Design management

Clusterfuck, despite its saucy name, does not refer to a pleasurable group activity. Its origins are military, its antecedents bloody. The Urban Dictionary offers ten pages of definitions. Our favorite is a double entendre on “cluster bomb” and the oak leaf or star cluster insignia worn by incompetent military brass whose bad decisions result in a needless bloodbath—a “clusterfuck.”

Most web design and development projects turn into clusterfucks. The problem is not unique to web-based client services. Advertising projects, graphic design jobs, architecture assignments, filmmaking, and pretty much every other professional creative service usually begins with smart, talented people shaking hands across a table, and ends in finger-pointing and regret—like a Country & Western love song.

Great work cannot emerge from such environments. Not even good work can crawl from that wreckage. If a fine portfolio, a delightful career, and the satisfaction of earning your bread by providing a genuine service are to be had, you must first learn to manage your clients and colleagues.

Managing your way out of a paper bag

Although I teach this skill, I confess I am not nearly as good at it as I should be. The trick to great projects, I have found, is (a.) landing clients with whom you are sympatico, and who understand language, time, and money the same way you do, and (b.) assembling teams you don’t have to manage, because everyone instinctively knows what to do. I have been lucky at those two things, and thus poor at coping when a design job very occasionally lights its own genitals on fire and leaps into a bucket of oil.

For those who have no control over which clients and projects come to them, there is still hope, because everyone on the web (not just professional designers and developers) has the ability to produce meaningful content, and every designer and developer additionally has the power to create products and services. As your own client, working alone, or with a carefully hand-picked team, you can produce great things. If you suck at management, you’ll have problems, but not the kind of problems that create mediocre websites while emptying your company’s bank account and draining all the joy and color out of life.

Producing a well-edited zine or a useful and skillfully designed web application may produce income. It will almost certainly generate job satisfaction. And once it finds the right audience, it should yield more sympathetic clients, resulting in fewer clusterfucks, and a greater ability to get on the phone and straighten out a mess if you still occasionally fumble as a manager.

[tags]business, webdesign, project management[/tags]

55 thoughts on “Design management

  1. lights its own genitals on fire and leaps into a bucket of oil

    I almost spit my coffee onto the monitor.

  2. Do you have any recommended resources? Books, articles, videos? Anything that was particularly insightful when learning to manage projects? Obviously experience… but anything else?

  3. Best. Post. Ever.

    Everything about this post rings true and gives me hope… even when those who currently power my marionette strings are fumbling in the bucket of oil. As always, I appreciate the clarity. And the insight. It keeps me hopeful.

  4. I’m an in-house designer in a non-profit, worldwide organisation, so I don’t have any control over which projects I work on (unless I flatly refuse, and my manager gets to pick up the pieces, which hasn’t happened yet).

    I’m somewhat glad to know that even the most-known designers, and not just web designers, struggle in this area every day–not that I enjoy this fact.

    I’m a self-learner and usually am motivated to do what I’m supposed to do. I guess that leaves me unsatisfied with point “a” in your list of tricks to great projects, but here I’d like to know more about what a designer can do to change this situation for the better.

    Any clues?

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  6. Do you have any recommended resources? Books, articles, videos?

    @Dave:

    A List Apart has a trove of articles on project management and workflow, among them:

    * Stand And Deliver by David Sleight (“You’ve got thirty seconds to sell your work to the well dressed nemesis who’s paying you”);

    * Get Out from Behind the Curtain by Sarah B. Nelson (how to create collaborative work sessions that take the clients’ needs in hand while leaving creative control in yours);

    * Never Get Involved in a Land War in Asia (or Build a Website for No Reason) by Greg Storey (If you don’t know what the website you’re working on is supposed to do, it’s going to be really hard to succeed. Greg Storey offers a simple web strategy development process for everyone.);

    * Managing Werewolves by Michael Lopp (While you’re always optimistic when leading a team, you know that not everyone’s got your back. Liars and poor communicators can wipe out good work faster than a 404 error. Learn how to think critically about verbal and non-verbal behavior and to separate office politics from truth, so you don’t let the Werewolves win.);

    … and many others!

  7. (b) should be understood by all managers no matter the industry. It’s always been my approach, you should only need to lead not “manage” talented people. Yet you should always manage yourself.

  8. I’ve been using clusterfuck while managing projects for years – picked it up when I was in the Navy. I also enjoy “gagglefuck” when describing yet another useless, unproductive meeting of the talking heads.

  9. Also, keep your team as small as possible and make sure they are not all ‘specialists’, but good all-rounders who know a thing or 2 about about a thing or 10. And try not to be clusterfucked by your IT department who don’t give a toss what mere ‘designers’ think about the project. Not that that’s ever happened to me, of course.

  10. I guess that leaves me unsatisfied with point “a” in your list of tricks to great projects, but here I’d like to know more about what a designer can do to change this situation for the better.

