Guiding the design team

Guiding the design team

Value provided by a structured design management approach


Adopting a structured approach for the design process, from start to finish of the project, greatly reduces the risk of design errors. An individual who has the authority to make informed decisions based on and aligned with cost and programme considerations should be identified and assigned to manage the design process – this role should not be confused with the lead designer, who is responsible for controlling the design and maintaining design quality.

Why is it important?

Design is typically an iterative process involving a range of communication processes, be they verbal, written, digital or illustrative. While they may be clear to the communicator, they are often open to misinterpretation, and the greater the number of participants or interfaces, the more complex a process becomes. With greater complexity, the probability of misinterpretation increases, and can lead to flawed decisions being made by participants or stakeholders.

It is therefore essential that design decisions are clear, transparent and well-considered; incorrect decisions can lead to adoption of sub-optimal and/or unsafe design solutions.

Design decisions must be validated, particularly those with the potential to have a significant  impact, and omissions must be addressed and coordinated.

Control of design and of changes to design were once the responsibility of the lead designer. However, changing roles, increases in complexity and the number of parties involved, and the widespread adoption of design and build contracts in the building sector in particular, means that the lead designer is not always able to exercise clear overall responsibility throughout the whole process. An alternative approach would support the team at the early project stages and help reduce the number of design issues which may lead to errors and which may only be discovered at the construction stage.

Too often poor management, or lack of experience or resources by key members of the project team allow decisions to be delayed, never made, or be badly-conceived, consequently leading to error.

What are the desired outcomes and how can you achieve them?

Introduction of a design management plan

It is imperative that the many contributions to and interfaces in the design process are properly managed in order to avoid error.

The adoption of a structured design management approach, typically via a design management plan for larger or more complicated projects, can be used to ensure that design-related information and communications are robust, coordinated, and controlled. Such a structure would also identify gateways or milestones beyond which the design cannot proceed until all of the appropriate checks have been made and decisions have been resolved.

At the briefing stage the design management plan would typically comprise:

  • a design responsibility matrix setting out the scope of design responsibility
  • definitions of specific gateways and milestones
  • gateway programme
  • brief

The adopted design management plan would also ensure clear accountability to make sure that the right communications have happened, been demonstrably understood, assumptions have been resolved, and that there are no gaps. This should reduce a very significant risk.

Appointing someone to manage the design

The initial step in implementing the plan is to appoint someone to be responsible for ensuring the design management plan is properly applied. If it is a complex or sizeable project, consideration should be given to making this appointment at the outset. It is critical that the individual has the requisite design management skills and experience to undertake the role and should ideally have the authority to make informed decisions based on and aligned with cost and programme considerations to manage the design process.

Initially a consultant may be appointed to take on the role, with responsibility being assigned to the main contractor later in the process. One of the benefits of early contractor involvement is that a more consistent and effective approach to design management can be achieved.     

From the start of the project, the person in this role must have the confidence of the client, the design team, and the main contractor, when appointed, and must be given sufficient authority to act in the best interest of the project. The role should not be confused with the lead designer. The lead designer is responsible for controlling the design and the quality of the design.

This structured approach to managing the design process may be challenged by some, clients included, especially if extra fees are necessary to achieve it. However following this route increases the likelihood that all the other recommendations in this document will be implemented. Project risks associated with design error will also be reduced, leading to the potential for lower preliminary costs at the construction tender stage.

Key goal

Introduction of a structured design management plan, overseen by a named individual or team of people with the authority necessary to ensure it is followed.

Practical steps

Practical stepPurposeFurther information
Develop a structured design management approach for design development.To reduce the number of design errors and mitigate their consequences at the early design stages.Planning the design
Implement the design management process.To ensure that designs do not proceed beyond a milestone until all relevant checks have been carried out, the right communications have happened and been understood, and there are no gaps.Design gateways
Appoint an individual or team to manage the design.To oversee the design management process, and ensure that all other relevant recommendations in this document are followed.
Reassess the design manager  appointment when the main contractor is appointed.To ensure the appropriate person or team is appointed for that stage, and that they have the necessary authority and confidence of the other parties.
Verify that designs meet the requirements of a particular stage or that designers have fulfilled their duties as described in their scope of services.To prevent changes being necessary during the construction phase.