I’ve managed several projects that involve the development of a graphical front end. Although these projects usually involved a Web interface of some description, even business intelligence applications need a graphical front end to be attractive to corporate customers.
The nature of these projects also meant that I managed graphic designers who are often highly talented artists who may not understand IT. Working with this group, whom I call The Creatives, presents a number of challenges, because many Creatives take an approach that may be different than what you are used to. These suggestions will help you cope with the culture shock of managing a creative and his or her artistic temperament.
Problems and solutions
Problem: The Creative shows the client some designs, which the client informally approves—despite the fact that the designs are technically impractical.
Solution: Make clients and team members aware that you’re the arbiter of any project changes. Although creative design work is a good way for the client to feel like they’re part of the project, you need to explain why there are limits and define what those limits are.
Problem: The Creatives have a tendency to make numerous changes.
Solution: Convey to the Creatives that design changes can have a wide-ranging effect on the entire project.
Problem: The client may want a less “challenging” design than the Creatives are showing him/her.
Solution: Provide the Creatives and the client with the chance to meet for briefings and to devise a fixed schedule to deliver alternate designs. This strategy will let the Creatives understand that their reputation depends on delivering, which helps them focus on the task at hand.
Problem: Certain projects require that you conform to usability issues (e.g., U.S. government Web sites) or usability requirements issues (e.g., color choices may need to be constrained to be readable by visually impaired users); these problems are often viewed as more of a hindrance than a design challenge.
Solution: Address these issues before work begins by documenting appropriate “rules” now to save time later. The difficult part, of course, is predicting what issues may emerge throughout the course of the project. Your best option is to have a private chat with the most senior Creative at the very beginning of the project.
Problem: Questions sometimes come up about the chain of command, such as, “Who is this Creative’s boss?”
Solution: Don’t lose sight of the fact that you carry the weight of the project on your shoulders. If anyone puts up a fuss, remind him or her that with your responsibility comes accountability.
Problem: Creatives tend to be quite specialized, which may limit what they can do. For instance, I once asked a Web designer to produce some sketches for the client, only to be told, “but I don’t do drawing.” Think about it like this: You wouldn’t assume that a Cobol expert could instantly pick up a C++ programming task, would you?
Solution: Discover what skills each team member has before assigning tasks; this rule applies for all team members regardless of whether they’re a designer or a developer.
Problem: During the development process, Creatives’ work is on display in a way that code usually isn’t. If a developer offers an opinion about a Creative’s work in a tactless manner, it raises tensions within the team.
Solution: Ensure that your developers understand the real commercial need for design work on the project: It usually generates sales, and it’s possible that resulting systems may function better.
Of course, creativity can manifest in many different forms. Developers are often genuinely artistic in the way they can put their ideas into code. Unfortunately, developers often don’t communicate how elegant their code is in documentation, which causes the code’s beauty to be unappreciated by other developers.
None of my project management training prepared me for the demands of aesthetic/artistic/appearance-led questions. I consider it my job to try to manage the Creatives’ interaction with the more technical members of my team and to motivate them to achieve the best possible result on behalf of the project. It can be an enjoyable challenge, particularly if you make an effort to understand how Creatives approach an IT project.