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How to manage projects effectively for your design team

Design brief. Check.

Design tools. Check.

Lots of creative concepts and inspiration. Double check.

The design project starts on a high note, and you let the design team go about their business as you don’t want to mess with their creative flow. You assume that your project management skills are irrelevant in the creative design world.

A couple of weeks into the project, the signs of trouble start showing. The design team is struggling with missed emails and disorganized assets, there’s no real track of deadlines, and delayed feedback is frustrating everyone. You start wondering if maybe you were wrong about the relevance of project management in design projects.

The fact of the matter is that project management has brought the most valuable dreams to life, and it’s a pivotal part of any important series of tasks, no matter the field of practice. There’s a reason why many of the organizations that undervalue the importance of project management report an average project failure rate of 50%.

While working without some form of project management is possible, it tends to cause a lack of efficiency, lengthening the time required to complete a project. Designer teams need solid project management as much as anyone else, and this calls for the right set of strategies.

In this article, we’ll explore how you, as a project manager, can manage design projects effectively. But first, let’s look at what project management for design teams is all about.

What is project management for design teams?

In design, project management is essentially the process of juggling two fundamental parties — a team of designers and a team of requesters or clients — to see a project through in a timely manner.

This usually involves managing incoming design requests and delegating tasks to specific designers, as well as handling multiple revisions, changes of varying depth, and the all-too-common multiple reiterations of a concept before approval.

To top it all, as a project manager you will need to encourage creativity among your design team while making sure that everyone is sticking to the project scope and budget.

That’s a lot of moving parts, and yes, you have to juggle them all.

The good news is that design project management doesn’t have to be a difficult, anxiety-inducing task. Here are some top tips to help you manage your design projects well.

Understand your team

Having various creative minds on your design team is great for getting different creative perspectives, but it does make team management a bit hard.

One designer could prefer to build a basic design and then refine it after getting some feedback, while another could be comfortable with sharing a design only when it’s complete. Similarly, some team members may prefer a bit more autonomy than others when working on a project. It’s crucial to understand where each team member is coming from — what their style of working involves, what motivates them, and how their method of work contributes to the larger picture.

You can start by giving your design team a survey to gain a better understanding of their working style and where their skillset works best. The insights you gather will help you negotiate the different styles of work and make your expectations of each team member more realistic. What’s more, you can better manage team members’ workloads, and improve team engagement and productivity.

Be clear about what rules do and don’t bend

Every client has certain limits to the amount of creative license they will allow. It’s your job to know when to nudge your designers to voice their opinions, and when to accept and move forward with the client’s demands.

And remember that setting expectations and clarifying the non-negotiable elements early on in the project will increase transparency and improve how well the subsequent steps of the project unfold.

Keep documents in one place (as much as possible)

Design projects involve a lot of documents; from design assets to brand guidelines, meeting notes, and much more. If you’re going to manage a design project effectively, you’ll need to have all, or most, of your project documents in a central place that can be easily accessed by the entire team and even the client.

Centralizing document storage will improve the overall efficiency of the project and make collaboration easier. It will also boost the quality of your team’s initial comprehension of the project, thus ensuring a better initial brief, which will likely result in fewer revisions.

Today, cloud storage is a popular solution for keeping your documents in one place. It allows you to synchronize files so that everyone has the latest version, plus multiple individuals can access, review, and edit project documents in real time.

You can also take your file storage to the next level by using a file management service that specifically caters to creatives. Such a service makes it easier to share creative files and collaborate on visual projects.

If you’re not already using a cloud-based storage platform for your projects, it’s time to get one!

Avoid scope creep

Latin philosopher Publilius Syrus may have been onto something when he said “it is a bad plan that admits of no modification” — but he wasn’t thinking of your average design project, where the probability of experiencing scope creep is so high.

Scope creep occurs when a project’s requirements and deliverables go off on a tangent and become entirely different from the original plan. In most cases, scope creep makes it hard, or even impossible, to stick to timelines and budgets. And if you’re wondering how bad scope creep can get, consider how 50% of design agencies that over-serve clients lose 11% profit or more, according to the SoDA report on agency project management.

Although change is a given in any design project, you’ll need to supervise the team to ensure that the project stays on course.

A good way to avoid scope creep is to set out the project scope in the initial onboarding phase. It’s also a good idea to keep communications line open. Regular communication will make it easier for everyone to keep up with any required changes, and how these changes will affect time and costs.

Update your tools

Technology is constantly evolving. That means your project management software will also change and integrate new features. You need to keep up.

Client tastes will also likely change with tech updates. You don’t want to miss out on important product updates that could potentially render your design team helpless when you get a particularly sophisticated request from your client.

Just make sure that you understand your updated tools before you start working to avoid any complications or delays.

Design project management in practice

All the design project management tips we’ve covered will help you manage projects well. However, they must be supported by a robust project structure. A good structure will help eliminate confusion and repeat work, leaving your team to work more efficiently.

Creating a project structure is relatively straightforward if you follow the three major stages of any design project: planning, execution, and completion.

The planning phase

This is perhaps the most important stage of all since it’s where you start bringing together all the project’s many moving parts. Put another way, the planning stage is where the majority of the groundwork is laid, major goals are outlined, and the project is set in motion.

This phase will usually involve listing the goal of your project and the tasks required of your team, setting the budget, assigning tasks, and creating a project workflow.

The execution phase

If you plan your design project well, the execution phase should be a lot easier. This stage is all about maintaining communication with your client, and setting aside enough time and resources for your design team to carry the project forward to completion. Regular check-ins can do wonders when it comes to completing this project phase successfully.

The project completion phase

As you wrap up the project, you’ll probably be preparing to take a well-deserved break, but you need to hold off your break plans a little longer. Your project closing is actually a good time to figure out what did and didn’t work, and how you can improve next time.

The final stage usually involves submitting all the designs to the client, giving feedback to both your design team and the external stakeholders, and making sure each deliverable is properly accounted for.

Start acing your design project management

Managing design projects is not easy. You need some good planning, as well as the right strategies and tools for setting up a good project management system.

Speaking of tools, nothing benefits project management more than a good digital asset management (DAM) platform that allows you to improve the entire design process.

With Playbook, you can bring all your design assets together, collaborate with your design team and clients, share your work, and gather feedback, all in one place.