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In the design profession, nearly all important projects are too
large to be completed by just one person. Because of this, each
creative firm strives to develop a culture that fosters effective
In many other professions, teams can be rather hierarchical,
inflexible and slow. This is especially true for corporate teams
that are together for a number of years. Over time, they often
become inward-focused and bureaucratic. They suffer from turf
battles and politics. Design teams, however, are quite different.
They are brought together for a short period of time, usually just
a few weeks or a few months, to complete a single project. No two
projects are identical, so the size and composition of each team
varies. A cookie-cutter approach will not work-most projects need
different processes and tools. To accommodate this, design firms
structure their resources like a network, making them scalable and
flexible enough to allow multiple configurations.
Design teams have fewer rules and a greater flow of information,
both of which are important for rapid innovation. Design teams are
externally-oriented and focused on client needs. Because of this,
the organizational structure for the team tends to be decentralized
and organic rather than hierarchical and rigid. Having fewer layers
and rules allows the group to be more adaptive to the external
environment. Design teams also have an egalitarian nature that
encourages self-management and regular participation by all group
members in decision-making. Individuals who do well in this
environment are those who are drawn to challenges and are strongly
motivated by opportunities for personal and professional
When a new project is first pitched, one of the most important
aspects of advance planning is to determine the exact mix of skills
that will be required for success. Smart planning includes lining
up the appropriate resources and resolving any competing demands
for their availability. Design of course is the magic ingredient in
the mix, but other skills will be vitally important as well. The
needs of a large project will span multiple disciplines. A complex
problem will require a wide range of expertise-from research,
strategy and content development to technology, engineering and
project management. The ultimate success of the project will depend
upon getting just the right mix of talent, technical skills and
The exact size of each team is determined by the number of
separate skill sets required. On a large project, there will be a
core team that is augmented by other players on an as-needed basis.
Many organizational experts advise that the most effective size for
a problem-solving group is between five and seven people. Because
of this, core teams tend to be small. Other resources are called
upon in a very targeted way. In design firms, the core team for a
project will be composed primarily of employees. The firm makes an
important business decision about which skills to have on staff.
This defines its core competencies and enables it to meet the
recurring needs within its category of services. Outside resources
are used for temporary needs and to accommodate project variations.
Keep in mind that key project skills can also be provided by the
client organization. Good design firms work in close collaboration
with clients, functioning more like a partner than a vendor.
When other professionals are brought into a project, they may be
freelancers or separate creative firms brought in on a subcontract
basis. Within each of the many possible skill sets, there will also
be people at different levels of experience, from senior down to
entry-level. Not everyone will be involved for the full duration of
the project-some may be needed during one or two phases only. The
full team must of course be large enough to accomplish the work-the
project will be doomed if the overall team is too small to carry
the load or if key skills are missing. However, as teams increase
in size, they can suffer from less cohesion, more confusion and
Each person is added to the team for the skills that they
possess, then placed in a particular role. It's important to
clarify at the start exactly which role each person is being asked
to play and what their relationship will be to the others. An
individual's role may vary significantly from project to project.
Each role carries certain responsibilities and is assigned specific
tasks-the daily activities required to move the project
As you can see, quite an assortment of individuals can be
involved on a big project. Once you have assembled the right mix of
resources, how do you keep everything functioning smoothly? Two
roles are vital to hold this shifting cast together-a team leader
and a project manager.
In design firms, a creative director usually fills the role of
the leader, although a senior professional from another discipline
might also serve in this capacity. In general, leaders of design
teams do not take a top-down approach, acting like a boss and
telling people precisely what to do. Rather, he or she serves more
as a facilitator and a catalyst. The leader must motivate the team
members, clarify difficult issues and orchestrate everyone's
efforts. This means exploring alternatives, pushing boundaries,
keeping the whole team involved and moving the group toward
consensus. It means getting members to share and preventing the
team from diverging into the silos of separate disciplines. It
means pulling the entire team together at key milestones,
conducting brainstorming sessions and critiques, and guiding the
development of a unifying concept for the project that will unite
the various disciplines and span different types of media.
