you might want to consider include:
Communication tools that let you stay in touch with clients as well as discuss internal affairs with your team. Having access to all conversations in one place eliminates the need to scroll back through endless email threads.
Time management or time tracking tools that tell 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
Resource management tools that let you know which designers have capacity and when, and if they have the right skillset
Calendar tools that allow everyone involved to get a visual overview of what’s happening and when. This will help your team manage their own time and avoid working in a vacuum.
File storage that allows everyone involved to access the files in one place. Again, this eliminates the risk of an asset getting lost in John’s inbox or Lucy working from the wrong mock-up iteration.
How Design Teams Can Avoid Bad 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 that, they won’t be able to flex their creative juices the way you want them to.
So, if you want to avoid disaster, follow these tips.
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.
Collaborate rather than create in a void
Make it easy for your team to work together. Not only does this boost morale and make the project more enjoyable, but it also avoids instances where someone is working on the wrong draft or is doing their own thing 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.
Schedule in buffer time
If you’ve been a project manager for a while, you’ll know that things rarely happen on time. Clients might take longer to review than anticipated; team members might be off sick; the project might need to pivot in light of new trends - anything can happen.
Schedule in buffer time to ensure you’re not so up against it. Creativity is hard to squeeze out of time-crunched, weary designers.
Here’s a top tip: With Teamwork you can set each team members’ capacity to 80% through the Workload feature. That way, everyone has a built-in buffer for when inevitable scope creeps comes in.
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.
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 make sure you provide them with large chunks of uninterrupted time to work.
Walk the tightrope between structure and creativity
This is perhaps the hardest part of managing a design project. Creatives are renowned for being wild and free, and it’s your job to reign them in. Give your team the chance to run with an idea, but be there to slow them down if 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.