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As a design professional active in many industry circles, I meet
a lot of people, and most of them assume I'm a designer. When they
ask what kind of work I do, I say, “Actually, I'm a project manager
for a design firm.” That's when I get the blank stare, furrowed
brow, discouraging grimace or some combination of the three.
“So you're an account person,” they say.
“Well, kind of, but not exactly,” I reply.
“Are you a production manager?”
“No, I'm really not that good at production. But I help keep
track of deadlines and schedules.”
“So do you use Gantt charts and Microsoft Project?”
“Sometimes, but it's a necessary evil and not really my favorite
part of the job.”
“Well, then, what do you do?”
It's a tough question to answer. Especially because in many
design firms the project manager is still an emerging position. I
have worked as a project manager for several design
firms—officially and unofficially—and it's a role that I find
challenging, engaging and different from one day to the next. One
of the reasons I love what I do is because it is so hard to define.
That lack of definition is both a beauty and a peril, but mostly it
keeps the work fun and interesting. And when it comes down to it, I
love to help people to work better together.
So what does a project manager do?
Most of the time a project manager is a project owner. He or she is
responsible for the leadership of the project from inception to
completion. The project manager leads the team and helps negotiate
the multiple relationships within any project—whether with clients,
team members, firm principals or any variety of partners (such as
freelancers, contractors or even civic committees)—and functions as
the hub of a project.
With most projects, the project manager will begin work after a
contract is signed or negotiated. Although a project manager can be
involved in business development, he or she is usually not the
person chasing deals and developing new relationships. Instead, he
or she works to maintain a healthy client relationship throughout
the course of the project. This often turns into a long-term
business relationship, but the project manager does not usually
initiate it; that's because business development requires a very
different set of skills and significant time away from the office,
which is not ideal for the project manager.
Once the contract is signed, the project manager will assemble a
project team, considering the multiple dynamics and logistics that
go into any mid-to-large-sized project. Skill sets are important,
but personalities are just as vital. Personality management is a
huge part of any project manager's job, and it's crucial to
assemble a team that can play well together.
Once the team is assembled, projects can take any number of
directions. Although most projects start with a team kickoff
meeting, that may differ depending on the goals and scope of the
work. It is up to the project manager—with the team's input—to
decide what the best approach to the work should be and to make
sure it is an effort he or she can own or direct. Although the
project manager needs to be careful to lead and not dictate
(especially with senior team members), he or she needs to have a
vision and an approach decided before the project starts, as well
as have a thorough understanding of the goal in sight.
A project manager facilitates and manages
As a mentor of mine continually tells me, “It's all about the
relationships.” In a collaborative project setting, successful
relationships between team members are the baseline, and the job of
sustaining that baseline often falls to the project manager.
Conflict and friction can be an important part of the creative
process, but it's important that it doesn't derail the project.
A project manager can facilitate this harmony in multiple ways.
One tactic is to take extra effort to make sure that every member
team feels valued and that they are an important part of the
overall process. This includes making sure that team members are
effectively coached and praised throughout their work, especially
during challenging phases. Regardless of how challenging certain
situations or work may be, it is the project manager's job to care
about the quality of work and the quality of the working
environment, even when no one else seems to.
Sometimes tensions require the project manager to conduct
challenging conversations between team members and the client. It's
not that team members always have to go through the project
manager. But it may make those tough discussions more palatable,
knowing that they have a person to help facilitate. Although this
can often be the most difficult aspect of client relations, it is
key to keep relationships positive—because no one wants to work
with someone that they don't feel respected by, and the quality of
the work will suffer along with the working environment.
Maintaining a positive working environment also builds rapport
among the team and keeps enthusiasm levels high, which is crucial
on a challenging project.
Project managers are strategic leaders.
A project manager must have a vision for the course and goals of
the project. This should apply not only to the process, but also to
the strategy. Because the project manager keeps an eye on the big
picture from day one, he or she should be able to effectively lead
the project's strategy as well. And the advantage that the project
manager has over any other team member is that he or she is not
participating in the creation of the work.
For the hands-on designer, the profession and the work consist
of big ideas and small details. It is not enough to have a great
concept—you have to be able to execute against it, and this often
means sorting through painstaking minutia and multiple iterations
of a concept until you get it right and the work sings.
It is up to the project manager to keep an eye on the goals and
objectives of the project—both for the client and the design team.
Clients are just as easily seduced by sexy layouts as their
creators are, but it is the project manager's job to avoid those
temptations and make sure the project meets its objectives.
Another way in which the project manager holds the team to its
objectives is through documentation of the creative process, which
can take many forms. Concepts are developed in many ways, but there
is always a source: a client interview, a hands-on collaborative
team session, industry research or an informal jam session about
what we're trying to accomplish. Once this information is gathered,
most designers are itching to start and let the creative juices
flow. Where the project manager helps is by producing the
documentation behind the big ideas, perhaps via an idea board, a
scrapbook recapping a brainstorming session or an even more formal
creative brief. These documents can help demonstrate the thinking
behind the big ideas without handicapping the designers to document
their process every step of the way.
Do all projects or firms need project
Although lots of firms and projects can benefit from a project
manager, it is not always required, especially if a firm has many
seasoned, experienced design professionals on staff. Project
managers usually fare best in mid-sized to large firms with at
least 25 people or more. The role also works best with teams of
three members (plus the project manager) or more, when there is a
fair amount of detail involved, multiple deadlines and frequent
communication to be managed either between the team and the client
or within the team itself.
The role also works well with team members that are less
experienced and need more coaching. In smaller firms, an art
director or design director often functions as a project manager
and may be capable of handling this role. But sometimes project
management is the last thing the art director wants to—or should—be
doing. In this case, a project manager can relieve the art director
or senior designer of these duties so that he or she can focus on
the quality of the design rather than the project process.
An experienced project manager can also fill in for a studio
principal. In a medium-to-large studio environment, there are still
usually only two to three principals and/or creative directors, and
these people usually have such multi-faceted roles that they have
little time for creative guidance or perhaps not as much guidance
as projects usually need. This is where an experienced project
manager, especially one with design experience, can help. Although
there is still a need for creative direction or support,
particularly at the inception, a project manager can provide the
additional steering and/or hands-on guidance required for a project
to meet its objectives. The creative director may be involved in
the beginning, for assistance with conceptual development, but once
a project has this general direction the project manager can step
in to continue to steer it in the right direction.
What are the qualifications?
Different firms will require different types of project managers,
but some skills are inherent.
Hiring a project manager will not solve all of your firm's
management issues. But allowing for leadership of your projects and
your firm's work will enable smoother processes and better
workflow, and encourage leadership within your organization.
Finding the right team, giving appropriate direction and
managing the working environment—while maintaining a strategic
focus and staying on top of deadlines and deliverables—are all part
of a project manager's role. It's a challenging task for the right
individual. But if you can find someone who loves it, you can build
your firm's business and improve the quality of your work.
Hopefully you'll have more fun doing it, too.
AIGA Design for Democracy has been working with election design experts Dana Chisnell and
Whitney Quesenbery to create four “Field Guides To Ensuring Voter Intent,” distiling best practices into a series of pocket-size reference guides for designers and county election officials.
Section: Tools and Resources -
Layoffs are a fact of life in the design profession. With unemployment at 7.7 percent nationally, and with firms learning to operate leaner
in order to remain competitive in a very crowded market, I've assembled a
list of warning signs that you might be laid off, and what steps you should take to achieve the most favorable outcome.
Section: Tools and Resources
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