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Product Design Process and Tips
How to plan and manage the creative design process, creative agencies and creative people.
Table of contents
Design process and design management tips 
All organisations, businesses and individuals use design in very many ways. For example, the design process features in corporate identity, branding, image; design is central to advertising, marketing, promotion, and in the development of new products, new services and technical development of all sorts such as websites and other internet systems. Design features in very many aspects of work and business.
The design management principles explained in this section also apply to all sorts of other management processes involving the use of external creative agencies or providers, for example architects, interior designers, landscape gardeners, personal stylists, etc.
The principles of planning, communication, control and working towards clear agreed aims and accountabilities apply to all situations where we ask a creative provider - internal or external, in-house or contracted - or to do something for us.
These simple principles will help in managing the design process, and are relevant to a lesser or greater extent when working with creative people and providers of all sorts, from design and advertising agencies, product designers, branding and image consultants, to creative people providing design services for building and renovation, and other creative services relating to domestic, house and home, lifestyle and personal image.
These process steps are certainly applicable and necessary for large complex commercial or industrial design projects. For smaller routine design management projects and tasks, or for managing creative providers in domestic or personal style areas, many of these principles will be unnecessary, so use what is helpful and appropriate.
If in doubt ask team members and agency people and creative specialists what stages are necessary and helpful for them. Err on the side of caution. Where any simple routine design management project encounters problems or fails, it's likely that the project manager will have decided that something in this process could be ignored or taken for granted.
Even at the most simple level of working with a creative provider - for example a hair stylist or an interior decorator - if there is an unhappy result, it's rarely the fault of the creative person - the problem and the ultimate responsibility belongs to the customer or specifier. Problems are generally due to the fact the customer or specifier has not explained and agreed 'the brief' properly, or not managed the process adequately while it's happening.
Managing design and creative projects requires a clear methodology. For complex tasks the project manager must be vigilant and detailed. This is not to say you need to be 'hands-on' and constantly interfering - absolutely not - creative people need to be given freedom to use their abilities or you might as well ask an accountant to do the job (no offence to accountants), however, you as project manager - or the customer - need to allow for and anticipate everything that can arise. The key to this is establishing clear positive open communications at the outset, and then maintaining full mutual understanding at all times, irrespective of how much freedom is delegated.
This is both a process and a checklist of management stages. Adapt and use it to suit your purposes. Again, bear in mind that the full extent of the process here is for complex design projects, but the essential principles are transferable to any situation where a creative person or provider is required to design something. Adapt the level of detail and use the aspects described here to suit the purposes of your particular design project.
- First, establish and agree the aims of the project - large or small - aims must be defined and agreed with the executive budget-holder (that's you if this is a small project and you are the only person at the 'customer' side), and if appropriate with all other stakeholders (team-members, focus group, departmental opposite numbers, legislative/approving bodies, etc). See the more detailed notes about establishing and agreeing design aims below.
- Determine a budget, (or for simple projects decide simply what you are prepared to spend) and decide timescales and chief outcomes/results required - remember the principle of 'fitness for purpose' - there is no point shooting for the stars if all you need is a quick basic refinement. Conversely do not expect to create a new market with a 'me-too' basic improvement.
- Decide the level of innovation required - 'me-too' or high innovation, or something in between - this depends on your aims and required outcomes. Again consider 'fitness for purpose'. See the more detailed notes about level of design innovation below.
- Write an 'outline' brief or specification - a detailed brief comes later and should be developed with or by the principle agency when appointed. Ensure interested affected people are aware and are in agreement.
- Define a team or supplier specification - what sort of team agency will be best for this - have a clear idea of the qualities and scale and style of the agency and/or creative people that will be appropriate for the project.
- Consider and (perhaps provisionally) decide what project management tools and information systems you will use. For small projects you will not need to change your mind about this, but for large projects you'll need to ensure that your chosen tools and systems interface with those of the selected creative agency, so for larger projects keep your options open; the agency might have better suggestions, and will certainly want to use their own systems for managing the creative activities and progress at their end.
- Draw up a short-list of external agencies or creative providers - for anything other than small routine projects and on-going design work, use referrals to identify candidates - do not use an existing agency out of pure habit unless there are good reasons for doing so - ensure any large design project is won by going through proper selection process.
- Decide method of team or agency selection - make this transparent and inform candidates of the process - for large projects invite formal presentations in response to the outline brief.
- For large projects particularly, ensure that proper legal documentation and processes are used and in place, for example, non-disclosure agreements (where the development is commercially sensitive, or might be subject of a patent application), clear agreement about the use of ideas, intellectual property and copyright ownership - clarify any areas of doubt and potential misunderstanding. Creative agencies commonly have a different view about these things to commercial business managers - misunderstandings develop easily so you must flush all of these issues out into the open and make sure they are fully understood and agreed on all sides (and ensure this transparency of agreement is maintained through the design management project).
