What is project design? (With elements, steps and tips)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 8 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Firms may use various strategies to execute a project well. Project design can help a firm organise processes, ideas and deliverables to achieve specific goals. Learning what a project design is can help you use this technique to optimise your projects and improve their outcomes. In this article, we answer ‘What is project design?', review its elements, discuss its steps and provide tips to improve your project design.

What is project design?

Project design is an idea's early phase where a company plans its key features, criteria for success, structure and essential deliverables. Organisations can develop one or more designs the company uses to achieve the desired outcomes. Stakeholders evaluate the proposed design options and choose the best one. The organisation uses the project design selected to execute the project. The project design stage can yield various outputs, including flowcharts, sketches, HTML screen designs, site trees, prototypes and photo impressions.

Related: Guide: What is strategic planning? (With benefits and steps)

Elements of a project design

Once you know the answer to 'What is project design?', you can learn its various elements, such as:

  • Project background: Describe how you developed the notion for the project and the problem the endeavour can solve if executed well.

  • Project context: Describe the external and internal environment where you execute the project and the ways the environment affects the project.

  • Risks and assumptions: Consider the hypotheses and risks and highlight your plan for mitigating them.

  • Goals and objectives: Highlight the reasons for undertaking the project. The goal directs the project, while objectives are specific targets to meet the goal.

  • Output and outcomes: Show the project's results if you execute it well. Outcomes are the explicit changes that affect the project's beneficiaries.

  • Stakeholders or beneficiaries: Highlight the people or entities the project can help.

  • Activities: Show the actions the project executors take to achieve the desired outcomes. You typically design them as per the project's strategy.

  • Timeline: Highlight the project's events chronologically. A timeline is a quick overview of your planned tasks, while a work plan is more detailed.

  • Work plan: Describe the project's activities sequence in time. It can include details about objectives, responsibilities and spending.

  • Budget estimates: Highlight the project's allocated resources and expenditure on specific tasks to achieve the desired outcomes.

  • Sustainability: Outline the project's impact after its completion.

  • Monitoring and evaluation strategies: Show techniques you can use to measure and assess the project's performance and success.

Related: 8 types of project deliverables (definitions and examples)

How to implement project design

Here are the seven steps during the project management design process:

1. Define project goals

You can organise an initial ideation meeting to document the project's deliverables and timelines. Consider the initiative and stakeholders' requirements, write a brief project description and name its executors. Once you outline the project's goals, you can determine its more concrete objectives. You may use SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound) goals to visualise the project's direction better.

Related: Project scope: definition, importance and how to develop it

2. Determine outcomes

Specify the project's outcomes. These results are often more comprehensive than in the previous step and include the activities executors can complement while executing the project. For example, adding an email sign up form can be an outcome if you're adding a landing page to the organisation's site. You can document the significant deliverables and results needed besides the project's goals to develop a timeframe. You may also reference popular project management methods to choose the one suiting your project's needs. For example, you may use the Agile methodology for complex projects or the waterfall model for more traditional initiatives.

3. Identify constraints and risks

Assess the project's aspects that can cause risks to prevent wasted resources if the risk event happens during execution. You can determine the funds, resource management tools and timeframe needed to identify the project's constraints and risks. Manage these risks and limitations before executing the project by engaging the relevant beneficiaries and project teams. You may use a risk register to analyse, document and manage project risks that arise.

Related: What is a project baseline? (Plus definition and tips)

4. Use a visual aid to refine the project strategy

A project strategy is your project's visual roadmap. It helps relay purpose to teams. You can create a project strategy by picking a visual aid to give to stakeholders. Visual aids may differ slightly. Team preferences can help project managers pick the best solutions. For example, smaller teams undertaking simple projects prefer flowcharts, while large groups can choose a WBS that details dependencies. One can examine each visual tool's features, detail level, visual appearance and usability to pick the best solution for their project design. The options you may use include:

  • Flowchart: This is a visual representation of the decisions and steps when performing a process. Flowcharts can help stakeholders visualise step-by-step approaches and organise project deliverables effectively.

  • Gantt chart: This is a horizontal bar chart that illustrates the project's timeline. The bars in this representation show the project's steps, and their lengths represent the time spent completing them.

  • Work breakdown structure (WBS): This subdivides the project's tasks. Project managers can use WBS to help teams visualise deliverables while highlighting objectives.

  • Mind map: This is a hierarchy diagram that visualises tasks and projects. It can help project managers link deliverables around a central idea or concept, like a specific team target.

  • PERT chart: This is a diagram for scheduling, organising and mapping tasks. It can help organisations manage complex projects and estimate the time needed to execute tasks.

5. Estimate the budget

Estimate the project's budget to allocate resources. The allocation can incorporate the resources, project profitability and outsourced work required. It can also be a fixed amount that the organisation's leadership determines. Project managers and teams ensure the project's spending fits the allocated amount. If they need a budget revision or approval, they can request the leadership to provide them. Once finalised, you can assign the amount to design documents, beneficiaries and activities for the project. Implementing automated processes using automation software can reduce errors and improve efficiency during resource allocation and utilisation.

6. Create a contingency plan

Develop a contingency plan before assigning tasks. This backup plan helps you sustain the project and salvage your progress if you encounter constraints or risks. Having an organised contingency plan when issues arise can help you resolve them quickly and efficiently. You can use a Gantt chart or timeline aid to organise potential risks and develop a plan for managing each hazard. For example, your contingency plan can source materials elsewhere or start a different project stage if your risks involve delayed deliveries.

Related: Project controls: definition, importance and skills

7. Document the milestones

Document your project team's milestones to ensure executors complete the scheduled tasks and identify inconsistencies quickly. You may use project management software during this stage and share its credentials to help stakeholders access the progress and information. The milestones can also include those until you close the project. You may engage stakeholders frequently to track task dependencies and meet short-term goals.

Related: How to use the PDCA cycle (with benefits and example)

Tips to improve the project design

Here are tips to help you improve your project design:

Understand the project team

You may understand your team members and their capacities and motivations when planning a design project. Use this information to assign them roles and tasks that suit their qualities. You may also consider their work styles and preferences to ensure you delegate responsibilities to them. Giving them their optimal roles can help them be productive and engaged throughout the design process.

Maximise skills

Use the knowledge of your project team's capabilities and preferences to maximise their skills by promoting beneficial ways to collaborate. You can group executors into committees or focus groups that improve each one's talent. For example, you can pair a team member having graphic design skills with one having illustrations proficiencies to emphasise their strengths and maximise their collaboration's benefits.

Specify the budget and schedule

Having a clear timeline can keep the design team focused and promote efficiency. You can determine a schedule of meetings, milestones and progress reviews. Team members can know when to complete specific activities. Including a detailed budget in your design project management process can help you utilise funds well during the project's execution and closing. Circulate the schedule and appropriation to help team members know their time and money constraints.

Define communication channels

Defining communication platforms and channels can help your teams communicate effectively. This understanding can prevent confusion and delays throughout the project design process and ensure the teams access the resources and information they require to complete their activities. You may establish a standard communication method, such as emails, memos or message boards. The organisation can provide support to help team members access these platforms.

Review performance

Periodically review the design team's performance. You can schedule performance reviews to analyse their progress, provide feedback and give direction. These steps can reduce the revisions needed before completing the project successfully and improve your design outcomes.

Promote consistency

You can specify the needed design elements during project closing to promote consistency in the team's efforts. This requirement can comprise fabric choices, colour schemes, building materials, illustration styles or fonts. You can include any fundamental design that enhances the final product's cohesion and have them in a specification or guide for your project team's review.


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