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.
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.
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.
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 managers?
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.
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.
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