Project management for designers is easier said than done. Whether you’re a solo creative, professional graphic designer, or art director with multiple projects at hand, project planning is an essential part of the job. You have to prioritize projects, organize ideas into actionable tasks, set deadlines, and communicate with the clients to get the ball rolling and produce great artwork.
via GIPHY — GIF Source: Emmelinedraws
However, not every project will run exactly according to plan (unless you have some kind of superpower). There will be challenges and risks related to every phase of your project — with design management being the most essential of them.
What is design process management?
First things first, we need to understand the many hats a designer has to wear. Although they’re called “creative professionals,” the most crucial role of designers is to act as facilitators.
Professional design doesn’t exist in a vacuum; designers have to identify and meet specific objectives. There’s always a client with something at stake and end-users who want a particular experience from the product. And among both clients and end-users, there are multiple needs and perspectives that could align, overlap, or conflict.
Design management is the process of overseeing all the stakeholder objectives involved in a design project. To be successful, designers must consider how elements like the audience, branding, client goals, medium, and strategic business decisions should factor into the design.
Why is design management important?
Diving into a creative design project without fully understanding the goals is like shooting an arrow without a target. You might make the client happy, but there’s a good chance you’ll misfire and need to keep developing more drafts to fix problems.
By researching, asking the right questions, and balancing stakeholder goals, you can significantly improve the outcome of any design project.
The ability to retain clients and satisfy project objectives is a direct reflection of your commitment to effective project management. This article will show you all the dos and don’ts of the process so that you’ll love managing design projects instead of feeling overwhelmed.
Let’s get down to learning the most effective project management tips for designers.
Design project DOs
Outline the scope and objectives
Before creating anything, you need stakeholder buy-in on all the major objectives of the project. Otherwise, you won’t find out that stakeholders have different expectations of your designs until after you’ve put work into the project.
Collect the ideas of various stakeholders, and clarify the project scope. Use whatever research is available to generate a list of the most important goals in order of priority. You’ll need to be honest if stakeholders have conflicting goals and explain potential alternatives to offer a manageable solution.
Plan before you manage
Project management for designers begins with a clearly thought-out plan. Define each step of your design plan to align the project scope, client touchpoints, goals, expectations, risks, outcomes, and so on.
Define the roles and responsibilities of your design team, and assign tasks to each member to establish accountability early on. At this stage, it’s also a good idea to develop baselines for each phase of the project. Try to set minimum and optimal criteria for each design objective. That way, if the project stalls, you can decide where to cut back and re-prioritize efforts.
Depending on this plan, you can break down the management structure to help you or your team complete tasks effectively. Not only does an airtight plan make the job run smoothly for you, but it allows you to impress the client with a thorough graphic design brief.
Visualize and document design objectives
Stakeholders will have varying levels of knowledge and expertise about the design process. To get them on the same page, it’s up to you to present suggestions and objectives in formats they can easily interpret. Diagramming tools are the best way to accomplish this.
Whether you’re designing for print, web, or mobile media, diagrams allow you to communicate dense content and create low-fidelity mockups of complex designs. You may need to develop charts to organize objectives, maps to demonstrate the design process, or prototypes to test the design. Whatever your goals are, use visuals to communicate them as efficiently as possible.
Communicate more often
Communication is a two-way street, where all channels must be clear and accessible. Skilled project managers realize that effective communication is the backbone of design project planning. From team members to clients, everyone interacting with the project should be clear on their roles.
Decide who will be the primary touchpoint for different aspects of the project. For example, who is in charge of budgetary authorization, draft approval, or client data? Clarifying these details will prevent communication breakdowns and make it easier to obtain relevant information in a timely manner.
Your role as a creative professional is to monitor the project’s progress and communicate your concerns clearly. Collaborating with team members, bringing them together, reporting to the client, and cooperating with each leads to better team bonding, client reliability, and problem-solving.
Use the right project management tools
Your expertise doesn’t just lie in your personal skills; it also depends on your ability to use the proper tools to manage your projects efficiently. Choose tools that streamline each stage of project management for designers, including the discussion and feedback phases.
The right PM tools should help you save time, maximize your potential, declutter your schedule, cement your collaboration, proof your projects, and finish everything on time.