- Select the internal team and agree clear responsibilities as appropriate - often internal team members are on the fringe, notably for such things as quality and safety, ITC, finance, etc., which means these people are easy to forget, but it's important to involve and include them as appropriate in your planning and ongoing communications so that they are able to provide the assistance and input required. Consider the strengths and styles and preferences of different team members. Look at the personalties and styles section to better understand that different people are naturally better at doing different things. If in doubt, ask people what they are good at and what they prefer to be doing within the project - don't just assume that everyone can do anything. Some creative people are passive or introverts and need to be given guidance and management; others are proactive and/or extraverts, and will be happy to instigate and use their initiative. Be aware of whom you expect to do what, and seek their commitment that your expectations are appropriate and comfortable for them.
- Select external team - external agency and or other creative people as appropriate - be mindful of level of innovation required - assess integrity and track-record as well as the quality of their 'pitch' presentations (in trying to win the project contract) - clarify allocation of work and responsibility within external agency - senior people are more expensive than junior people, but senior people are bored by routine work - be comfortable with the people appointed to the tasks within the agency.
- Identify and agree clear project management accountability among the internal and external team members - you certainly need a primary project manager on the agency side to take responsibility for the project (aside from the ultimate accountability which naturally defaults to you, being the project manager for your own organisation). Again consider personalties, styles, strengths and work preferences of all team members; do not assume that the team leader at the agency end of things will be on top of this, although usually they will be. Some won't be however, and as the customer and specifier you are entitled to check that different types of work are being done by people best suited to the responsibilities and expectations concerned. This is where a good relationship with the agency team leader is very helpful. You need to be confident that they can manage their team well, on your behalf.
- Develop and agree detailed brief with the appointed agency - large projects will require 'sub-briefs' for each team or element of the project. For large projects an agency is perfectly entitled to include the development of the detailed brief within the overall project chargeable services. It is not advisable to seek to avoid these costs by developing a detailed brief in isolation and then presenting it to an agency as a 'fait accomplis' (decided and issued as an edict). the detailed brief is part of the project, and a good agency will help usually you develop one that is realistic and deliverable. Conversely, no supplier is comfortable being given a complex brief which excludes the supplier's input, expertise and interpretation. And aside from all of this, people work best on projects when they have a sense of involvement and ownership; inviting agency input to the detailed brief creates involvement and a sense of ownership, which generally provides a platform for commitment and reliable delivery.
- Develop and agree a detailed project plan with the appointed agency - the plan includes the tools you will use for managing and communicating - especially for budgets and approvals. Again, for large complex projects expect this to be chargeable agency time and part of the agency service. Only for the smallest simplest projects will you get away with creating a detailed project plan in isolation. the bigger the project, the more input you should seek from the agency - they are the ones who'll have to make it all happen. Edicts and X-Theory management techniques are a recipe for disaster. You've gone to all the effort to find a good agency, so let them contribute as fully as possible to the project.
- Be guided by the agency about the different stages of the design process, and when you can expect to see representations, ideas, models, art-work, etc., whatever is appropriate for the project. For certain design projects, for example the design of new products, the agency will suggest a staged process of producing ideas, drawings, mock-ups, models and various stages of prototypes. Understand and agree these stages and expectations, and build the stages and the approvals into the project plan.
- For design projects that involve a production phase, as many will do (eg., new products, advertising campaigns, websites, etc) again be guided by the agency about how the design process should interface with aspects of production and implementation. In many circumstances the agency will have more experience about this than you (for instance design to print production), and in any event you must ensure connections and understanding between design and implementation, whatever that entails. Your job is to ensure that the connections between design and production/implementation enable a seamless transition from one to the other, ie., design to production/implementation. This transition varies greatly depending on the type of design project and you must involve and integrate the needs of all departments, divisions, organisations, whatever, that are responsible for or have an interest in the implementation or production of the design(s) concerned. The more the agency understands about the implementation and production issues, the better able it is to incorporate those requirements and factors into the design plans.
- Communicate and explain the plans to all involved and seek agreement - clarify expectations (and always keep doing so through the project). At this stage, assuming appropriate sign-off of the plans, you are ready for the project to start, and are now into the implementation stage. Clarify and agree the preferred management style and management methods with the agency, firstly with the agency's team manager or project manager, and then with all other people on the project, so that everyone knows what's expected - this should embrace communications, updates, approvals, break-points, amendments - where possible anticipate anything that might arise to affect the project - aim to prevent surprises on either side - transparency and clear open positive communications on both sides are essential. Look at the levels of delegation, and decide continuously how much freedom to extend to people within the project. Your job is to manage the project - not to do all the work. The aim is to manage the team so that they feel good about what they are doing, they know clearly what the 'rules of engagement' are, and they get feedback and regular updates about progress and expectations. Communication, measurement, encouragement and maintaining some flexibility to accommodate slippage and new opportunities along the way, are vital aspects of managing successful creative projects.
