The Design Project Manager Guide: Learn How to Manage Design
How to manage a creative process like design? How to bridge the gap between clients & designers? Discover the practical process of a design project manager.
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A design project manager is so much more than someone who assigns tasks and oversees designers. They are a combination of project managers, designers, creative directors, and customer service representatives. Learn how the process of design management works!
Although it may seem like design project management isn't all that different from managing any other project, this is not quite the case. There are quite a few specifics to the graphic design process requiring a design project manager to understand project management and design.
Additionally, they need superb communication skills as they are in contact with clients, in addition to managing the design team.
How to manage design projects effectively? First, we’ll discover what a project manager is and then move on to a guide for a smooth design management process.
What is a design project manager, and what skills do they need?
What is a design project manager? Simply put, this is a person who oversees the execution of a design project, from the research phase to presenting the final draft.
Although it's not necessary, design project managers are usually former designers. That's also one of the most significant differences when it comes to a design manager vs. project manager in general. A marketing manager, for example, often manages different people (content writers, copywriters, designers, developers) without first-hand experience in these fields.
But, a design project manager needs to understand how design is created to give actionable feedback and directions to the design team.
Here are a few of the critical skills a design project manager should have.
As was already mentioned, it's rather tricky to be a design project manager if you don't have first-hand experience in designing yourself. I know what you're thinking. Clients without any design knowledge constantly give designers feedback and explain what they want in a piece of design.
Well, this is precisely where a design project manager comes in. They can often take laymen's directions and translate them into specific guidelines and prompts for designers. They need to know the basics of popular design software to suggest the most appropriate way to execute the clients' wishes.
2. Collaboration & communication
Designers communicate visually, so sometimes they’re not great at verbal expression. This often leads to misunderstandings and miscommunication. Designers aren’t able to appropriately explain the design process, or get clients who lack design knowledge to give them clear directions or actionable feedback.
A project manager bridges this gap and helps communication run smoothly. Moreover, delays and unexpected challenges are a standard part of the design process. Therefore, design project managers need to have refined communication and soft skills to reassure clients and present a plan of action that helps overcome these hurdles.
They need to be team players who value their teammates' time, skills, and effort. Sure, the client pays the bills, but no client is worth breaking up an effective team. Project managers need to know how and when to stand up for the designers if the client is being unreasonable.
On the other hand, they need to be able to put their managerial foot forward in case the designer isn’t delivering the expected results.
Professional graphic design is an integral part of a business marketing strategy. That's why a design project manager needs to understand how marketing works and why design is vital for it.
From content marketing to paid advertising and social media, project managers should know how and what types of design are used to deliver results. Say a designer is tasked with creating a graphic for a blog post. They might come up with a stunning visual that, however, has little information value.
A project manager should know that graphics like these can also rank in search engine results if they are recognized as informative or helpful.
Some form of research is an integral part of the design process. Designers will always have to do a bit of digging to get ideas or understand the client's preferred visual style.
However, design project managers can help tremendously by taking on market research. Suppose the client hasn't provided any solid information. In that case, project managers can help set up an art direction by extensively looking into industry data and client competitors.
5. Design project management software
In the glory days of remote working, team collaboration management software such as Trello, Asana, and Monday.com are becoming a necessary part of any workflow.
Thanks to a stellar UI, these also make for fantastic design project management software. Our own design team uses Asana. We love its drag-and-drop feature that allows us to add graphics to a collaborative task.
If you really want to take things to the next level, you might consider building a custom design platform (this is a common feature used by unlimited design services). These platforms often allow clients to talk to designers and even leave comments directly on the graphics.
If you don't have the resources, another helpful trick is to use Canva. This popular DIY design platform also includes team collaboration in the free plan. So, you can upload designs there and ask clients to leave comments. Of course, it's not the most elegant or comprehensive solution. Still, it can be a helpful way to make the revision process more efficient.
Wait, what? It's a common misconception that everything related to graphic design is subjective and focused only on the surface level.
Graphic design cost falls into a vast range, from virtually free to thousands, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. The cost of logo design is probably the most commonly contested issue.
Suppose you don't work on a flat-rate basis, such as our unlimited design service. Then, it's the design manager's responsibility to help determine the project's cost. A client might provide you with an initial budget, so you have to put some accounting skills to work and allocate the funds and resources.
How to manage design projects?
Let's go step-by-step and explain how managing a design project works.
1. Planning & preparation
Before you land a client, it's part of the design project manager's job to understand the team's strengths and weaknesses. By that, we mean particular skills and how/when team members work best.
Once you have met the client and roughly understood the assignment, it's time to alert the team and give them an overview of the situation. Here are the questions you should present to the team:
- Who is the client?
- What do they want?
- What can we do?
The first two questions give context and help designers and art directors move forward in a clearly defined direction. The last question is split into two more questions in the following phases of the design process.
2. Task delegation
So, once you know what the client wants, it's time to ascertain what you can do for them. This is where a project manager should determine the project scope. A client usually says what they need, but that's not always the only design you'll have to come up with in a design project.
Let's say a client has requested a landing page design. Here are some individual design tasks that this may include:
- Wireframes and layout
- Hero section
- CTA forms and buttons
A project manager will then delegate the tasks according to the designers' individual capabilities and availability. The next step is then used to establish how the work will be completed.
Certain collaboration tools can be pretty handy for this step. You can organize them as kanban boards or gantt charts, with tools like Miro or Asana, that allow everyone to stay on the same page.
3. Establishing the workflow
Once you know what needs to be done, you can establish a realistic due date and project timeline that can keep your creative team on track. A project manager can create custom workflows with task dependencies, or a simple daily reporting system in smaller working collectives.
