Ask a Designer #14: What Do I Do When a Project is Lacking Management?


October 13, 2021

Designer, speaker, and writer Charli Marie is our resident advice columnist for our Ask a Designer series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in design. This week, Charli offers some project management solutions to a senior UI designer working with multiple clients.

Dear Charli,

I’m a Senior UI Designer who works for different clients simultaneously on a contract basis. I find that the project management differs greatly within businesses: one company I’m working for has a really great, diligent person dedicated to the job, and others have no one at all. When the latter is the case, unsurprisingly, I find the projects a lot more difficult to work on because the workflows are all over the place. I wish I’d known from the beginning what the setup is. Is it acceptable to ask outright what the staff structure is and how much management support I’ll get as a contractor? Or can you recommend some ways I can help the projects run more smoothly when there’s no project manager?


Management Seeker

Hi Management Seeker,

It seems to me like there are two possible solutions to this frustration: 

  1. Decide to only work with clients who have a solid project management system in place

  2. Add to your skillset and service offering by becoming the project manager on any client project that doesn’t have one established

Only you can know what the best choice is for you, but I will say that strong project management skills are hugely beneficial for designers; especially at senior levels. So this could be a great chance to lean into that. 

No matter which option you choose though, it is absolutely acceptable to ask a company about their current processes before you take on a project. Here’s how you can do that tactfully.

Establishing what existing processes you’ll be working within on a client project

Okay, so you’ve been approached about a project you’re excited about: an interesting UI problem that the company wants your help in solving. Great! Now, just as you’ll ask clarifying questions about the product problem to get to the heart of it in order to do your job effectively, you should ask clarifying questions about their processes too. You need to know this information to scope the timeframe the work can be completed in, and so that you’re aware of what it means to work effectively with their team.

Start by giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming they do have a standard workflow or process.

Ask them where they’d like you to fit in in their process, and have them talk you through how a project normally runs for their team.

If they struggle to answer this that’s probably a sign you need to dig in deeper and help them solve this problem as well as the UI problem. (Or politely decline, if you’d prefer.)

I’d advise you to look for common threads in the issues you’ve had in the past with companies that didn’t have a solid process, and form questions that will help you to uncover if you might run into it again with this new project. For example, if you struggled to meet a deadline without a key contact for getting your questions answered; ask who that go-to person on their team will be for this project. If you felt out-of-the-loop; ask if there’s a project management or communication tool they’re using that you can be added to for the duration of the project. If collating information was hard; ask if someone from their team can pull this together for you so you can get started on the right foot. 

No matter how good your clarifying questions are, there will always be some things that feel like a surprise once you get into it. As an in-house Creative Director who has been at the same company for over four years now, I know there are many things that feel obvious to me that I might forget I need to explain to a contractor! But by addressing the core issues upfront, and even explaining (without naming names) that it’s a problem you’ve faced in the past, you should catch most things. You should never be afraid to ask these types of questions though, because in doing so you’re ensuring that both you and the client will be successful with the project.

Managing a project effectively

If you decide that you want to help a company not only solve their UI problem but also take charge of the project to ensure it gets done, you’ll need to appoint yourself the project manager.

Even if you are taking on this role, you will still need a key contact from the company to partner with.

They may not have the time to manage the project and put all the moving pieces together, but you need someone on their side to answer your questions or point you in the right direction for information, approvals, and feedback. If they can’t provide this, that sounds like a red flag to me.

Is the project really important to them if no one on their team cares enough to be the key contact? Explain to them that a go-to person is essential for the success of the project and hopefully they’ll put one in place.

To kick off the project, I’d advise you to provide a reverse brief that includes an overview of your understanding of the UI problem you’re solving as well as a timeline you’ve mapped out that includes the final due date and checkpoints along the way. Establish how long they’ll have to give feedback, who the stakeholders are, and who you need to collaborate with from their team.

If they have a project management tool already, dive into that to set your project up (it’ll be easier to get their input in a familiar tool, even if it’s something you have to do a little learning to get used to). If they don’t, or if they’re flexible, set something up in your preferred tool and add all the stakeholders and collaborators to it.

Provide updates to their team along the way, and speak up when checkpoints and deadlines are approaching or at risk.

Clear communication is key to project management so that no one has to wonder what the status is or where to find something. And hopefully your taking charge will help things to run smoothly. 

This approach is not foolproof, but any time you face a new hurdle you can try to pre-empt it in the next project by asking about it upfront and tweaking your process to account for it. 

Small (but important) side note: if you’re managing the project as well as doing the UI design you should absolutely increase your fee. It’s completely fair to do that; you’re providing more value to the company, so you should be compensated for it.

If the company has no clear project management structure internally, they’ll be grateful for your professionalism in ensuring the project is completed in an efficient manner.

Because at the end of the day they’re hiring you as a contractor to get the job done, and if their internal processes (or lack thereof) will hinder that they’re relying on you to speak up about it and let them know.

Of course, every now and then you might come across a company so mis-managed that not even your best attempt could succeed. But hopefully you’ll weed those ones out with your clarifying questions!

I’m excited for you to level-up in your project management abilities. Not only will it help make you more efficient as a designer, but as I mentioned it’ll also help you to increase your rate. 

It all starts with having the confidence and forethought to ask about their current processes upfront though. Learn from your past experiences, put together a list of questions, and ask them before you commit to your next project.

Best of luck to you with it all!

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About the author

New Zealand born Charli is a designer, speaker, and writer based in Valencia, Spain. She's passionate about side projects and helps creatives improve their craft and process. By day Charli works as the Creative Director at ConvertKit, and on the side she creates weekly content on her YouTube channel, sharing insights into life as a professional designer alongside tutorials and advice on design tools and concepts.

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