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As you move forward in your career, it's likely that you may
work on projects of increasing size. There are important
differences between small and large projects. Perhaps the most
obvious difference is that projects of greater scope and complexity
require a much broader range of resources. Because of this, more
risk is involved. With more moving parts, there's simply more that
can go wrong. As a result, large projects require a more formal
approach to planning and management. This special two-part article
is filled with real-world advice to help you meet these
It's not wise to rush into a big project without planning it out
in a very detailed and logical way. Think of this advance planning
as “phase zero” and give it the time and effort that it needs. Many
basics of project planning were already discussed in a previous issue. We'll start this new discussion by emphasizing these key
Let's take a few moments to look at each of these in detail.
Start the planning process by quickly gathering as much advance
information as you can about the client's company, their
competitors and their industry. It's essential to gain a basic
understanding of the larger context of the assignment—the overall
situation that has given rise to the specific needs that you're
being asked to address.
Next, identify the ultimate customers, audience, or
beneficiaries of the service or product that your client provides.
In the design process, you'll be serving as an advocate of the
customer's needs. In order to put together an appropriate plan, an
upfront orientation is necessary. You'll be digging much deeper
within the initial phases of the project itself, so your plan must
account for the time and resources you think will be necessary to
gain new insights into the target audience, their interactions with
your client and, hopefully, to identify needs that are not
currently being met.
Most design firms work with clients on a fixed-fee basis. That's
why project planning is so important. The accuracy of your pricing
will depend upon how clearly you identify the amount of work to be
done. We've touched upon several key aspects of this in previous
Your project plan reflects your understanding of the scope of
work. It reflects your assumptions about the skill sets that will
be needed, the amount of time that will be necessary, and the costs
that will be involved. Underlying this are assumptions about the
level of quality that you and your team are striving for.
Accordingly, the overall framework of the plan must reflect your
own creative methodology—the process that will enable you to
produce your best work.
At this point in our discussion, we must also note that more and
more creative firms are becoming involved in research and
development projects where the exact scope of work can't be known
at the start. From a planning standpoint, what do you do when the
final outcome cannot be anticipated? A project of this type is
sometimes referred to as an “unframed challenge.” If you're bidding
on a large, exploratory project where the challenge is not routine
or predictable, especially if you're going to be charging for your
services on a fixed-fee basis, then the smartest move for you may
be to take a sequential approach and bid on just one phase at a
Your first project plan should focus on the initial research
necessary to develop a contextual framework for subsequent efforts.
Essentially, the first proposal covers information gathering and
discovery, which some firms describe as “immersion.” The goal of
the first assignment is problem definition. With that in place, you
can move on to problem solving in later proposals. In this way,
each round of work ends with specific recommendations for the
Whatever the service is that you're being asked to provide, or
deliverable you're being asked to produce, you must clarify with
the client how it will be evaluated. The final evaluation must be
based on objective measures that are not open to subjective
interpretation—not “I like it” or “I don't like it,” but “it works”
or “it doesn't work.” This is particularly true when it comes to
evaluating the visual appearance of things.
The larger the project, the more likely it is that there will be
multiple measures applied. Give careful consideration to all the
significant factors that define success. Once the metrics have been
defined, use them to assess the starting situation. This
establishes a baseline so that you can later tell what has changed
and by how much. Review this information carefully with the full
team. To achieve success, everyone has to know how the finished
work will be judged.
OK, now that we've reviewed some key issues that apply to design
projects of all sizes, we're ready to explore a few additional
planning activities and management techniques that are particularly
useful when you're facing a very large project. To help you with
the planning process, we'll discuss:
This planning technique was developed in the 1930s by social
psychologist Kurt Lewin. It involves identifying the key things
that can help or hinder the project, both within the client
organization and externally. You start the process by making a list
of driving forces, such as pressure from customers, suppliers and
competitors—perhaps even management edicts. Be as specific as
possible in listing everything that's exerting force toward the
desired outcome of the project.
Next, identify the restraining forces that might limit what can
actually be accomplished. If your client is a large organization,
you'll need to pay special attention to political issues. There may
be habits or attitudes, either on the part of individuals or within
groups, that will make change difficult. Older client
organizations, in particular, tend to have firmly entrenched
customs. The new strategies or priorities that you represent might
be perceived as threats to existing power bases. Depending on the
nature of the project, there may also be concerns about lost
productivity during any transition from old to new. On this list,
include everything that's exerting force against the desired
outcome of the project.