    @Patrick:

    My post may have failed to connect the dots. The connection goes like this: you work for someone else, with no choice in projects and no control over their direction. At night you create something awesome, with only yourself for a client. You keep at it, even though you only have five readers (or a dozen potential customers trying out your beta app). You don’t quit, even though quitting is tempting. You hang in there and gradually improve your blog, zine, or web application. As you improve it, you find an audience. This eventually positions you to either seek a new, better job (or be recruited for a better job without even looking for it), or to respectfully but firmly assert more authority over your projects at work.

    A frustration of in-house work is that all too frequently, the boss would rather listen to an expensive outside consultant than to an employee who knows more about the website and its users than any consultant will ever discover. To the extent that you prove your expertise outside the job, and develop just a tad of political savvy, you can gradually reposition yourself in your organization as more of a partner and less of a pair of hands.

    Of course you can also achieve that kind of gradual repositioning without creating an external blog or web app. But that’s more than I can address in a comment. The A List Apart topic thread cited in my earlier comment should help. (I’m also talking about these issues in this year’s An Event Apart.)

    I’ve worked at agencies, in-house, and for myself. I know how difficult it is to reposition yourself; I also know it can definitely be done. Good luck!

  11. Speaking at design, web standards, or UX meet-ups is also a great way to learn from and share with other web pros, and to demonstrate that you’re a professional with ideas and expertise. Eventually, your client and employer will also figure this out. (Plus, speaking in front of peers gives you confidence that you can bring back to the workplace.)

  12. Working together with a team has brought me relief in a way. Everyone can focus on one aspect of the job and achieve higher end results. We also cover a broader scope.

    Power is in the numbers.

  13. Be good at office politics is a good skill to have for designers. Most of the time, the challenge is a people problem. Know when, and how to speak, helps to sell your ideas. This is something they don’t teach at design school, you learn via life.

  14. At night you create something awesome, with only yourself for a client. You keep at it, even though you only have five readers… You don’t quit, even though quitting is tempting. You hang in there and gradually improve your blog, zine, or web application. As you improve it, you find an audience.

    That speaks to me :)

  15. The best design can be obliterated if client management is neglected. The worst part is that you can’t just frequent the latest tutorial site for an issue this complex. All you can do is take good advice and most likely a bunch of hard knocks.

    Great post… I vote you change the title to “Client Clusterfuck”

  16. Great post Jeffery. I’ve been wondering aloud lately if the days of the small, independent web designer are numbered. With all the ways that businesses can get a ‘free’ or ‘cheap’ website, I fear that quality design will be undercut by ‘designers’ with the ability to hack together templates.

    There will always be clients who understand quality, but there’ll be fewer

    Creating a product or service would certainly be a way to diversify the cash flow. More job satisfaction and fewer clusterfucks would also be lovely.

  17. Jeffrey,

    Re: “assembling teams you don’t have to lead” —

    I would change this to “you don’t have to manage”. Leadership and management are very different and I’m guessing you are really referring to management.

  18. @Jeffrey: Thanks for your generous response. I think I failed to understand you fully… on second read, it’s all clear :)

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  20. @Bryan: I believe (and I’m sure you know that too) that there’s a lot more to design than hacking templates. I don’t think those “hackers” will be able to organise content (which a client doesn’t have ready yet) and present it in such a way that a good or great designer would.

    I agree that template design seems increasingly to be a norm, but as our profession and the web matures, the need for design (in a broader sense of the word) and quality will increase.

  21. @Patrick & others: I just wrote an article the other day that speaks to specific scenarios and ways to Keep Clients & Projects on Task.

    In my option it comes down to:
    – Always use some form of project management to keep you, your clients, and your projects organized
    – Use a project brief or proposal as a tool and a means to establish roles, requirements, deliverables, etc.
    – And most importantly, have clear & consistent communication with your clients and contractors

  22. Nice to see more and more talk about the management and process aspects that go into producing quality work. Too often I see a focus on the creative aspects of the process while the management is handled too lightly, which usually causes the entire process to, as Mr. Zeldman so eloquently put it, “lights its own genitals on fire and leaps into a bucket of oil”. Brilliant.

  23. From the perspective of one of those Project Management & Workflow author guys. a few hard-earned stars by which to be guided follow.

    Apprehend the client’s expectations going in, particularly with respect to the limitations of what can be done for a pittance.

    Ensure that your contract puts the budget in line with those expectations.

    Also ensure that your contract measures in terms of days out, and specifies freezes.

    Additionally ensure that your client understands the contract.

    Take creative control if it is offered. Surrender it if it is demanded. Smile and nod in spite of it all. If your surrender is prerequisite to the assumption of creative control by a total fucking moron, accept quickly that you won’t be working much on that account in the future, barring a friendly leadership change. It happens.

    Collectively keep track of all assets at all times. Do whatever status checks and reviews are necessary to keep things from getting lost in the shuffle… your goal is to be able to drop a line to somebody and know the exact status of a given asset within 24 hours early in the project, within 2–4 hours in the homestretch.

    When in doubt, test. When not in doubt, err to the side of doubt.

    Meet as many of your deadlines as you can; do not beat them, do not miss them.

    If you beat a deadline (it happens, really, it does), put the work aside or review it internally. Do not submit the work, as this will panic all but the most grounded clients — or worse, encourage them to believe that the work took no effort and that you’re overpaid.

