Keep managing the projects

Designers aren’t known for their project management skills, but they’re vital if you’re to finish a commission on time and on budget.

Graphic design is about creative problem solving. This is a simple statement, but this is what sets graphic design apart from fine art, and it is what makes it actually more of a craft than ‘art’. Ironically, because it is about solving problems, the graphic design process itself can be prone to problems.

I’m about to make a massive generalisation, but bear with me; there’s more than a grain of truth in it. The average creative designer isn’t likely to be a great organiser, not by nature anyway. They’re more likely to be the kind of person who might take a new route on a whim, to try new things just to see what they’re like, even if that’s not really the best, most efficient or most streamlined approach. That’s how many ‘creatives’ (forgive the term, please) keep their thinking fresh, how they keep their work and thinking new and interesting.

This is also why designers can frustrate the hell out of project managers, account handlers, accountants, and senior management in general. This is also precisely the reason most designers really need those project managers, account handlers, accountants, and yes, sometimes senior management as well; to deal with the things they – okay, we – don’t want to. But what if you don’t have this kind of setup around you? There’s just one answer: step up and take it on yourself. Which can be pretty daunting.

The biggest mistake a fresh-faced designer straight out of college will make is over-promising. Until there’s some experience under your belt (and even after that) it is so easy to get fired up and start promising the moon, on a plate, by next Tuesday. This is where the Project Triangle comes in. You’ve probably heard this before, but it is well worth repeating. The idea is that your work can be (a) good, (b) fast, (c) cheap… but only two of those things at once. Sometimes one of those factors is eliminated for you – the deadline is short or, more likely, the budget may be restricted. (Mind you, if you’re asked to do something both fast and cheap, forsaking ‘good’, perhaps you need to find new clients!)

Planning and following-through is another typical problem area. We all have things we’re good at, things that we can manage to do acceptably but don’t enjoy, and things that, frankly, we’re rubbish at and probably always put off as long as we can. We may not even consciously realise we’re doing this, but it is a skill many of us perfect when we’re students at college. It seems to be human nature, although some people are better than others at getting over this.

Every designer – in fact almost everyone full stop – could benefit from a little more discipline in how they handle projects. I know I’m a great example of this need; I often find it really hard to keep momentum up when the initial excitement of a fresh challenge turns into just the same old problems and something starts dragging on and on. I need to make regular efforts to keep  This is a factor of my personality type, and although I’m not a fan of Jungian psychology the old coot did come up with some interesting ways of identifying how people think and what makes them tick. Knowing this about yourself can be an eye-opening insight into how you handle projects and people, so consider taking the modern(ish) form of the Jung Typology Test, introduced in the 1960s as the Myers-Briggs ‘quantitative personality test’. Don’t put too much into it, but try it out and see how the results seem to fit. Some online tests charge for the results, but this can be done free at places such as www.psitao.com (an academic research-based site) and www.humanmetrics.com (which charges for other tests). The results will be in the form of four letters, one of sixteen different types that define a set of general traits that you may or may not recognise.

I’m ENTP, btw, aka Extroverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiving. An odd name, but ignore that. The descriptions of that one are, well, interesting – and maybe a little telling. This type enjoys playing devil’s advocate (yes, always), is fond of toys but moves on to new ones regularly (okay, I do want an iPad), likes problem-solving but can outsmart themselves, is likely to be a genial optimist, but ‘can be oblivious to the rest of humanity’. Ouch. Should I apologise now?

But the point of this isn’t really to do some Californian-style soul searching or ‘personal improvement’, it is more a way to help you recognise how you tend to deal with things and people. And perhaps how to avoid getting stuck chasing problems in your design and production projects.

The trick with this lies in project management. No, don’t yawn. It isn’t exciting, it isn’t sexy – but it will generally keep things on the rails. In fact, project management is the key to managing almost everything, from design projects to shopping expeditions. (Okay, yes, it can also be over-used and kill the moment; project-managing a marriage proposal is probably a rather bad idea.)

Most of us probably can’t even spell ‘gannt’ – whoops, ‘gantt’. But if done properly and completely, project management means gantt charts, project owners, goals and deliverables, the whole nine yards. Fortunately you don’t need to go to those jargon-filled extremes if you don’t want to. If you normally just do a bit of brainstorming at the start and then launch into the design project, juggling things as they come, then try this: simply map out a set of dates and dependencies – what things need to be sorted out before something else can progress, that sort of thing. This will probably keep you straighter and more narrow than ever before.

Here are some things you can do without making changes that might rock the boat too much. First, incorporate your brainstorming (creative or otherwise) into the whole project process and keep a record that you can refer to at key stages. Do you use piles of Post-It notes to group your ideas? How about large sheets of paper and markers? Take photos of these and file the pictures away. Just being able to refer back to all the ideas that bubbled up at the start can help you stay on top of things.

Next, get a dry-marker wall chart and draw yourself a simple project timeline with key stages marked out – calendar-style or gantt-style, whatever works for you. Keep this where you can see it, and keep referring to it. It is amazing how much difference it can make just having those things in plain view rather than tucked away in some slightly daunting document.

Finally, use iCal and set advance alarms for those stages. This works even better if you’re an iPhone user as you’ll be prompted about impending milestones even when you’re not working on your Mac in the studio. You may not like being auto-reminded of deadlines when you’re at the pub, but that’s a whole lot better than being reminded after the fact by an irate phone call or email.

You know what? It is high time I practised what I’m preaching. Visible and audible deadlines would help me get this column written on time, for one thing. But maybe I need an iPad to keep me reminded? New toys, mmm…

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