The leader will have to make tough judgment calls when the group
is faced with difficult trade-offs. The leader must guide the
creative process in such a way that the finished work is
strategically sound and of the highest possible quality. In a short
period of time, good ideas must be developed and then executed
flawlessly. The team leader serves as the primary client contact
for strategic and creative issues. He or she is responsible for
managing client expectations over the course of the project and may
often have to push back and persuade.
The team leader must also be sensitive to the needs and goals of
individual team members. A good team leader will serve as a mentor,
encouraging others to stretch creatively and helping them to
develop their potential. In the case of staff members, this
includes nurturing their personal growth over the course of
multiple projects. To be a mentor, the team leader must have
credibility. He or she must bring to the position proven ability
and relevant industry experience. Leaders must establish and
maintain mutual respect. This requires honesty, trust and a genuine
and consistent emphasis on us/we/our. Effective design team leaders
tend to have a decentralized approach to authority, allowing
individuals to work independently on tasks, then bring their work
back to the group for evaluation and integration. This moves most
projects forward through a cycle of rapid prototyping and
Lastly, the team leader must see to it that excitement and fun
do not drain away from the work. Fun is powerful motivator. It puts
things into new contexts and leads to fresh ideas. Every design
firm faces a paradox here. What is the right balance between
freedom and discipline? True innovation requires creative risk. It
involves experimentation and making mistakes. At the same time,
however, design teams must be provided with just the right amount
of structure. They must take a mature and responsible approach to
budgets and schedules. In this latter respect, the team leader can
be greatly assisted by a capable project manager.
The role of the project manager is a very important one. Most
design teams find it indispensable to have someone specifically
charged with the coordination of logistics. This person must have a
good understanding of the creative and production processes
involved, but their role on the team is not that of a designer.
When a project is first pitched, the project manager may assist in
developing estimates and timelines and identifying potential risks.
Once a project is active, his or her primary responsibility is to
support the team by taking care of a range of administrative tasks.
Project management requires a special skill set that is not the
same as design ability. In small firms, designers may be asked to
take care of the logistics on their own projects, but these
responsibilities may not match their strongest skills or be the
best use of their time. Having a project manager on the team frees
up designers to spend more time actually designing. The project
manager arranges any necessary meetings, distributes updated
information, monitors budgets and deadlines and documents the
progress of each assignment.
The job title for this person may vary. On an interaction design
team they may be called a producer. On teams that do mostly print
work, this person may be a production manager with special
expertise related to print buying. On an advertising team, he or
she may be the traffic manager, making sure that the right
materials are in the right place at the right time. Often the
project manager serves as a filter to protect the productivity of
other team members by shielding them from distractions. He or she
may take incoming logistical information and requests, then route
them to the appropriate team members. However, this is not at all
the same as the account director role that exists in many
advertising agencies. Design firms tend to regard account directors
as middlemen or interpreters. Most design consultancies eliminate
the account director role in order to have direct contact between
the client and the creative team.
The ideal situation for every team is to maintain positive
interpersonal dynamics throughout the project. Realistically
though, a few personality clashes are almost inevitable when you
have a variety of bright, ambitious people who are working together
for the first time, particularly as deadlines approach and pressure
mounts. So what can you do to prevent or minimize people problems?
Here are the secrets of successful teamwork:
Be selective when first assembling the team. In addition to
creative and technical skills, look for personalities that will fit
together well in a team environment. Look for professionalism,
reliability and a positive attitude. A collection of big egos will
clash and work at cross-purposes. Individuals who are difficult or
manipulative will undermine the success of the entire project.
Various team members will come from different professional
backgrounds. Each should be an expert in his or her respective
field and that expertise must be acknowledged and respected by the
others. An “all-star” team is a collaboration of peers where all
skills are equally necessary for success. In fact, the
cross-pollination of different perspectives is one of the most
powerful advantages of teams.
Everyone in the group will win or lose together. It's not
possible for just one element of a project to succeed in isolation.