Determine the weaknesses and strengths of your approach
The plan you created might be great, but that doesn’t mean it’s free of loopholes. It could be effective and still fail to address some problems. As you create a plan, analyze its strengths and weaknesses. Just as you embrace your strengths, you must also accommodate your weaknesses, too.
Instead of running away from them, see weaknesses as areas of development. The best approach here is to include a SWOT analysis in your plan to come up with a balanced and optimum project.
Identify the early challenges
Creative project management becomes a hot mess when you fail to identify challenges at the start. The overall project might go awry if your team is scattered, the goals aren’t aligned, accountability dwindles, and communication gaps increase.
Before project calamity strikes, you must educate yourself about typical challenges that arise in creative design. The truth is you’re going to face several risks where you have to refocus the project, juggle budgets and deadlines, and ensure proper communication.
To start, check out how others in your industry deal with project management in graphic design and how they overcome common design challenges. Combine their strategies with yours and devise unique solutions to project management hurdles.
Maintain flexibility in the design project plan
Flexibility is the key to excellent project management for designers. If you want to produce a high-quality project, you must negotiate with your client for tangible deadlines so that you can build a buffer around your main objectives. Adopt managerial flexibility as per the requirements of your project.
For instance, if you carefully plan the project and the deadlines aren’t too tight, you can create and deliver a compelling design without hassle — be it a logo, website, or brochure. Instead of rushing yourself or your team into hasty designs, you can take time to pick the right fonts, colors, or icons for the client and eliminate fallacies in the project. By managing wisely, you can also get time to review and edit the draft thoroughly before finalizing it for the client.
Design project DON’Ts
Set unrealistic goals
The reason why project goals go unachieved becomes clear when we look at how realistic — or rather unrealistic — those goals were to begin with. Poor goal planning could be due to:
- Lack of stakeholder agreement
- Insufficient design skills
- Poor budget or resource management
- Imbalanced workloads
- Inadequate knowledge of the project challenges
You must keep project planning grounded in your team’s actual skills, resources, and time. Unrealistic goals not only affect your ability to manage the project but also hurt your overall delivery and your relationships with your team and clients.
Raise client expectations too high
After assigning the project, clients usually expect the result they desire. Talking big about your abilities and your reputation will backfire if you can’t deliver what you promise.
So, before you sit down to sign the agreement, provide an accurate outline and timeline of what you can accomplish. Never falsely boast about your work or accomplishments.
Be straightforward about your capabilities, and highlight the challenges that could come up during the project. That way, clients can decide whether to bring other professionals on board to fill in the gaps. Being honest gives them a reason to believe you and trust in your design management skills.
Rely solely on yourself
Depending on yourself alone and blocking relevant advice and suggestions will set you back in the long run. Too much self-reliance can put a limit on your ability to explore new ideas that improve a project.
You aren’t just a creative professional; you’re a leader, a guide, and a support system for your team. Approaching experts and reaching out to qualified professionals can only help you. They can provide a new perspective on problems and save you time finding the best solutions.
Overextend yourself or your team
Burnout is poison for creative professionals. Given the sensitivity in their line of work, design managers can easily fall victim to rapid burnout. During the critical phases of the project, they may lose the ability to maintain focus and, consequently, leave loose ends in the project.
Never compromise your team’s strength and energy to rush a project. Smooth and effective planning is the key to avoiding burnout and preserving your creative expertise and professionalism.
Project management for designers can be easier
Managing creative projects is the same as management in any other industry. It’s your individual commitment to transparency and efficiency that helps you create effective projects without sacrificing quality or deadlines. With this in mind, we hope the DOs and DON’Ts we’ve discussed lead to better project management outcomes for you.
To improve communication and organization, consider using diagrams at different stages of design. The more you visualize and clarify the design goals, the easier it is to provide clear expectations for your team and clients.
With our online diagramming software, Cacoo, you can use templates to speed up the design process and share drafts in the cloud. Since you can allow others to comment or edit in real-time, it’s the perfect way to manage stakeholders and keep crucial project materials organized in one place.
This post was originally published on November 5, 2019, and updated most recently on February 15, 2022.