Mangement For Design

Business Journal 122

Effective Design Management

Effective design management should be one of the core values of your architecture and design practice. However, when Management for Design delves into this subject and asks business leaders to explain and articulate their processes, they tend to struggle with their response.

Consistent and effective design management across the studio is not common in our profession. Why is that? Is it because, as architects and designers, we are inherently creatives—and creatives consider management as somewhat counter-intuitive to design innovation? Creativity and management don’t fit neatly together! Creatives don’t necessarily embrace management, even design management.

But the key thing is, you need to find a balance between creative freedom, innovation, and business management. Innovation needs to flow throughout the business and be actively encouraged and resourced. But strong and consistent business performance also requires business management and systems.

What’s required is to find the right balance for your practice. Typically, the larger your business is or becomes, the more you will rely on a way of working that is consistent, methodical, and aligned with your studio culture—that’s business. Effective design management finds a balance between creative freedom and management systems.


Why is Design Management Important?

Your design approach, outputs, and the ability to “capture” your intellectual property provides you with the opportunity to innovate and to truly differentiate your business from competitors. Clients don’t choose you for your design talent, they choose you for your ability to deliver high-quality design through an exceptional experience.

Management includes the management of people, technologies, information, and resources. The essence of design management is to maximise these resources and outputs, alongside promoting creativity and innovation within your business.

Effective design management should be one of the core values of a successful architectural and design practice—the controlling mechanisms that allow the creative process to be transformed into fee-generating activities.

Effective design management—a consistent approach that is understood and applied throughout the studio—allows your business to:

  • Ensure consistent processes (and to improve them)
  • Capture and deliver the design intent
  • Maximise value to the stakeholders
  • Develop your relationship with your clients
  • Build your brand and marketing efforts
  • Improve your financial performance


Current Status

Design is central to the tertiary education of architects, engineers, and designers, but research indicates that graduates receive little or no training in design management and that graduates were left to learn this on the job.

The challenge for architecture and design businesses is to provide a stimulating and creative studio environment that allows the space for creativity within an organised environment. Like any other business system, design requires monitoring and control mechanisms. Consistent processes ensure that design outputs are consistent, design-intent is maintained, and quality work is produced and delivered.

Having said that, ineffective design management is one of the major causes of rework and loss of productivity in the studio. And quite often it’s the leaders that are creating this. Unresolved design work and design changes at the wrong time can be one of the biggest challenges for most studios. Quite often, design reviews occur too late in the process and documentation and production has moved ahead of the design decision-making process.

Design management requires focus and commitment from the leaders. The unique value architects add to people’s lives and communities is grounded in an ability to deliver something their competitors cannot: design vision. But being a creative auteur doesn’t always translate to business success—design needs to be a professionally managed service—effective and responsive.

With the move towards integrated project delivery and the uptake of the “design manager” role by contractors, no longer is design or the management of design the exclusive domain of architects in a collaborative, digital marketplace.

To be successful, what’s required is to ensure projects are managed professionally and are conceived and delivered within a professionally managed studio.


What’s required

A design management system is no different from many of the systems in your business. The key is to develop a consistent approach to co-ordinate the required activities and behaviours necessary to deliver the right outcomes. Develop a system—a consistent way of designing in the studio—that is clearly understood and communicated, and everyone adheres to. Support your way of working with:

  • A physical and virtual environment to enable the sharing of knowledge
  • Appropriate and sophisticated technologies, both software and hardware, to match the requirements of the studio, like ICT, BIM, etc.
  • Consistent and complete Information that is graphic
  • The right amount of time, people and expertise

Your business needs systems to consistently deliver your design intent and ensure quality and client satisfaction—you can’t avoid this! No doubt, your practice currently has design processes and systems in place, but how consistent, understood, codified, and adhered to they are is the real test of effectiveness! As you grow and work with more clients you will rely more on these systems.

It is through effective management that the client values and central idea are translated into a physical artefact with minimal loss of creativity.
Research consistently has shown that effective design management is a significant contributor to success.


Where to start

Capturing and articulating client needs is one of the most important events in a project and the project/design brief forms the basis for that.

The development of the project and design brief should result in a clear, unambiguous, and concise list of project requirements—it’s an iterative and dynamic process.

Management then starts with a plan. What’s required is a clear picture of:

  • The design initiator/s
  • The team
  • Who is involved in the design review process?
  • The time-frames and key milestones
  • An estimate of the amount of time you will spend—this is important as it relates to the profitability of the project (use historical information)

The factors that could impact this plan include:

  • Project complexity—building and technical
  • Characteristics of the clients
  • Town planning consideration
  • Characteristics of the design team
  • Characteristics of the project team
  • What systems you have in place
  • Availability of the right people

Once this is established capturing, retaining and communicating the central idea of the design becomes key.

The central idea

What is the unifying element of the design intent that ties all the elements of the project together and is going to flow through the project and drive decision making?

Your documents and your decisions are going to go through a whole selection of people, a whole series of teams. To capture the central idea in the project—whether that’s through photography, whether that’s through sketches, a sketchbook or through precedent projects is critical. Capture that, so that the team embraces and continuously refers to it. Your “central idea” informs (drives) design decisions through the complete project cycle. And it’s not a difficult thing to do.


The design review process

The design review process—what, who and how—should be a key component of your design management plan. When do you conduct your formal reviews with the team, the leaders, the client? Is that post concept, at the end of schematic design, at the end of design development, or at the end of the project? Develop a methodology for assessing your design at the various stages of a project.

Internal design reviews should be planned events at key stages of the project. They should include the project director, the design initiator and design reviewer. Issues to review include:

  • Response to brief
  • Design verification – the central idea
  • Design changes
  • Constructability
  • Statutory requirements
  • Budget / Programme
  • Sustainability

The frequency of these reviews will depend on the characteristics of the project and the team.


Evaluation at Project Completion

Develop a methodology for assessing your performance at the completion of the project. This should be with the leaders and the key design initiators in the studio and include:

  • Strength / quality of idea
  • Innovation
  • Delivery of design intent
  • Client satisfaction (process and product)
  • Functionality
  • Maintenance and Operating Costs
  • Project Cost versus budget
  • Defects

And share this with the studio! It’s important.

The sharing of the design and project review discussions with the studio is one of the most effective ways to embed a culture of design management in the studio.


Studio Culture

A culture of design management doesn’t necessarily happen within the studio. The leaders need to drive and demonstrate this on a daily basis—they need to show the way. What does this involve?

  • Regular design reviews across the studio
  • Talk about the design decisions—explain them to your people
  • Regular presentations of work
  • Articulate the central idea and how this was communicated and captured
  • Promote spontaneity, expression of idea, robust debate
  • Collateral that talks about the process and results—not just the building
  • Leaders need to talk about the processes

A strategic approach to design at board level elevates design to an innovative process with a long-term vision


There is a considerable body of research which examines the dimensions and efficacy of design management. This research has shown that architects and designers struggle with embedding design management into their businesses. It is clear though that the role of the architect and designer is rapidly evolving within the industry. For architects, engineers and designers, in many respects it is the construction industry that is setting the agenda.

Effective design management allows your business to ensure that you’ve got consistency of processes, to capture and deliver the design intent, and maximise the value to the key stakeholders. The opportunity to drive, nurture, sustain and capture creativity and innovation (your intellectual property) within your practice offers your business the opportunity to lead the industry well into the future.

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