The goals of the individuals involved must be in sync with the
group's goals. Different intended outcomes will lead to
A shared understanding of how the process will work
Design teams need a common framework and shared language for
working together. Effective collaboration requires a commitment to
shared methodology, terminology and milestones. The process will
include open critiques with all members participating-the goal is
to identify and develop the very best ideas from all sources.
Along the way, it's vital to maintain positive and effective
communication and a commitment to rapid and fair conflict
resolution. Projects benefit from creative tension but not personal
conflicts. When differences arise, they must be acknowledged and
addressed. This takes even-handed intervention by the team leader,
active facilitation by the project manager and a strong group
commitment to resolving problems. The team leader must keep
critiques from becoming personal. All members should receive
frequent feedback on task performance from the leader and other
team members, and constructive suggestions whenever change is
Most design projects involve a lot of information-sharing and
meetings. On big projects, it's typical to have a quick daily
huddle to address pending deadlines or emergencies. There will also
be a more comprehensive weekly meeting that is organized by the
project manager and guided by the team leader.
Even though digital technologies make it possible to collaborate
remotely, on a fast-moving project there is no substitute for being
in the same room and negotiating activities face-to-face. To
respect everyone's schedule, keep it short and simple. In the
meeting, state what has changed and what has been achieved. Be sure
to recognize positive behaviors, results and contributions. You
should also include bad news, if there is any. This is a chance for
the group to correct any miscommunications, clear the air if
necessary and refocus its energies. (However, the team leader will
have to make a judgment call if a serious personal problem has come
up with an individual team member. It may be best to remember the
old adage about praising publicly and criticizing privately.) Input
should be solicited from every team member and each should have an
opportunity to contribute. At the end of the meeting, summarize the
decisions that have been made and the follow-up actions that are
needed. For each action item, identify the person responsible and
the date when it must be completed. There must be personal
accountability for results.
Whenever possible, keep progress visible. Display the latest
iterations of the creative work and any other important
documentation such as research findings and brand strategy
documents. Post charts that show the burn rate on budgets and
updated schedules that remind everyone of important milestones and
deadlines. There should be one central repository for project
information. It could be an intranet site, but it's more beneficial
if the team has a shared physical space. Many industrial design
firms set up a workroom where all of the materials related to a
large project can be left spread out. All team meetings take place
there. If the materials are confidential and must be protected when
the team is away, the workroom will have a door that can be locked.
Having a shared space enables the team to work in close physical
proximity, which increases interaction and encourages
At the end of a project, the team delivers the completed work to
the client or hands it off to a third party such as a printing
company for implementation. As soon as that happens, all team
resources are reassigned. This raises a very important
psychological issue. To stay in business, each design firm must
line up a constant stream of assignments. The master schedule is
kept very tight so that, as soon as one ends, everyone is
immediately shifted to the next. However, it can be frustrating if
there is never a moment's pause to savor what the team has
accomplished together. This can damage staff morale and contribute
to burnout. At the very least, the full team should have one final
meeting to conduct a postpartum review of the completed project.
This is an opportunity to evaluate the finished work in light of
its success criteria. It's a chance to discuss what went well and
what didn't, and to learn from any failures. In a large firm, there
should also be a way of sharing what you learn with the rest of the
organization so that you are creating a culture of learning for the
overall company. For staff members, there should also be a way to
include feedback on team play in their performance evaluations.
This encourages personal and professional growth.
At the conclusion of a large or difficult project, it's also
important to satisfy the very human needs for emotional closure and
a sense of completion. There are many ways to recognize and reward
the team: a small event or celebration, a team photograph, a
personal memento or perhaps a personal note of thanks from the team
leader. All of these are effective ways of closing the loop and can
have a big impact on morale. They mark the conclusion of a shared
experience, send a clear message that the effort was worthwhile and
create positive motivation for future efforts.
Shel Perkins is a graphic designer, management consultant and educator with more than twenty years of experience in managing the operations of leading design firms in the U.S. and the U.K. He has served on the national boards of AIGA and the Association
of Professional Design Firms. He has been honored as an AIGA Fellow "in recognition of significant personal and professional contributions to raising the standards of excellence within the design community." The third edition of his best-selling book, Talent
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