Managing a project manager

Although some design groups have been using project managers since Kajagoogoo topped the charts with Too Shy, they are generally considered a product of the past ten years.

Although some design groups have been using project managers since Kajagoogoo topped the charts with Too Shy, they are generally considered a product of the past ten years. Project management was something that the bigger design groups used to give to clients free. It was almost born as an in-house reaction to red tape syndrome and soon became seen by clients as a plus point when choosing a consultancy. Now it is commonplace among design groups of all sizes.

Most design teams acknowledge using the project management function even if the staff involved use titles like client manager or project and design manager. Cynics might say that the role has gradually evolved from tired directors handing down responsibility in search of an easier life. Speak to any director and they will probably disagree, but then look at how they prize their project managers and you will see how indispensable the position has become to them.

A straw poll of consultancies threw up some interesting opinions about just what the design industry project manager of 1999 is expected to do. On one hand, they have the burden of the parliamentary chief whip, steering projects and workers to fulfil a brief within time and budget constraints. This obviously requires great charisma, the power of persuasion and a firm hand.

But that is to ignore the creative input and passion for design which so many consultancies list as the top pre-requisite for the job. Many project managers have graduated from the role of designer seeking a broader input – it can certainly serve as a stepping stone for bright sparks. Equally though, marketing or client experience is thought highly desirable to project leaders to lend a different perspective to the consultancy’s impetus.

At senior level there is the added pleasure of acting as the liaison with the client. Presumably, you are given a mobile phone free of charge on the understanding that you will answer it within four rings, 24 hours a day.

Ad agencies have been using account handlers for years as the client-agency link. Dare to suggest too much of a similarity to a project manager though, and you will win no friends – the art of project management in design is much less black and white than it is in advertising.

Agenda Design Associates project manager Ben Fry, a former marketer, sees the emergence of project managers in design groups as a symptom of agency and consultancy consolidation.

“The lines between disciplines are becoming blurred,” says Fry. “Clients expect the same level of service from all their agencies.”

Of course, clients also appoint their own project managers, often to co-ordinate input from designers, architects, and agencies from above and below the line, working on the same project. Global Design Register partner Richard Watson draws attention to the proliferation of external project managers employed by clients to run projects on their behalf.

Watson perceives clients calling for project managers “when it is an enormous job and they need someone continually at the end of the phone line, or when they are relatively inexperienced buyers of design”. As far as he is aware, “most of it is in retail and identity at the moment… we are not seeing it in print and packaging”.

The skills of the project management job are manifold, but, as Bamber Forsyth principal Philip Mann says, design consultancies lose work through bad project management more than they do through producing mediocre creative work. Among the qualities cited by people in the job, everyone seems to say that a passion for the design process, if not a design background, is essential. Given the weight project managers are expected to shoulder, this is perhaps hardly surprising. Bags of energy and enthusiasm might rank a close second.

Other essential skills mentioned include a deep understanding of the sector you want to work in, be it corporate identity, multimedia, retail, interiors or print. This avoids raised eyebrows when talking jargon with suppliers and impresses your sometimes mystified clients. Strong organisational ability, and the desire to enjoy a client’s business as much as they do are also high on the list. So is diplomacy and working closely with your consultancy’s creative team, rather than distancing yourself from the action. A tolerance to alcohol is also said to help.

It is not easy to paint a portrait of an average project manager in the design industry because the position is such a flexible one. What is clear, though, is that clients and consultancies do see an increasing need for project management from both inside and outside the design consultancy.

Four-way pitch

Name: Finn Butler

Company: Design Research Unit

Job title: Associate (head of graphics)

Project manager for the past two years – previously a graphic designer

Role: ‘to co-ordinate design input and ensure deliverables are achieved within budget and meet the criteria identified in the brief. Also to manage the work programme and work scheduling’

Name: Peter Mills

Consultancy: The Team Design Consultants

Job title: Client manager

Has done design project

management for the past five years

Role: ‘work with our clients, our studio and our suppliers to get exceptional outcomes which delight our client’s customers’

Name: Rebecca Oliver

Company: CDT Design

Job title: Associate, project manager

Project manager for seven years, but not always in design. Previously project manger for Hull Time Based Arts, running multimedia arts festivals, training and events

Role: ‘to establish a good working relationship with my clients and to understand their needs, their business, their brand, their strategies and objectives, and ensure that these are met by the work that we produce on their behalf’

Name: Tom Hostler

Consultancy: Deepend Design

Full job title: Convergent media producer

Project manager for three years and previously a Web producer

Role: ‘directing and managing interactive TV production work and new business for Deepend in this arena’

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