How to keep a design project on track

Dan Fox

Managing design projects can feel like the ultimate plate-spinning challenge. But careful planning, collaborative processes and a willingness to keep learning will help you squash the unknowns and stay in control.

Do you sometimes feel the projects you manage are growing legs and running away from you?

You’re not alone. Keeping a design project on track is tricky at the best of times, and even harder with several projects on the go, multiple work streams competing for resource and different clients to keep happy.

But this challenge is what we love about project management, right?

Managing design projects can be overwhelming, but it helps to be well armed. At Output we constantly tweak and refine our process, building on what works well and always learning from what doesn’t. Here are some of our learnings.

Set things up right

Before a project even begins, there’s a mini-project in setting everything up. A thorough pre-project plan will give you the foundation to start building on.

Organisation is key and, as a project manager, this is your time to shine. At Output we create a project status document which becomes our project blueprint as we work through the project. This is usually something simple like a Google Doc or Notion project and it houses the statement of work, timeline, a list of key stakeholders with their roles on the project and any key documents our team needs. This status doc acts as an evolving hub throughout the project. A single source of truth for you and your client.

Do the timeline

We also co-create the project timeline with our internal teams and the client. Involving everyone at this stage gets them onboard with the plan and creates a shared sense of ownership. I’d also recommend trying to book all the key meetings as far in advance as possible. We’ve all spent countless hours trying to wrangle busy calendars mid-project. Diary Tetris is no fun when it’s on you to keep timelines locked!

Let’s talk about process

Ah, process. A seven-letter word so powerful it can make people glaze over and think of their happy place. Well, process is my happy place, because a solid methodology makes for a happy project, and a happy project makes for happy clients and a happy creative team. Did I say ‘happy’ enough?

Letting our experience in digital inform our brand work, we’ve found a sprint-based approach to projects works wonders. We don’t go away for months and come back with a make-or-break ‘ta-dah’ reveal. Instead, we bring clients on the journey, then iterate and refine, with regular opportunities for feedback. This not only negates the dreaded, “I don’t like it”, feedback we all fear, it also helps to onboard client teams successfully.

It’s not always easy to tell someone you’re not quite vibing with what they’re doing, but we’d much rather have a frank discussion and get to the right solution.”

Internally our catch-ups are even more regular. Short daily ‘stand-ups’ help us keep track of progress and identify potential issues before they actually become an issue. This is done alongside weekly resource reviews with creative leads and our production team, so we know who’s needed on what, and when. This open communication is fundamental for success.

Once we’ve delivered a project we’ll do an internal debrief and ideally another with the client. Analysing ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ is the best way to really learn and refine your process.

Collaboration is key

Something people find different at Output is the open collaboration with client product teams. We discover early how our clients work and how we can integrate with them. Regularly sharing work in progress helps validate our decision-making and giving open design files means internal teams can stress-test the systems we’re creating.

Ultimately our clients know ‘their world’ much better than us and they’ll need to live and breathe the work we create together. So it makes sense to get them as involved as they can be, so that work will be absolutely fit for purpose.

Giving useful feedback can be tricky. Sometimes it’s the biggest challenge to a project. It’s not always easy to tell someone you’re not quite vibing with what they’re doing, but we’d much rather have a frank discussion and get to the right solution. Ultimately though, it’s our job to challenge feedback where we feel it’s appropriate and ensure that everything ladders up to the strategy we’ve aligned on. Open and honest conversations really do maketh a successful project.

Doomsday preppers

Despite the best planning in the world, things can go wrong. That’s why you need your ‘doomsday prep’ for any worst-case scenarios that might arise: unexpected absences on your team, last-minute requests or the dreaded scope-creep.

This is where plans B, C and sometimes even D come into play. That might mean always having two designers briefed and up to speed, allowing some contingency in your scheduling, or standing firm, treating new items as change requests and renegotiating the budget accordingly.

Your job as a project manager is to prepare for the unknown and have these back-up plans in place. Hopefully, by working through the guidance above, you can keep them stored away for another day.

Got any questions? We love to chat process, so feel free to get in touch.

Dan Fox

Dan (he/him) has progressed from Project Manager to Account Director at Output, via the Head of Production role, so he’s well placed to balance great client experiences with an environment for creatives to thrive. He shares tips on process for agency and client-side project managers, alongside practical advice for people getting into the industry.