Design Project Management - how do you do it?

I’m interested in how design consultancies manage multiple projects and resources efficiently. We have typically used Excel sheets in the past, but it can be sluggish and inefficient. MS Project doesn’t seem much easier to use.

What I’m looking for is an effective method of managing top level multi-project schedules and team resourcing, but also managing specific tasks within a particular project (i.e. the stage gates of a typical NPD process). As a designer first, and project leader second, I want a project management tool to be intuitive and easy to use. I’ve noticed a lot of web based project management tools available - has anyone got experience of these?

If you’re working as part of a larger organization, the MS project may be unavoidable especially in a Gantt chart driven project.

A lot of people like Smartsheet, though now that I focus on software it’s more about Agile tools like Jira. I’ve been using an open source Gantt tool for when I absolutely need to make one to communicate high level schedules.

If your job is designing first, figure out how to focus on design while keeping the PM work to a minimum. Most larger consultancies ultimately end up hiring a dedicated PM as they grow to deal with this, since it’s difficult to do both effectively, especially if you’re spending 4 hours a day on management, client communication, etc.

We use Teamwork… not the concept, though that helps, the software.

Right now we only use it on our marketing and brand design teams, but will likely roll it out to NPD at some point.

I think we’ll try something like Smartsheet, but there seems to be quite a bit of work required to get all the information in one place.

The real issue our company finds is predicting the bottlenecks in capacity - they just seem to creep up on us (usually as a result of a client wanting unforseen changes) and then the pressure hits and team members get stressed. Far too reactive!

Designers (just like developers) have a particular set of projects for which an agile approach is more suitable. But this is not a rule. In your case if you need to manage multiple projects that share common resources and you would like to see when those resources get overallocated you might want to try RationalPlan. It is easier to use compared to MS Project but not very suitable for agile as it is Jira.

  1. Work breakdown structure Work breakdown structure - Wikipedia

  2. Try not to plan too much further than 30 days.

  3. Try not to plan more than 80% of your capacity. Beyond 80% capacity you will be late on everything because of the nature of queues.

  4. Look for bottle necks in your process. Is there 1 person out of 20 that is doing all the renderings? You will need to plan careful to avoid work backing up at that persons desk or you will need to train a few other people to help out when a backlog develops. Otherwise that bottle neck will lead to delays on multiple projects in spite of being below capacity overall.

After that, it really doesn’t matter what tool you use to manage it. Post-its, Basecamp or Project. Pick your poison.

Every project has hundreds of steps/tasks to do. All of them need to be completed to launch a product.

We take the approach to ignore all other steps and focus only on the critical task that if not possible, will kill the project. Could be technical, it could be market acceptance, it could be regulatory (we are in the medical device area). Specifically, it could need to be made at a certain price point. It could be the customer cannot find it difficult to assemble. It could be the customer needs to use it everyday, 3 times a day for up to 30 days (compliance is a bitch). It could be a strength threshold. All of it depends on the project and no 2 projects are the same.

All efforts are directed to that step. If that problem cannot be solved, the project is killed and we can use our resources on other problems. We did not waste our time doing a dfmea, having the correct draft angle or any of the hundreds of non-priority steps.

Anything linear will waste resources. I have yet to experience any software that was not linear. If there is something out there, I’d be happy to take a look.

iab: Indeed, those front end checks should be moved to the front of the process. However, in a consultant, I would assume that my client has done this check and is sure they want to do the project.

Even in house, these checks can be hard to do. I’ve faced a differing levels of pressure to move ahead with projects in spite of finding critical problems.


The client should have already completed the critical steps, or inform you of the critical step as a part of their brief. I understand that this is not necessarily the reality with all clients.

And it has been in my experience that most clients/companies look for a reason NOT to kill a project. It is most refreshing to have the opposite as true in my current employ.

All good stuff to see being discussed here. Does anyone have any recommendations for design-specific project management books?