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Q&A: Project Management Through the Lens of a Designer

As a project manager, I’m constantly wondering how I can better support my team. I’ve always been a believer in the fact that project managers must have the ability to build relationships to understand how their team members work. It’s never as easy as “hand over the wireframe to the designer and make it pretty.” If you’re a project manager and you think that way, you’ve got a lot to learn. I urge you to sit down with your coworkers and chat about what works for them. That’s exactly what I’ve done for my article this week: a chat with Kevin Sharon, a Happy Cog Creative Director, to view project management through the eyes of a designer.

BH: I know you like process. We talk about it all the time. Tell me why.

KS: I came to design from a pretty non-traditional place. I studied avant-garde filmmaking in college. That education didn’t give me the tools that make up the design process like typography, layout, design patterns, that sort of thing. It did, however, give me some pretty useful tools for dealing with the creative process and craftsmanship, so what I fall back on is process. While most of my peers spent their education and early career working in design and learning at the hands of great design teachers, I was developing my ability to form conceptual ideas through process. Process just works well for me both in the way I work, as well as in the way I give direction. As a result, I tend to be pretty deliberate and spend a bit of sweat equity to solve design problems. I tend to work harder at getting to the solution for stuff that most people find easy.

BH: Interesting, so it’s not all about visuals for you right away. Your thinking goes from conceptual to tactical. I can see that in how you present your work to clients. So, in terms of process, what works for you?

KS: Understanding that every project is different. I think it’s important to adapt creative process appropriately. I try to look at a project from a very high view and decide what it is to me, or at least what my gut tells me the project is. I might ask myself, “Is this a content heavy site, an e-commerce site, an ‘app?’” From that distance I can decide everything from what sort of exercises I want to go through at our kickoff meeting to how many concepts the design team will create for the project.

I hate the idea of change just for the sake of change and I think it’s far more valuable to evolve your process than to start over from the beginning every time. I was lucky enough to work under the tutelage of Chris Cashdollar who taught me his Rule of Three approach to projects. I think there’s some very valuable advice in there for people who lead design teams, and, if you’ve read it already, believe me, it’s worth rereading. My own design process generally doesn’t absolutely follow Chris’ prescribed approach of 3 concepts, but his statement, “Designers should attack projects with obvious gusto,” is something we both heartily agree on. As designers and team leaders, we can and should always do more.

When it comes to presenting work to clients, my intent is to deliver not only our beautiful design work, but also the thinking that went into the design and how it relates to the project goals. A trap that I’ve seen a lot of young designers fall into is when they describe their work like screen real estate, walking the client through their work by describing everything from the header to the footer, indiscriminately and without the reasoning behind everything.

BH: I’m totally with you on being adaptive. Lately, I feel like we’ve been doing a lot of projects where we need to accommodate for tight deadlines and moving targets. They can be challenging, but also very, very rewarding. Can you point out a project where the process departed from the typical waterfall process, but worked for you? Or changed the way you wanted to work moving forward?

KS: Happy Cog is very adept at following a waterfall process. And I think we’ve done a great job using this process for lots of amazing projects. It’s not a broken process by any means. Recently, we’ve adapted this traditional waterfall approach for some projects.

What is interesting, though, is that more and more projects over the past couple years have been engagements with clients that follow an Agile process. This brings up an interesting question: Is it better for the client’s agile team to adapt by bringing us into their approach than it is for us to bring them into our process? We once had a client who asked us to turn around a page design in a couple of days. To be perfectly honest, I think every one of us on the design team took that as a bit of an affront. Our design work tends to be very thoughtful and carefully considered. We don’t typically throw ourselves into Photoshop and start cranking out work. In retrospect, it’s an interesting challenge to which we may need to adapt. The next time that happens, my thinking might say, “What can we accomplish in a two-day sprint without sacrificing our thoughtfulness? What can we do in the next two-day sprint that’s still carefully considered?” and so on. This idea of adapting ourselves to a client team is really interesting and a fun challenge to me.

BH: Have you always worked with a project manager?

