5 Effective Ways to Improve Your Design Management Process

Architect Plans at Light Table
Architectural Floor Plans on Light table

Here are five ways to improve your design management process from a former Senior Project Design Manager at Walt Disney Imagineering and licensed Architect.

1. Create A Design Implementation Strategy

If you’re a leader of your firm’s design group or a Design Manager and you are not creating, implementing and managing a Design Implementation Strategy, you are missing out on an opportunity to provide a framework and guideline for your design team and design consultants. 

The Design Implementation Strategy is a singular or set of documents written by the Design Manager providing an executive summary of how they plan to manage the project. The Strategy should be a narrative upon which the Design Manager describes to their team members (both design and non-design team members) how they plan to approach and successfully manage the project’s design process.

Read more about improving your Design Management skills!

Much like project design specification manuals, the Design Implementation Strategy is a document or group of documents submitted to the entire team early in the project that, in the event of question or conflict regarding the scope of or approach to the project’s design, can act as a historical record of the limits of the design scope which the Design Manager is assuming responsibility and accountability.

The Design Implementation Strategy should be written in a clear and concise manner so that any individual with varying or little knowledge of the project, can coherently understand the project’s design strategy and how it will be managed.

2. Design Manager’s Input on Project Implementation

The Design Manager should be one of the project’s responsible individuals included in high level discussions regarding a project’s implementation strategy. For the built environment, the Design Manager – often a seasoned, licensed design professional – has typically worked on many projects utilizing at least two of the three major forms of project implementation and contracting. Those being:

  • Design-Build
  • Design-Bid-Build
  • Integrated Project Delivery or integrated forms of agreements.

While the Design Manager’s role will differ slightly depending on which of the three major forms of implementation the project leaders or management group decide to move forward with; the Design Manager should be included in the early discussions as each of the three types of implementation strategies will affect the Design Manager’s design strategy and most likely the value of the project’s overall design fees.

The Design Manager should have a voice in the early discussions to convey to the project team leaders how the cost and design implementation will vary between the three implementation strategies.

3. Focus and Get Specific!

How many times have we been in design specific or design issue meetings with a room full of team members that have no direct influence or professional knowledge on the outcome of the design or accountability of the final design, yet the team leaders wield their opinion like a sword.

While I’m a believer in gathering a multitude of opinions and perspectives on solving high level design challenges; in a focused design issue discussion that requires design professionals or design expertise to resolve the issue I would argue the fewer the individuals the better.

A Design Manager and/or leader of the project’s design process should strive to focus their design specific meetings or design charrettes to cover one subject or design issue. The Design Manager should also strive to invite only the responsible individuals to the design discussions that are both empowered to make decisions in the meeting and those design consultants or team members that are directly affected by the singular topic being discussed.

I have used this strategy many times to solve specific design related issues with great success. Most likely you will have more than one design issue to resolve; the Design Manager should schedule a separate focused meeting to resolve that issue which may require a different or similar list of attendees.

4. Harness the Power of Design Reviews

Design reviews of milestone drawings and documents can yield valuable design input, increase team collaboration, and is a forum in which the owner, client and/or stakeholders can engage the design process at a deeper level.

A Design Manager should schedule and host the design review meeting for the documents they have formally released to the client and project stakeholders. A successful design review should merely be what the name implies; a design review. It should not be a working design session or charrette. At the time of the design review, the Design Manager and design team should already being working with the client or project stakeholders to resolve and discuss specific design issues.

The design review is a review to confirm all the previous design issue work sessions with the client or project stakeholders. If any new design issues come to light in the design review – which they will – the Design Manager should note those topics, and schedule future, specific work sessions to resolve the new issues.

Design reviews are a forum in which the design team and a project’s non-design team responsible individuals can review the progress and evolution of a project’s design. Having regular, successful design reviews promote valuable collaboration between the project’s design team and the project’s stakeholders.

In many instances, the project’s client or stakeholders – during design reviews – may come to valuable realizations that can affect the outcome and overall design of a project they may have not recognized until the day of the design review. This information should be recorded and and can assist the Design Manager during the design phases to resolve issues prior to construction.

5. Design Change Management Strategy

Most likely the two least desirable words any project team or client wants to hear: design change. All projects at some point, either in the design phases and/or implementation phase, will require change to the design, whether it’s due to value engineering, statutory requirements, owner or client driven change, etc.

For a multitude of reasons, the Design Manager should have a process to document the cause and impact of the design modifications. During the design and implementation phases of a project, the Design Manager should document all deviations of design that differ from the contracted scope of design services – outlined and described in the design team’s contract.

The Design Manager should provide a narrative specifically describing the design modifications and a meaningful justification for the design changes. Using a standardized document to capture the validation for the design team to make design modifications above and beyond their contracted scope is important for many reasons, but most importantly it is a record document that will be shared with the project’s responsible individuals.

The Design Change Management Strategy document should highlight potential design cost increases (and the need for add-services), the potential impacts to the design schedule as they relate to the overall project schedule and is a document that assists in curbing any “amnesia” of early design changes that affect the overall project cost or project cost settlement at the end of the project.

If you would like to learn more about how to become a successful Design Manager utilizing real world processes, check out my online, self paced course: The Design Manager: Successful Management of the Design Process. This course incorporates my twenty plus years of successful A & E Industry design project team management skills and processes I used during my time as a Senior Project Design Manager at Walt Disney Imagineering.

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