Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Project management

As some readers may know, I am a trained project manager. Recently I have completed some large commissions for the game industry, and I wanted to talk a bit about how I used my management skills to organize my work. I will use my recent work on Black Scorpion’s game Cutlass! as an example. It was a relatively complex project, which had strict deadlines to ensure it was printed in time.

A project is defined as an endeavor which happens once, has ‘constraints’ (typically time and / or money) and has a definite end result and end point. Humans have been running projects for thousands of years but it was only in the 1950s that formal methodologies evolved and ‘modern’ project management was born. There are several approaches to project management, some of which are industry specific. I am trained in what is called ‘product-based project management’ which is appropriate for a fairly broad range of endeavors. It seems to work pretty well for my role as a freelance graphic designer.

The central tenant of the methodology I use is ‘no surprises’. Ideally there should be nothing which emerges in the lifetime of a project that proves to be a bolt-out-of-the-blue which stops the project. In practical terms, this can happen, but a lot of effort is devoted to scoping and planning so the chances of an unexpected catastrophic occurrence are reduced. I began Cutlass! by listing all the things which needed to be produced (the ‘end products’). For each product I then list the tasks or sub-products which need to be created or done to produce it. Timescales and relationships are then mapped and eventually all the tasks and products are plotted on a time chart as bars. This is called an Gantt chart, named after Henry Gantt (one of their first major uses was to plan US ordinance operations in WWI). This can be quite a lot of work, but is essential when you have a large, complex project. Without planning the overriding temptation is to do the ‘fun’ bits of work first, but this ad-hoc approach inevitably leads to problems.

The first graphic is a process flow chart showing the planning which is needed for the release of a boxed game. Typically a process flow precedes a Gantt chart. It is a list of products and the tasks to achieve them without timescales yet assigned. The second image is the Gantt chart I produced for the Cutlass! project. You can see there is a period of time built in at the end of the plan for contingency. This is essential to accommodate the unexpected occurrences which inevitably arise. I would send Adam at Black Scorpion this Gantt periodically. It allowed him to see the progress being made, and would inform him of the things he needed to do as the client (such as the time he was allowed to review and comment on products so I had enough time to make changes).

I would highly recommend reading about (or even doing a course in) project management for any creative who works on large or complex commissions. It will give you tools to tackle common problems and impress clients.


  1. And if that survived contact with the client I'll eat me hat! ;)

  2. Just stumbled upon this post while sifting through your blog and I'm just floored. Have you ever heard the saying that you "don't know what you don't know."? Well this just revealed to me one feather that I didn't know I needed to add to my cap so to speak. I'm currently for a very creative "seat of the pants" type of boss and I swear we've got about a dozen projects that are just in limbo because he just has no means of tracking all the various components that need to get completed in order to actually advance. The skills and methodologies you mentioned here seem like the framework I've been trying to find to explain this to our team for the last 2 years.

    Thank you very much for that.