Now put the two lists side by side. You'll find that the current
situation is largely defined by the way in which the driving forces
and restraining forces are arrayed in opposition to each other. In
a sense, the current status represents equilibrium. The challenge
for you and your client will be to shift the balance in the
direction that you want it to go. If you're not able to do this,
it's unlikely that your project will achieve its goals. Force-field
analysis is a very useful planning tool for large projects because
it helps to clarify priorities and stimulates discussion about ways
to diminish barriers and reinforce positive forces.
As you put your project plan together, gather information about
the client's organizational structure. Your goal in this is to
identify sponsors and channels of influence—that is to say, key
people who will be involved in the project (whether directly or
indirectly) and the extent of each person's power to impact the
results. As you identify the key players, consider how your primary
contact fits into the picture. To be successful, a large project
needs an effective champion on the client side of the
relationship—preferably someone with real decision-making
authority. It's vital for you to determine right at the start
whether or not your contact is well positioned to serve as that
As you identify the various individuals involved, be on the
lookout for these key profiles:
This may be the person who initially approached you. In a
corporate setting, the recommender is often a staff member, such as
an administrator or purchasing agent. He or she researches the
capabilities of potential service providers, performs some initial
screening in order to narrow the field, and requests competitive
bids. However, the recommender could also be an outside advisor or
industry expert, such as an advertising search consultant. You need
to convince the recommender that your services should be considered
for the project at hand.
This individual has the legal and financial authority to engage
you for the project and, ultimately, to accept or reject the work
that you produce. Within large client organizations, the decider
may be a busy executive who's not actually in the initial meetings
with you. For the success of the project, it's vital for you to
identify the ultimate decision maker, understand his or her
concerns, and keep that person in the loop.
On a large project, many of your daily interactions could be
with a middle manager or assistant who controls access to those
with more authority. This gatekeeper is in a position to filter or
block your information and requests, which can have a major impact
on the progress of the project. Identify gatekeepers right at the
start and build effective working relationships with them.
All client organizations have key relationships with other
businesses, such as suppliers, distributors, or value-added
resellers. These business partners may have financial, legal or
ethical concerns that will impact the project in important ways,
and they may exert considerable influence on your client's
decision-making process. Their points of view must be taken into
The final work delivered by design firms must often be
implemented or maintained by people within the client organization
(two common examples are identity systems and Web sites). Be sure
that you know who these implementers are, understand their concerns
and provide them with whatever guidelines and tools might be
necessary to successfully use the system that you've created.
The next issue for us to discuss is risk. Large projects tend to
involve greater risk than small projects. These are not creative
risks, but potential threats to schedules, logistics and finances.
The most common risks fall into these general categories:
For the project to be successful, your team members must have
the right skills, be available at the right time and make a strong
personal commitment to the project. In addition, you must provide
them with whatever critical information and resources are necessary
for them to do their best work.
When working with large client organizations, you'll quickly
find that corporate politics can be a problem. As we discussed
above, the best approach is to make sure that all key stakeholders
have been identified, and that there's sufficient agreement among
them on the initial need for the project. Then, to keep everything
on track, it's important to work closely with the internal champion
of the project to document client approval at each key
There's always a competitive need to innovate. However, there
are significant dangers involved in going too far out on a limb
with new technologies. This is particularly true of interactive
projects. The technology you select must be proven, reliable, well
understood and available exactly when it's needed.
Adequate client funding must be in place before a large project
starts and funds must remain available as work progresses. In many
client organizations, financial control is a critical issue—it's
not unusual for expected funds to be shifted elsewhere, bringing
the project to a halt.
Many different legal issues can crop up on design projects.
Because of this, you'll want to negotiate contract terms and
conditions very carefully, particularly when it comes to legal
liability in the event of failure of any project element.
Occasionally, physical risks might be involved on creative
projects. Perhaps the most common dangers of this type are
travel-related. In general, though, the risk of personal injury on
graphic and interactive design projects is relatively low. In
contrast, risk levels can be much higher for architectural and
environmental design projects that involve the construction of
physical spaces. Physical risks are also inherent to some
entertainment projects such as filmmaking.
Lastly, nature may pose a risk to your project. You might face a
simple inconvenience like rain on the day of an outdoor event, or a
much more serious threat like a hurricane, flood or earthquake.
It's not possible to accurately predict severe weather or natural
catastrophes, but it's wise to acknowledge that risk levels can be
higher in certain geographic areas and at certain times of the
After reading through this long list, you might be asking
yourself if it's even safe to get out of bed in the morning!
