How to Handle a Big Design Project Single-Handedly

Michał Kubalczyk

Jul 20, 2021 • 8 min read
Netguru Office

Are you going to start a new long-term project with no design backup? Or maybe your teammate just moved to another project and you’re on your own now? A thousand screens to deliver and you have no idea where to start?

Trust me, it’s all about baby steps.

1. Communication is the key

The most important factor is simply communication (didn’t expect that, did you?). Regular everyday catch-ups with clients might sound a bit overwhelming at first, but they really make a difference. Don’t write, just talk.

Constant contact will help you keep everything on track and quickly apply unexpected changes that won’t ruin your whole schedule. Iterate even the smallest things and try to be as close to perfection as possible. And, of course, there’s no better way to practice your soft skills, ask your more experienced friends 😉

#protip

Create a separate Slack channel for every department, project, or even particular functionality. Take care of transparency, do not talk about any changes privately, keep everyone up to date to be sure that there will be no surprises or inconsistencies.

Talk about all your ideas - internally, with friends, other designers, leaders. And externally, with the client - about their needs, expectations, final proposals, and upcoming changes. Do daily calls, weekly catch ups, and/or even bigger summaries, if needed.

2. First things first: priorities

Regularly spare a few minutes to list project priorities. Properly structured, estimated, and planned tasks will keep you calm and confident. You don’t want to waste half a day on things that don’t have to be done [as soon as possible] and to stay up late because you have to deliver all the rest on time 😉, do you?

It will also enable your client to easily schedule and synchronize the work of others. Bear in mind that the importance and the number of tasks can change very quickly, especially when you’re working on a living product.

Manage your time properly.

#protip How to handle it?

First of all, there’s plenty of tools for project management that make life easier. Jira, Asana, Monday, Trello. But how do we handle it at Netguru? Every single functionality has its own ticket with an expanded user story, these are sorted by hierarchy of importance with proper labels on them and a due date, and are very often pinned to a global ticket.

For example: Creating a task and viewing a task would be two different tickets inside the main one about the “tasks” functionality.

It’s also highly possible that after the design phase tickets will be moved directly to the development board, so you should keep that in mind and treat those as a part of handover.

3. Let’s get started - understanding the task

Do not try to assume what to do or how to do it - you will just waste time. You need to get a deep understanding of what is needed, what is your product owner’s point of view, what are their expectations, what are the possible issues, and what the target audience expects. Treat it as a small research phase preceding each task, take notes, ask, and take notes again. And if you don’t get an answer, look for it.

This will allow you to analyze problems with peace of mind, discuss solutions, and use your consulting mindset. The more knowledge you have, the better ideas you’re going to provide and the bigger your future impact on the product. Back in the day I just wanted to quickly solve the problem - the same problem that, as it later turned out, I didn’t fully understand.

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, though. Mistakes are an inevitable part of our job, that’s the reason why we run all different kinds of usability tests and data analysis on the later stage.

4. Group work simulation

Prevention is better than a cure. Spend a few extra minutes on proper work hygiene.

You’re on your own, no one works on your files, you don’t have to worry about keeping them clean, properly named and stored, right?

Wrong.

Even if it’s all yours, for your use only, you can get lost one day - and trust me, it happens. With pages, layers, stylistic choices. Prevention is better than a cure, so spend a few extra minutes to properly group artboards, name the layers, organize the prototype. You can use plugins like SketchCleaner or Figma. Do it for the sake of peace.

If you were handling it somehow so far, there’s always a possibility that you’ll get someone to help you as the project grows.

Consider the most common scenario: You’re going on vacation to sunbathe in Ibiza (okay, not that part) - and someone is going to take care of the product while you're off.

Do you know that sentence: “Always work like you don’t need money”? Well, I think we should say: “Always work like you are not alone”.

Sharing files or responsibilities is obviously much easier if you use software like Figma or a combination of Sketch and Abstract, but they still won’t tell others what you had in mind or which version is the most accurate. Again, rule no. 1 👆🏻 is communication.

5. Dive into the rabbit hole

Avoid revolution if you’re taking over a project that already exists, accept what has been done and don’t apply extra changes if it isn’t something you were asked for.

I mentioned that to become a successful one-man army, aka a Product Designer, it doesn’t matter if you already have experience in big, long-term design projects. At least as long as you are eager to learn and accept the fact that this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Think bigger and accept what has been done if you are taking over an existing, well-functioning product. Avoid revolutionary steps if this is not something you were asked for. Sketch, prototype, organize the atoms, set the grid, follow the patterns, keep consistency - these are, in fact, the foundations.

I’ve met promising designers who failed because they were not patient enough, and ones who succeeded thanks to their modesty. Designers who thought that they could conquer the world in just one day by creating a pretty image, and those who simply cared about the product they were going to develop.

Sometimes we just have to suppress our ego to dive into the rabbit hole.

Accept the fact that big, commercial projects are not a fairytale or quick startup shots.

6. One step at a time, the Kaizen philosophy

Being thrown in at the deep end might be scary. As long as you think about it this way.

Have you ever heard about the Kaizen philosophy? Kaizen helps you organize everything you do. It means "continuous improvement" and it is a mindset you can apply anywhere. Start small and take small steps. That's the essence of Kaizen. Start from the top, prepare yourself, ask questions, make notes, do some research, prioritize your tasks, then design and gather feedback. Repeat.

P.S. Think about the broader perspective: It doesn’t really matter if you’re building a bungalow or a mansion, at some point you still have to follow the same patterns. You just end on a different level.

So relax, take it easy.

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