    Expect the client to miss deadlines. Often. Do not be alarmed or angry when this happens. (See also “days out” mentioned above.) Corollary: do not postpone a gig if you have any time to spare at that moment.

  24. …And one other thing: put off honest opinions as long as possible, but make up for it by delivering honest facts as quickly as possible. Putting off client comms just because you’re discouraged is a right-quick way to make a project go 31 flavors of FUBAR.

  25. Re: “assembling teams you don’t have to lead” – I would change this to “you don’t have to manage”. Leadership and management are very different and I’m guessing you are really referring to management.

    @Russell: Right you are. Word changed. Thanks!

  26. I actually just wrote an article on project management (and all that goes along with it) for .net (practical web design in the US) and I would agree with you that managing clients and colleagues is important. Or, rather, managing yourself and making sure lines of communication between everyone involved is open and flowing. You might say that “leading” is what a good PM does. I think that point might have been made and I agree with it.

    If you have the right people and everyone is on the same page from the beginning (heh, that’s the trick isn’t it) it’s just time and effort. The clusterfucks occur, as I see it, because of one or more of a few things:

    – People just don’t want to put the effort in. This happens often with client projects because of a lack of motivation. Don’t discount the designer/developer/pm ego as a potential problem, especially when working with people who feel entitled to something better. I’m often amazed and how little some people are willing to contribute to the success of a project and how easily people will give up at even the slightest adversity. IMHO it comes down to motivation. People are much more motivated to take care of themselves, thus working on personal projects is easier and less prone to a clusterfuck.

    – Poor communication and/or a clash in communication styles. I tend to err on the side of over-communication, but that pisses some people off. The main point here is that of you’re working with people who aren’t all that good at simple communication, you’ll run into problems. Having everyone involved available and talking openly helps a whole lot. As with all of this, much easier said than done.

    – Unrealistic expectations. It’s way too easy when you’re trying to make payroll to agree to do shit you actually have very little hope of delivering on. It’s very important to be honest and realistic from the start. This is harder than many may think. As well, sometimes it’s just difficult to get people on the same page. As you talk about here, a project that goes off the rails is often such a pain that it’s not worth it – just be clear from the beginning, set expectations (and re-set as needed) and whatever you do, don’t agree to take on anything you can’t deliver on. I made that mistake a whole lot in the past.

    There are, of course, other things that can cause problems. Having said that, I think there can be quite a bit of reward in leading projects and I’d also assert that “most web design and development projects turn into clusterfucks” isn’t true. Sure, no project is perfect, but the vast majority of projects I’ve worked on have gone pretty well. It’s just the bad ones are SO bad they make them all look awful. :)

    When I first read this I sort of got the impression you were saying that people shouldn’t bother working with clients — as it’s too hard and always ends in a clusterfuck — and just do their own thing. I tend to agree that doing your own thing is much more rewarding, but… there are good things about client work, and, regardless, learning how to be a leader can not only be rewarding when you’re not working for yourself, it can probably help you on your personal projects as well.

  27. I’d also assert that “most web design and development projects turn into clusterfucks” isn’t true. Sure, no project is perfect, but the vast majority of projects I’ve worked on have gone pretty well. It’s just the bad ones are SO bad they make them all look awful. :)

    I also think this observation reflects reality.

  28. I’d also assert that “most web design and development projects turn into clusterfucks” isn’t true.

    It isn’t true at your company or mine, but it is true at many, many places I’ve worked.

  29. It isn’t true at your company or mine, but it is true at many, many places I’ve worked.

    Fair enough, I guess I was just taking the statement as universal. Regardless, I don’t think it discounts the fact that far too many projects become clusterfucks. If we can save even… nevermind. :)

  30. On the train home on a Friday evening and people are wondering why I just burst out laughing. Excellent post – and one alas, to which I can relate.

  31. I believe that for a successful project (regardless of industry) planning is fundamental but flexibility and openness are primordial.

    Everyone must know what the project is, what and who is for and how to get it done. Everything else flow from there…

    Very often I find myself amazed by so many large companies fail so miserably in communicating simple ideas along.

  32. I couldn’t agree more. Managing a project in a web design agency, or any type of consultancy is a nightmare. Often the client has no idea what they want; just an idea of what they don’t want. Then they change their mind like the wind with no rhyme or reason that you can ascertain, and lastly they want it all for the insanely tight budget and timescales which were originally agreed.

    You need the patience of a saint, and the diplomacy skills of someone able to bring peace to the Middle East!

    With regards to useful resources I’d suggest:
    my-project-management-expert.com and also Project Scope Statement. Lastly we’ve written a new section on
    Contingency Planning which should always be considered when planning one of these engagements!

    Cheers

    Susan de Sousa
    Site Editor my-project-management-expert.com

  33. I have no idea how many Project Managers out there share your experience with having an understanding client and an autonomous team. You are definitely luck to have both…

    @Dave (asking for resources to manage projects), I invite you to take a look at the Project Management Primer, which is a series of articles on how to manage a project for absolute beginners.

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