Advice

You asked: Am I a designer or a project manager?

4 min read
Nicole Beckerman  •  Nov 9, 2018
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Editor’s note: This is the ninth post in our advice column. Have a question? Ask it here, and it may be answered in a future post.



I’m looking for advice on standard practice for agency creative team setup and workflow.

What is the setup for creative teams and role division regarding project management?

For example, for a project requiring an art director, designer, production artist, writer, and editor, should there be an additional team member deemed “project coordinator” that is responsible for managing all the moving parts: tracking deliverables/deadlines, facilitating handoff of work from one team member to another, acquiring creative assets, liaison between client and team members, etc.?

I ask this because, as a senior designer, I sometimes spend half my day on “fake” work tracking client deliverables with Excel spreadsheets and Trello; looking for available designers, editors, and production staff to support my multiple projects for multiple clients; following up on the work handoffs, and locating files needed on a central server (that’s cumbersome to perform file searches on). I’m looking for recommendations I can present to my supervisor for a more efficient, more productive creative team set up that minimizes exhausting overtime hours, grueling work schedules, and burn out.

— Designer so tired


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Designer so tired, you’re *so* not alone in this. Often as designers get promoted or their organization grows, they get saddled with more managerial tasks. Being acknowledged for your creative work is an honor—but the typical reward is piles of tasks that aren’t what you signed up for.

You and every other creative professional did not painstakingly hone your skills to get tied up in follow-up messages and endless spreadsheets as a reward. Not cool. (Or smart!)

Creativity requires breathing room. If you are stuck in tasks on the periphery of creative work rather than squarely in it, your time as a designer isn’t being maximized. There’s nothing worse than trying to carve out focused work time, only to get dragged away by chat message after chat message.

In my (only slightly biased) opinion, your agency needs a project manager, like, yesterday.

Let designers design again

A close friend of mine works for a high-profile gaming company in his dream job: a character artist. He loves what he does. He is the type of person who loves spending all day meticulously designing a superhero’s outfit, then head home to fiddle with his own projects. He always seems to be in the creative flow, so I asked him how that was possible.

The biggest factor he mentioned was his team leader, and how amazing that guy is: how he plans things out, advocates for his reports, and truly enjoys handling the organizational aspects of their work together. It turns out that although he loves design, he works best when he’s making sure his colleagues are supported and have space to be their best creative selves.

In its essence, this is the point of a project manager: facilitating the team’s ability to thrive and meet their goals.

“You and every other creative professional did not painstakingly hone your skills to get tied up in follow-up messages and endless spreadsheets as a reward.”
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Let me manage you

Project management isn’t a function you can throw at some intern or coordinator and call it a day. A project manager has the potential to streamline the way you do business and preserve your creative time, but to achieve that they need to understand the design side. A great project manager at a design agency should appreciate and understand the minutia of your design process in order to keep things organized.

The best practice for any creative agency is to have an assigned person who is responsible for each project over its duration. At small shops, this responsibility might fall to a member of the creative team out of pure necessity. Ideally, project management is performed by experts who focus on that task almost exclusively. Here’s what they get up to:

  • During the initiation of a project: pull together the key players, define scope, and clarify objectives
  • Develop project plans with all the component tasks and how they fit together
  • Allocate tasks to the necessary people, and communicate with them about what is coming and when so no one is taken by surprise
  • Monitor workloads and protect time for focused creative work
  • Liaise between teams and make sure handoffs go smoothly
  • Keep stakeholders informed about the project, and run interference if they try to bother creatives directly
  • Hold milestone meetings as the project progresses so everyone can check in with each other and stay on track
  • Manage where the dollars are going and how the project is stacking up against the planned budget
  • Act as a facilitator to resolve disagreements and make tricky decisions within the team before they bog things down
  • Deliver the project’s objectives and manage delivery to the correct stakeholder. For an agency, this might be giving an Account Executive materials to present to the client, or handing off assets to a client directly
  • After the project wraps, process what the team learned and ensure they take time to celebrate their success!

Hands off the project management tools

Once you write it all out, we’re definitely talking about a full-time role. As you’ve experienced, it takes a lot of time and effort just to keep tracks of projects as they’re happening. Working ahead to comprehensively plan projects and resolve problems before they arise is extremely difficult for a busy designer juggling various deliverables.

Stop trying to be a designer and a project manager at the same time. Bring an expert in.

This new role would likely sit embedded in your team and be highly involved with your daily work at first as they learn the rhythm of your organization and absorb the “fake” work that’s driving you nuts. Eventually, a project manager will feel like an essential part of your team who you’ll turn to them as an advocate and hub of current information. Hopefully, you’ll end up wondering what you ever did without them!

Make dollars make sense

When pitching the idea of a project manager hire, focus on the business case. Remember that bringing on this person isn’t only about freeing up your time for creative tasks, but also how the company can function better as a whole. Your team will perform better when their time is managed well. Clients will give even more business when deliverables arrive on time. Budgets will be managed properly.

These arguments are music to the ears of agency owners and can help secure the support you need.