KS: At my first design job, I worked in a small design studio that didn’t have a project manager and most of the projects in that studio were print design. Since that time, I’ve always worked with project managers. I would say, as a creative director, I’ve had to adapt my creative process as I’m working with project managers much more one-on-one and have much more interaction with clients than I used to. Almost all of the success of any project is determined by that client relationship. Understanding how deeply you need to serve the project’s business needs is much more acute now than when I was a designer whose engagement on a project could be measured in hours rather than weeks. 

BH: I definitely think understanding the business side of things can be a challenge for some designers because, in many ways, junior designers are kept away from the real client relationships and conversations. I try to bring that to the entire team, when possible, because I think it’s important for everyone on the team to fully understand the client’s point of view. On that note, how do you think a project manager can affect ideas in the creative process?

KS: Project managers are wonderful for the creative process. I love when PMs participate in brainstorms. They typically have an inside out understanding of the project and can offer insights into client expectations. They also tend to not be the ego-driven sort and help keep the brainstorms positive and moving forward. For the other, not so sexy, parts of the creative process, it’s great to have someone with whom I can collaborate on everything from the exercises at the kickoff meeting to helping organize creative reviews with the team. A project manager only wants you to do well and it’s great to have someone on your team that you can trust to not let you make a fool out of yourself.

BH: Yes, Kevin, I’m here to protect the world from your foolery. :) Aside from that, what is the best thing a project manager can do for you?

KS: I’m glad you asked this question. I think really great project managers are good listeners first and secondly optimists. Client work is incredibly rewarding, but even the best projects will hit a point that will cause a bit of frustration. For me, the best PMs are the ones that will openly share their own frustrations as well as hear your concerns with a sympathetic ear. Everyone needs to vent sometimes and it’s probably a pretty good idea to keep that away from the client. Once everyone has had a chance to vent, it’s easier to move on and think of a new approach to get past the frustration.

BH: Speaking of venting, what’s the worst thing that has happened to one of your projects as a result of poor, or no project management?

KS: Previous to Happy Cog, I worked at a huge ad agency (the name may or may not rhyme with ‘Laser-wish’). A very important client (one who made up about 90% of our revenue) had a project to redesign their corporate website. As it happened, our team first heard about it less than 2 days before the concepts were due. It might surprise you to hear there was no project manager on that project.

BH: Yikes! Do you think a PM could have rescued the design team from that mess? If so, how?
 
KS: That’s a tough one. The process was obviously so bungled by someone that the only thing a project manager could do at that point was help the poor guy in charge carry the contents of his desk to his car.

BH: Interesting. So, you know that we can’t fix everything. I find that we can help keep you on track with tasks, if you are open to it (not everyone wants that level of help, which is fine). What common things happen in your day that can destroy your productivity? Could a PM help to keep you on track?

KS: The most common thing that destroys productivity is Photoshop. If you could fix Photoshop that would be nice. Thanks! 
 

BH: I think that’s the number one complaint coming from designers. Sorry, I can’t help you with that. How do you keep yourself organized?

KS: I fill up notebooks with notes and sketches. I use TeuxDeux to track all my to-dos. I also try to keep my inbox as close to empty at all times so I don’t have to worry if I’ve forgotten to respond to someone on the team. I also use Google Docs for writing up notes for client presentations.

BH: We worked together in the Philly office for a while and I know you like one-on-one discussions. Now that you’re working with the San Francisco office and migrating to Austin, you’re working remotely more often. How does that affect your day-to-day work?

KS: It’s been a big challenge for me to adjust to remote communication. I prefer to be in the room collaborating with the rest of the team with markers and a sheet of paper. Nothing can replace that, so I’ve had to learn some new approaches to work within the limitations of what you can do remotely. I’m lucky to work with smart people like Ryan Irelan, who have been doing this for a lot longer and help me avoid making the same mistakes. What I’ve learned is be as deliberate as possible and to take your time to allow focus on one task at a time.
 
BH: I think this interview could go on for hours, but it wouldn’t need to. I chat with Kevin every day and learn something new from him every day. Working closely with all of my colleagues on projects helps me to understand how they like to work and how I can adapt my way of thinking and working to better accommodate their (and our client’s) needs.

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