- Ensure plans and forecasts are kept up to date and communicated. Provide information and progress reports to upline managers and executives - do not wait to be asked. Updates and progress reports are vital for staying on top of creative projects, and demonstrate that you are in control, which keeps nervous up-line managers off your back, because they can trust the project is in safe hands. Stay informed; measure and monitor; be available when required, but try to let the team get on with their jobs. Creative people need space and reassurance. You have the overview, not them, so behave accordingly: manage and feedback and update in the big picture and resist the temptation to 'micro-manage', if you have such tendencies.
- And generally enjoy the creative process and encourage all involved to do the same - it's a wonderful thing, in which the combination of solid project management skills and creative specialisms can produce extremely significant and rewarding outcomes, for the organisations and all the people involved.
- Finally, always remember to give good positive feedback and thanks to creative people and agency staff. Creative agencies and creative people are like most other staff - they get blamed when things go wrong, but get little credit when things succeed. Instead turn it around the other way: make sure you take responsibility and accept the blame for any problems that arise, and ensure the creative people get the thanks and the credit for all the success. As with any management role, this provides the best platform for success.
Be clear first what your aims are - what is the purpose of the design project?
You need to agree and confirm with all involved the actual purpose of the design project. What are the outcomes required? Use the SMARTER criteria to establish these essential starting parameters. Design and the creative process will always tend to zoom off in weird and wonderful directions - that's the nature of the creative process and of creative people - so you need to establish clear guidelines or things can become very difficult to control.
It's all too easy to lose sight of the original purpose of any design project unless it is properly established, quantified, agreed and recorded.
- Specific (a clear written description of what is intended or required, the outcome needed - the basic aim of the exercise)
- Measurable (quantify every aspect that is fixed, especially budgets, scale of application,
- Agreed (with all stakeholders and interested/affected parties)
- Realistic (even highly conceptual projects need to have a realistic intention or the project is inherently flawed)
- Timebound (proper start and finish timescales, ideally with milestones (check-points) and measures along the way)
- Ethical (if you build ethics in from the start you provide a valuable reference point to maintain integrity)
- Recorded (write everything down; it's essential for clarification, agreement, management and control)
Using the brainstorming">https://www.businessballs.com/problem-solving-and-decision-making/brainstorming-for-team-building-and-problem-solving-how-to-109//">brainstorming process can be very helpful in beginning to establish project aims.
This is a vital dimension of the specification and is critically important for any creative people working on the project.
Is your design project highly conceptual and ground-breaking, or is it a revision or development or improvement of an existing design or product or service? Or something in between? The thought process and design process are entirely different for something absolutely new compared to something that simply adapts or develops an existing concept or idea. Creative people therefore need to know the level of innovation required. Many of the best creative people will by their nature tend to strive for optimum innovation. This is fine if the project requires it, but if the design project is merely to design next season's range of tea-towel patterns, there's no point in having a designer working on the next generation of bactericidal super-absorbent textiles that change colour to indicate when they're due for cleaning.
The level of innovation must be 'fit for purpose' whatever that purpose is. Your reference point is the outcome or result required by the business or organisation.
Deciding the level of innovation is also crucial for selecting the right type of designer(s) to work on the project. Some designers are highly innovative; others are more comfortable with refinements and developments. Knowing the level of innovation helps you to identify the right people for the job.
It is generally not possible to patent an idea or an invention once it becomes public knowledge, or enters the 'public domain'.
If your design project involves a concept or plan or details that might be subject of a future patent application, you can protect the confidentiality of your ideas when discussing them with prospective designers through the use of a non-disclosure agreement (commonly abbreviated to NDA, also called a non-disclosure undertaking or a confidentiality agreement).
A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) simply states that both sides (normally the specifying 'company' or customer, and the prospective supplier or 'recipient' of the confidential information) will keep confidential all sensitive information disclosed by either side relating to the (named or described) project. A two-way undertaking is often more appropriate than merely protecting the interests of the customer or specifier because the supplier will commonly have their own needs for confidentiality too.
Having said this many NDA's ignore the interests of the potential supplier and are worded as a simple one-way protection, basically signed by the potential supplier or agency to guarantee that they will keep information relating to the project confidential, and take reasonable measures to ensure that all information is treated confidentially among their people.
A simple NDA can be achieved also via a simple exchange of letters. It's not a complex thing, unless the project is very serious.
If you do not have a non-disclosure agreement document or template, most good design agencies will often have their own NDA's which can be adapted to suit the needs of both sides.
If not, a decent solicitor should be able to advise on the creation of a simple non-disclosure agreement. Alternatively examples of NDA's are freely available on the internet. Try to choose an NDA which uses simple plain language, and avoid being persuaded by lawyers to spend a lot of money creating a complex document, unless the project is very serious.
The likelihood is that the creative agency will want to amend your NDA anyway, so keeping things simple is your best way to complete this formality quickly and easily, and then get on with awarding and managing actual project.
Incidentally non-disclosure agreements can be used for any discussions where you need to protect the confidentiality of information - NDA's are not restricted to design projects and ideas that might be patented.
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