illustration of a man holding a scale over his head balancing project management and creative leadership
May 31st, 2023

Crafting Success: The Intersection of Project Management and Visual Brand Language

A decade ago, I was an Industrial Design intern at BOLTGROUP, learning what I could about “Agency Life” and loving every minute. Leaving the team and moving to Florida was a tough, but ultimately good decision for my family and career. In February of 2022, the stars aligned and BOLTGROUP’s VP of Design, Kurt Rampton, reached out to me while I was working a 2-week notice at my previous full-time PM (project management) gig. Returning to BOLTGROUP after a decade of developing PM skills in drier fields of study (IT, government, and academics) has felt like a less poetic version of the prodigal son—groveling for creative sustenance while being accepted into the crew with open arms and a new MacBook.

I never even had a chance to ask what I had gotten myself into. I jumped into the deep end headfirst and haven’t come up for air (I feel like I grew gills). By the nature of BOLTGROUP’s project management process, built on their strong Brand Pillars (Design Excellence | Strategic Innovation | Thoughtful Leadership), I was set up for success from Day 1.

My first project was no small task. It was a full-on Visual Brand Language (VBL) project including product design, brand strategy, copywriting, and graphic application for a game-changing recreational consumer product (and dream client). They are absolute Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), consummate professionals, and industry leaders. My first task, other than the typical Project Management Triangle (scope, cost, and time), was to wrap my head around the dynamic nature of a VBL and how it impacts all facets of a project like planning, communication, resource allocation, deliverables, and client input / feedback.

Fortunately, I was already well-informed as to WHAT a VBL is; I just needed to level-set my own process and integrate my PM knowledge with the needs of a holistic Visual Brand Language deliverable. The first thing I did was revisit Kurt’s Whitepaper on VBL, “How to Build a Visual Brand Language“, that I have read and referenced a couple of times over the years. The difference was that now I was in a position to put the process into action and see it fully realized. [If you’re reading this and aren’t quite sure what a VBL truly is, I urge you to check out the aforementioned paper].

My quick summary is that a Visual Brand Language is a framework for product design that harnesses a brand’s core attributes and translates them into visceral signature design elements that connect to the user in a deep, often emotive way. Imagine how material, color, logo use, and form cues all speak the unspoken nuances of a brand’s personality and identity. This is VBL. This is something we do exceptionally well.

So, what does this have to do with managing a project? The quick answer is not much. The real answer is EVERYTHING. The field of project management can often be distilled down to the world of budgets, Gantt charts, and timely communication. But in a creative innovation agency working on design-forward products and brands, there’s so much more than spreadsheets and calendar invites. If I tasked myself in visualizing a creative VBL project in 3 high-level themes, they might be: Manage with Empathy, Expect the Pivot (Be Flexible), and Embrace Individuality. Let’s unpack.

Manage with Empathy

VBL projects intrinsically have a lot of moving parts. To pull off a successful Visual Brand Language, we often call up every player from the bench and interweave them across the project phases of Research, Strategy, Brand / Product Design, Graphics, Engineering, Packaging, and Launch. The planning here is crucial, with the schedules of multiple designers, strategic partners, client stakeholders, and internal leadership. Success comes in the nuance of being able to crunch the numbers while knowing that these numbers are actual people working toward the same goal. Leading with empathy in these projects builds trust and avoids breakdowns in communication. Approaching each relationship with resolute understanding makes the easy interactions seamless and the tricky interactions easier. Once you’ve built the conduit between your team and the client, then clear communication turns into knowledge, and the exchange of ideas and optimism becomes the rule rather than exception.

Expect the Pivot (Be Flexible)

At BOLTGROUP, we write our Scopes of Work for VBL projects to be prescriptive YET flexible. VBL projects that include Brand work, Product design, and everything in between can last months. Additionally, there are sometimes extended pauses for client feedback, out-of-pocket weeks for client travel / meetings, and extended holds for research or production windows. Many of these aren’t predictable from the onset of a project or even the kickoff of a project phase. This is an opportunity for the PM to use good old intuition and look past the page to see where a small pivot can gain huge efficiencies. Often, this comes in the form of working the schedule and resourcing the workload around meetings and deliverables that may be a twist on the initial Scope or Project Plan. This is where the trust and client rapport really show their value. When adjusting the project timeline for the overall client need or pivoting to avoid a hold or stalemate, project stakeholders often appreciate the ingenuity, especially when it comes from a place of purpose and understanding.

Embrace Individuality

This one is a doozy, and the most rewarding to have personally worked through. As you can imagine, and maybe have experienced, not a single designer can be put in a box. I’m not saying our designers are unruly, wild people by any means, but I am saying they are supremely creative and draw inspiration in ways I could never expect. Learning the idiosyncrasies among our design team has exponentially leveled up my ability to manage their individual abilities, our teams, and any project that crosses my desk. Learning how each designer approaches pen to paper within BOLTGROUP’s framework has been crucial to my understanding of executing a successful VBL project. Timing is everything with these complex programs. Balancing all the moving parts, deadlines, deliverables, presentations, and prototypes with the beautiful, dynamic personalities that execute the brainstorming, ideation, design, and engineering artistry culminates in the creation of a truly purposeful Visual Brand Language and successful project / product.

As you can see, project management at a creative agency involves as much problem solving as the actual execution of client deliverables. At BOLTGROUP, we often describe designers as storytellers who visualize the value of a product and/or brand’s value proposition. In the vein of that analogy, these projects become the stories, and Project Managers become the publishers. With more than 35 years in the fields of brand and product design, BOLTGROUP has honed the craft of writing VBL stories. Tearing down the perceived silos of brand and product into a singular thought process for solving business challenges has become one of our core competencies (and “greatest strengths”) and proves that intentional confluence of brand and product tell the most authentic and compelling stories.

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