Praise the project heads

Tim Rich wonders why the oft overlooked project manager continues to maintain a relatively low profile, despite being at ‘the heart of a consultancy’

Why do so many design consultancies find it difficult to differentiate themselves? Look through a selection of consultancy websites and brochures and it’s staggering how similar the work is. Messages, language and even design are so generic you could cut out one consultancy’s name, paste in another, and no-one would be the wiser.

Yes, design is a crowded and competitive market. Yes, difference is partly established by the people in the consultancy, and that’s difficult to translate into literature and interactive media. But there are other reasons why consultancies present such bland self-representation.

One reason is the ironic truth that not all consultancies are capable of communicating in an engaging and memorable way. Another is that many don’t actually do anything interesting. Their approach to projects is much like everyone else, so the end result is much like everyone else’s. In other words, they don’t have anything different to communicate.

The second reason worries me. It’s one thing for the design community to produce a bunch of me-too marketing, it’s another for that marketing to be based on me-too behaviour. We are meant to be part of a creative industry, after all.

This perambulation around the byways of differentiation reminds me of a related issue; why does project management have such a low profile within design? No doubt the mere mention of the words ‘project’ and ‘management’ have inspired a flock of readers to roam off in search of nice colour photos. Project management is, after all, the least fashionable, least discussed and least celebrated activity within design. And yet, it’s absolutely central to the creation of effective and imaginative work. It’s a potential differentiator too.

A good project manager does remarkable things. She or he creates the right team for a job; calculates and manages time and money so great ideas can be discovered and nurtured; keeps a healthy, flowing dialogue between creative team and client team; plays the role of an amiable sceptic, always thinking about the needs of the audience; does the practical stuff that turns concepts into physical reality; makes sure the client pays, so more great design can be created in the future. I could go on.

To this Renaissance job description you can add the formidable challenge of working across a wide range of design media. For example, a project manager in a busy graphic design consultancy might be responsible for a website, a corporate brochure, advertising, an identity, a book, signage and an exhibition. They also need to know how to find, brief and work successfully with writers, photographers, illustrators, programmers, printers, freelance designers…

Good project management enables the creative team to do brilliant, effective and profitable work; bad project management hampers the design process, puts people under unnecessary pressure and will probably lose clients. No wonder experienced clients are as interested in a consultancy’s project management skills as its creativity. And yet I can’t remember the last time I read or heard a discussion about good project management in design.

In my experience, project management sits at the heart of a consultancy – it’s a tangible part of everyday life. So why is it intangible outside the studio? Isn’t it something consultancies should be discussing, so they can improve and innovate? Isn’t it something clients want to be reassured about? And isn’t it an opportunity to create differentiation in a crowded market?

OK, having praised their all-round brilliance, it’s only right to offer some balance in the shape of a project manager joke. Here goes.

A project manager and two designers are working on an urgent project. One day they decide to go out for a quick sandwich. Just as they’re leaving the consultancy they stumble upon a lamp. They rub it and, inevitably, a genie appears and says: ‘Normally, I would grant you three wishes, but since there’s three of you, I’ll grant you one wish each.’

One of the designers says: ‘I’d like to live in a huge house in Hawaii, surrounded by beautiful women.’ The genie grants his wish and sends him to Hawaii.

The other designer says: ‘I want to create world peace, be very wealthy and live on a big yacht in the Mediterranean.’ The genie grants his wish too.

Then it’s the project manager’s turn. ‘And what’s your wish?’ asks the genie.

‘I want them both back after lunch.’

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