How We Approach Project Management at Design by Day
Communication with Clients
“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said”
I really love to talk. It is something I have always been rather good at – my school reports always said so anyway! However, there is another side to talking – listening – who knew? A skill I have refined whilst delving into project management at Design By Day.
There’s a second level to listening that Peter Drucker is referring to above: …’hearing what isn’t said’, which I believe is a key skill to communicating successfully with clients as a project manager.
Sensing the tone of a clients voice, whether that be in person, on the phone or by email (a particularly tricky one) and reacting upon that accordingly is important. Also reading body language in meetings and pulling out senses of excitement or disappointment and directing the conversation relevantly.
Sometimes clients think you know what they are thinking, some of them see this as a creative challenge. This could be an art direction they want to try or an idea they have, and when you don’t guess, clients can feel disappointed. In the beginning stages of projects I like to get any client ideas ‘out on table’ to avoid any disappointment or frustration. A good way of approaching this is creating a Pinterest board together and asking the client to Pin things they like or that feel relevant to their project. In terms of costs, timescales and productivity we try to eliminate that ‘stabbing in the dark’ stage when we are designing initial ideas or concepts.
Communication with the team
There’s 8 of us at Design By Day, we all sit near to each other, in the same room, we can all see and hear each other –therefore communication should be a piece of cake… wrong! We have tools to help those ‘oh did I not tell you that?’ or ‘Crap, was that due then?’ situations. One of them is me and the others are Teamwork PM – our project management software (good blog post about this here) – Bugherd, Slack, and Whipster which are all great apps that give us the ability to log amends and keep track as to where projects are up to. See a breakdown of the apps we use and why here.
We have a weekly team meeting so we all get to know what each other’s working on and I generally prod and poke people throughout the day to see where they are up to with their tasks (they love this). Team communication, and how the team communicate with clients, is something we are always evolving and working on. We are always on the hunt for apps to help us with this but we also assess our working processes and see how we can improve these. New team members always bring something new to the table, our newest recruit Omid suggested we use Slack for our team messaging service, which is working great for us, as it has the ability to integrate with some of the other apps we use.
An Honest & Realistic Approach
There is absolutely no point what-so ever in agreeing to budgets, timescales and work load your team cannot manage, just to get a job. Not only does it put the team under pressure (which is not always healthy in the creative process, although that is what’s perceived to be the case in our industry) it’s likely to result in disappointment for our clients, hair loss for me and stressed designers and developers. Not a good combination. This does not mean we don’t work to tight timescales. When we do, we ensure the client knows it’s tight and that we can dedicate 1 or 2 members of the team to the project. For tight projects I create a detailed timeline and assign days/time for clients to work to (usually for feedback and content gathering) as well as the team.
With honesty comes tact, another skill I have refined in my role as a PM, being a northern lass this was not an easy feat.
This aspect of project management directly links to the section above in terms of being honest and realistic when it comes to managing a project as a whole, however, here I want to outline how we manage clients expectations when presenting visual work. This is probably the hardest part of the job.
As I mentioned in the first part of this blog post quite often clients have a visual direction in their head but won’t share it with you, this is understandable, especially if the client has not been through this process before. It might be that they feel embarrassed about sharing their idea or they feel they wont get value for money if they tell you about it. Initial face to face meetings really help to gauge any design preferences clients may have but also to allow our clients to trust me, the designer and the company’s processes. We then go on to share any visual research (usually via Pinterest) we have done before starting on the design, giving rationale and reasoning for what we have chosen and how aspects of this could work for their project. Quite often a clear and desired path will come out of these two processes, which is a thumbs up to managing our clients visual expectations.
One of the most important things to initially discuss with clients, regarding visual work, is that the work should first and foremost appeal to the project’s target audience. Obviously we want the client to like the visuals we create (no-body wants a brand or website they can’t stand the sight of) but it must primarily work for the target audience. When we send initial ideas over we will explain how the ideas work for that target audience and how they adhere to the clients brief. Sometimes we hit the nail on the head, sometimes we don’t. When we don’t it’s then how we move forward, which usually means an investigation into where communication has broken down (most often the culprit).
Sometimes it’s the case that clients are just not sure how to feed back and all can be resolved from more in-depth and considered feedback. Here’s a useful guide on how to feedback.
How we plan projects
Our current method of project planning is really working for us in terms of achieving deadlines and producing great quality work. Here’s an overview to how we do it.
- Once an initial proposal (summary of works and initial costs) has been agreed we meet with our clients to go through their project in more detail. We have specific questions to run through with clients depending on the service they require. The questions extract all the info we need to provide a specification. This is also a great chance to meet our clients face to face. Sometimes if the project requirements are quite complex we will meet up before presenting an initial proposal.
- Specification writing includes:
- A detailed outline of the work required
- Wireframes (if it’s a web project)
- A breakdown of costs
- A detailed timeline
- Once the specification is agreed I will book all the tasks in for the designers / devs working on the project, which adheres to the agreed timeline. I will also get the accounts side rolling at this point (obtaining POs etc)
- When the project is due to start I will run through the brief and specification with the designers / devs – although it’s most likely they will have been involved in the client meeting – but it’s good to refresh everyones heads to ensure we are all on the same page.
- Then we do what we do best and start creating!
- I will update clients on a weekly (sometimes a few times a week depending on the turnaround time) basis as to where we are to with the project. Designers will send artwork over to clients themselves and explain their concepts and reasoning.
- We include for two rounds of revisions when we cost / timeline work which I will manage and the designer / developer will complete
- Once we have a final product that is ready to go we will hand over the work to the client.
There are other elements I need to keep my eye on as the project is progressing such as people hours vs. costs. This is something that can be really tricky to keep a hold on in a creative environment, as there’s no definitive answer to a creative brief. I also find it hard as I am from a design background myself and completely appreciate the need to get something right. On the other I think this helps me to manage this issue as I can empathise with our designers.
I like to think I’m a sprightly kind of gal and that my shining face at 8:30am is motivation enough for our team to crack on and do a grand job, alas… no. It’s not. Sometimes we have hard weeks, whether it be the amount of work, a round of negative feedback or just life gets in the way but we all do a pretty good job of lifting each other up and getting the positive vibe back in the studio. Other ways we improve motivation in the studio are; up-skilling team members in areas/software they are keen to learn about, going out for team food and drinks, working on internal projects, supporting team members on external projects and in general just working in a pretty relaxed and creative atmosphere.
So – in a nutshell – that’s how we approach project management at Design By Day. These processes, approaches and opinions are always evolving and adapting from different projects and client experiences so look out for version 2 of this post in the next year or two.