Fortunately, most design projects will face only a few of these
many issues. Once you've identified the specific risks that are
relevant to your particular project, the next step is to assess
them. A very useful approach is to rank each one to indicate how
likely it is to occur (on a scale of 0 to 10), then assign an
additional rank to indicate how serious the impact would be (also
from 0 to 10). Add the scores together and sort them from highest
to lowest. After you've done this, you can concentrate your
planning on those threats with the highest rankings. To counter a
perceived threat, consider one of these strategies:
Identify the cause of the threat and avoid it, perhaps by
eliminating the risky component of the project altogether.
Get others to take on or underwrite any component that you've
identified as too risky. For the other responsibilities that you
retain, be sure that you have appropriate insurance coverage in
Your project plan should include an alternative or substitution
for any risky component that could be implemented quickly if the
Breaking out sub-projects
Large projects tend to have multiple deliverables. For this
reason, it's smart to break up a large and complex project into a
series of more manageable sub-projects, each with its own schedule
and resource needs. Over time, this approach to planning and
tracking also allows you to accumulate a database of historical
information about specific job types. If you've sorted things out
properly, this detailed reference information can help to make
future budgets and schedules much more accurate.
In some creative fields such as architecture, this
project/sub-project approach is standard. Overall coordination of
several closely-related projects is called program management. A
program is a set of projects with a common strategic goal. Often,
there are many interdependencies as well. Even though the
individual deliverables may be produced by separate teams, the
broader effort benefits greatly from coordinated planning,
prioritization and management. This is particularly true if the
program has an extended schedule, with work being executed over a
period of months or years.
Visualizing the plan
The larger the project you're taking on, the more important it
is for you to visualize the plan in some way. Preparing a project
plan in the form of a chart or diagram allows you to see the “big
picture” quite literally. There are several common visual formats
for this. The two used most often by designers are Gantt charts and
PERT diagrams. Here's an explanation of each one:
As you may recall, we discussed Gantt charts very briefly in the
article on proposals referenced earlier. A Gantt chart is a type of
bar graph that shows activities over a span of time. This
specialized format for visualizing project plans was developed in
1917 by industrial engineer Henry Gantt. A project is divided into
its component phases and steps, and each of these is presented as a
horizontal bar. The length of each bar represents that task's
duration. The relative positions of the bars show the time
relationships between them. A Gantt chart indicates which tasks can
be undertaken simultaneously and which must be done in sequence
(although it doesn't usually show the details of any
interdependencies between the tasks). A Gantt chart showing the
original project plan can be expanded to include a comparison to
actual activity. For each task in the project, a horizontal bar for
actual performance can be placed immediately below the bar that
represented the plan. Most project management software includes the
ability to create Gantt charts. There are also some stand-alone
charting applications available. Several sample charts can be seen
here. This topic of
visualizing the actual hours or dollars expended on a large project
is an important one and we'll return to it in part two of this
This is a completely different way of visualizing a project
plan. PERT is an acronym for “program evaluation and review
technique.” This format was developed in the 1950s by the
management consulting firm Booz Allen. It's a network diagram that
shows key activities, the interdependencies between them, and the
so-called “critical path” through the project. To prepare a PERT
diagram, you have to make distinctions between tasks that have
fixed durations and firm deadlines and those that have some
scheduling flexibility (referred to as “float”). The critical path
through these activities represents the minimum duration for the
overall project. A large project must be kept on the critical path
if it's going to be completed on time. Professional-level project
management software often includes the ability to create PERT
diagrams. Some sample diagrams can be seen here.
Detailed advance planning is important so that each project is
structured in such a way that it can be successful. Then, as the
project moves forward, effective management is necessary to keep
everything on track. We'll take a look at implementation challenges
in part two of this article.
Shel is a graphic designer who is active on the business side of professional practice. He has solid experience managing the operations of leading creative firms and guiding them through periods of accelerated growth and rapid change. He has served as director
of operations for MetaDesign San Francisco and as vice president of operations for Clement Mok. He provides management consulting services to a range of creative firms in both traditional and new media. Shel has served on the national board of the Association
of Professional Design Firms and as the president of AIGA San Francisco. He has written and lectured on many topics related to design management and teaches Professional Practice at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, the California College of Arts, and the
University of California.
Building off of his first article, “Managing Large Projects, Part One,” Shel Perkins shares key challenges and insider solutions to keeping a project on track.
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