As a design company serving hundreds of clients every day, we find it critical for designers to report at the beginning of each working day. They also must provide an estimated completion time (ETA) for the ongoing project.
Take time to get to know your designers or engage in casual talk to understand their goals better. It helps to create a positive atmosphere & an environment of accountability & trust! - Alexandra Francisco, Project Manager at ManyPixels
Of course, we encourage designers to inform project teams as soon as there is an issue or hold up so that the project managers can decide on the most effective course of action.
Design project management tools help with breaking down complex assignments into bitesize tasks. This way, everyone involved in the project can track the progress in real-time and plan the next steps accordingly.
4. Quality control
Before submitting a draft to a client, project managers must perform internal quality control. There are several benefits to this:
- You preserve and build the professional reputation of your design service.
- It informs performance reviews and helps keep designers in check.
- It can save up time by eliminating the need for subsequent revisions.
Quality control is essentially a process created to check whether the delivered design meets the clients’ requirements. Our own extensive quality assurance process includes the following set of checks.
- Customer requirements – Deliverables must comply with the design brief and follow the branding guidelines. This includes color schemes, fonts, logo applications, and other attachments and guidelines.
- Acceptance criteria – This step makes sure that deliverables are clear and concise without any mistakes that designers might have overlooked. This includes grammatical and punctuation errors, typography errors, incorrect alignment, and spacing. The point of acceptance criteria is to ensure that already predefined requirements are followed before marking the project as complete.
- Performance criteria – In this category, we rate whether the designer submitted the work within the deadline and whether the client’s brief was respected. Also, in this step, we control the use and naming of the folder structure (raw files, preview files, etc.)
5. Deliver results
Project management for designers means ensuring that designers submit all the necessary design files and formats once the design has been created, including source files or alternative versions.
The project manager needs to compile everything in one place and send it to the relevant stakeholders (clients or other team members). They might also include a short note on pending questions/issues or their input.
6. Bring in the stakeholders
With the designs created, it's time to get some feedback from the client. In an ideal world, a piece of design that perfectly follows the creative brief immediately receives approval, and everything's peachy. But we all know that's not the case.
So, what should a project manager do if the client doesn't like the work presented to them? Here are a few tips
- Go back to the brief: It's perfectly fine for clients to hate something they'd initially asked for. It happens all the time. However, they should still be aware that this isn't your fault. Highlight what's been agreed on and demonstrate how the design executes that.
- Present data: One of the most significant project management challenges in the design industry is the lack of data. However, as a project manager, you should try to meet clients with some tangible data. Perhaps it's the log of hours spent on this project (so they understand that even if the result isn't to their liking, your team still put effort into it). Or, it's widely available statistics on why graphic design is crucial that will convince them of why they need you.
- Accept the mistakes: Everyone makes mistakes, designers and project managers included. When you realize it, it’s better to be open and honest than try to cover up your team’s mistakes with convoluted excuses.
- Suggest a course of action: On the other hand, it’s not enough to just say, “Ooops, I did it again.” Be proactive and suggest a potential solution to the problem, or say how your team will go above and beyond to make up for the mistakes.
7. Communicate feedback & revise
Once you have a clear plan of action, it's time to put designers back to work. Clients will often provide feedback that's not exactly "in design terms." Hence, it's your job to ensure designers can work efficiently.
In this step of design project management, it’s essential to prioritize tasks and organize your team effectively.
Clients are generally much more patient waiting for the first draft than revisions. Remember, even though a revision might be pretty complex and time-consuming, from the client's perspective, it's often a minor tweak to an existing design.
So, to avoid dissatisfaction make sure you deliver revised designs as promptly as possible. As a project manager, it's your responsibility to ensure the clients' requests have been implemented. If you're unsure, double-check with the client. It's far better to be safe than deliver a design that requires more revisions and slows down the design process.
8. Wrap up
The essential difference between a graphic designer and a design project manager is that the latter has an extensive role in evaluating and wrapping up the project.
You need to ensure that designers have delivered all the required file types and any additional design elements such as fonts or icon sets. Everything needs to be appropriately named and stored in clearly labeled folders.
Once you get the final sign-off from the client, it's time to evaluate the design project and identify potential areas for improvement. Remember: designers are visual types. Instead of reading out lengthy lists, create some charts and graphs showing their efficiency in the process.
Ideally, you will also h get input from the client. You can send a short survey or online form where they can point out the biggest challenges of working with designers. Or tell you what they enjoyed about the collaboration.
This data should be used for future projects to help you maximize your team's capabilities and boost productivity.
As you can see, design project management is a complex process that requires a professional with diverse skills. Design project managers usually work inside big design agencies and handle multiple clients and types of projects. That's one of the reasons why these agencies charge such high rates. If you didn't know, we're talking thousands of dollars for a single project.
Can you get a professional design project management service and quality design for much less? Yes!
With our unlimited graphic design services you’ll get the full graphic design package, without the hefty price tag. We’ll assign a designer with the most relevant skill set to work on your project. The entire process is also overseen by one of our experienced project managers who ensure designers always deliver the best results in the required time.
If there are ever any setbacks in the design process, project managers can step in and find a solution, or even suggest a different designer from our big creative team to work on it.
Would you like to learn more about it? Read about our rigorous quality control process, or book a free demo consultation to learn more about how we work.
Having lived and studied in London and Berlin, I'm back in native Serbia, working remotely and writing short stories and plays in my free time. With previous experience in the nonprofit sector, I'm currently writing about the universal language of good graphic design. I make mix CDs and my playlists are almost exclusively 1960s.