Why a designer shouldn’t project manage

Why a designer shouldn’t project manage

This article started life after a particular Tweet stood out to me on my Twitter feed. Sam Barnes tweeted about an article by Andy Rutledge on project management in January’s .net magazine, arguing that project management should be the responsibility of designers, not project managers.

Although that statement might make most project managers think ‘Eh, what’s he on about?!’, Andy makes a number of valid points in the article. He’s partly right: a designer shouldn’t let the project manager stand in between them and the client to block the design process.

Having said that, a lot of the article’s suggestions are pretty unworkable, especially within agencies. As always, context is key (more on that later).

What does Andy argue?

For those who haven’t read Andy’s article, here’s a brief summary, or you can access a (paid) copy here: .net magazine back issues

  • Project managers are often unnecessary, or at least ill-employed. Once a project manager has introduced the client to the agency professionals, they should step aside and leave everything to the designer.
  • Bad project managers take too much control of a project.
  • Good project managers are facilitators and administrators—the project manager is actually the administrative liaison, and should ultimately remain on the sidelines of a project.
  • Whether it’s the project manager’s, or the designer’s fault, project managers take over too many of the designer’s responsibilities which inevitably leads to a diminished result.

So why don’t I agree?

A project manager’s role is to communicate with the client. As Andy recognises in his article, the client needs to feel that the agency is invested in their project. This requires time, and an individual to take responsibility of the communication; someone whose primary role is not a crucial part of the project outcome.

In a busy agency with competing needs, handing over this task to the designer on the project wouldn’t be achievable (or desirable, by either designer or client).

‘Clutter’

In my experience of agency process, a project kicks off with the project manager taking control of the project and setting it in motion. They then involve the necessary people in the internal team, together determining how the project will run. In Andy’s opinion, this is where a project manager takes too much control.

However, if the designer has to deal with all project communication with the client day-to-day, then when do they get the time to design? A good project manager frees the designer from having to concentrate the majority of their time talking to the client—time better spent where their primary skillset lies! The project manager can plan in the whens, wheres and hows in the project, recognising the competing needs of other projects and ensuring that designers’ time is available.

Our job as project manager is to involve the designer as much as necessary, whilst making sure they avoid unnecessary ‘clutter’ and freeing them to spend the necessary time on the creative and design process. This might be taking a certain amount of control away from designers, but it’s crucial when they need to focus their attention on the actual creation of the site.

Andy believes that designers should be managing timelines and setting deadlines as they have the best understanding of the factors and work involved.

But a good project manager will not set deadlines and timings themselves without thinking or just using guesswork; they will consult the designers and developers and manage their recommendations to work up a project plan (saving the designer or developer having to wrestle with the project planning tool!) They’ll also take into account other projects and competing needs, which is crucial in an agency environment.

What if a designer is working across multiple projects? How frustrating would it be for another project to lose their design time because the designer has to answer emails, deal with constant queries or create a project plan. Good project planning means just that—planning! And planning needs time dedicated to it, ideally by someone whose primary role it is to do this.

Having a central point of contact

So, should a project manager just sit on the sidelines of a project, performing the administrative tasks? Not in my opinion.

A project manager gets to know the client, not to mention the designers and developers working on the project. They learn how best to deal with a client, and what a particular client responds to, what’s important to them, and what their needs and requirements are.

A designer or developer put in charge of the communication with the client for just part of the project won’t have enough time for this. The project manager instead should act as the central point for the client across the project, and can facilitate and coordinate the different teams involved.

Being on the sidelines of a project and performing admin tasks isn’t the best use of a good project manager’s skills and time. A project manager is good at communication; that’s partly why we are hired!

Why the project manager isn’t redundant… just yet!

Run in the right way, it is much better for the project manager to organise the project. Instead of letting the designer lead the project from the start, then hand over to the developer and so on, the project manager can facilitate the whole project from start to finish. The key benefits for this are pretty clear:

  • Consistency for the client: they don’t feel like they are being pushed from one person to another.
  • Consistency for the internal team: having a consistent facilitator of the project is much more effective in terms of communication.
  • The project manager can immerse themselves in the project from beginning to end and really understand it—managing timings, budget and scope definition.
  • The project manager can coordinate the project; managing all the different parts of the overall process and leaving the people best placed to deliver the client’s requirements to focus their time and energies on doing just that!

So what should the project manager do then?

How do you, as a project manager, ensure that a designer or developer is involved enough in the project, but that their time is not wasted on tasks better managed by yourself?

  • Involve the designers and developers early on (see my previous article on effectively managing involvement).
  • Ensure all timings and assumptions are checked with the relevant members of the team first.
  • Don’t shield your internal project team from the client. Get them involved in key conversations, meetings and presentations.
  • The project manager doesn’t need to deal with the client directly at all times. It’s a waste of time being a middle-man for a key discussion about design. Be involved but don’t filter all the messages through yourself!
  • Collate feedback from the client before giving to your designer or developer. It’s easier to go through things at once rather than in bits, therefore saving their time in the long run.
  • Finally—sell yourself to the internal team. Actually show them how you can make their lives easier and what the benefit is to have you managing the project!

Summary

Andy hits the nail on the head when he says: “Relieve your teammates of distraction, but not responsibility”.

It’s sometimes easy to shield your designers from all communication with clients, so they’re not getting as involved in the project—and this can create a bit of distance between them and the client and/or project.

Get them involved in the discussions, the client calls, the presentations. It’s not necessary to keep all communication with the client to yourself. They just don’t need to be as heavily involved in the day-to-day ins and outs of the project, otherwise they won’t have time to do what they do best—design.

*Massive caveat
Different solutions work in different contexts. A small start-up that has a developer and designer does not necessarily need (or have the resources) to have a project manager involved, and they will have to manage the client and projects between them. However, in an agency environment where there are multiple projects running at once, I don’t believe what Andy proposes is workable in the long term—unless you want your designers having to make the choice between answering that client call, or actually designing!

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