At Taylor Studios, we often encourage our clients to invite various stakeholders to participate (and sketch!) in our initial exhibit brainstorm, from board members and site staff to volunteers and donors. This inclusive approach tends to result in a lot of energy and enthusiasm around the table—as well as many opinions and perspectives.
Diverse viewpoints can present healthy challenges, of course, but they’re also the very thing that fuels a creative, productive brainstorm. After all, the aim at this early stage is generating ideas.
But what about the rest of the design process? How should stakeholders stay involved?
Once in the weeds of the Detailed Design phase, the designers’ focus shifts from generating ideas to refining them. This demands a different kind of participation on client’s part, as well.
Following the (intentional) “free-for-all” of a brainstorm, client teams sometimes struggle with when and how to best engage whom in order to keep their project moving in the right direction—or even moving at all.
To prevent mid-design discombobulation, it is important to think about—and plan for—stakeholder involvement from the outset.
Consider your project team members in terms following roles:
Client PM (1): TSI requests that every client team appoint a single Project Manager. This person may or may not also be a Decision Maker (see below), but their primary role is to serve as the communications conduit between their team and TSI. Two key responsibilities are making sure deliverable review deadlines are met to keep the project on schedule, and compiling all their team members’ deliverable feedback—including reconciling any conflicting comments—before submitting to TSI . (And we practice what we preach by assigning a single dedicated Project Manager to each design project.)
• The Client PM is involved in every step of the design process, including day-to-day decisions and communication. This is the biggest time commitment of all the roles on the team.
Overall Project Advisors: Probably most of your team members fall into this category. They might be board members, staff, volunteers – anyone whose knowledge and/or perspective belongs in the “collective brain trust” for your project. They each have a voice and a vote, but none is making unilateral decisions. Their individual feedback and input are consolidated and relayed to TSI by the Client PM.
• Overall Project Advisors are encouraged to participate in design workshops and review deliverables. They are not typically involved in day-to-day decisions and communications.
Content Experts: These are people with extensive knowledge about one or more subjects that will be covered in the exhibits. They may be site interpreters, researchers, scientists, academics, curators, etc—either in-house or external to your organization. In the earliest stages of design, TSI will look to these experts to provide or recommend research materials and other resources to inform exhibit content. Ideally, they should also be available and willing to consult with TSI upon request during the Design Development phase, when the nitty-gritty details of exhibit content are being ironed out.
• Content Experts furnish research/resources and are encouraged to participate in design workshops and deliverable reviews—especially reading and editing the exhibit text. On occasion, they may be looped into some day-to-day communications regarding content-specific questions from TSI.
Decision Maker (1): Put simply, the buck stops with this person. While TSI always strives for as much consensus as possible among project teams, there are times in a design project (or any project, for that matter) when an overriding vote, veto, or tie-break may be necessary.
• The Decision Maker is highly encouraged to participate as an Overall Project Advisor throughout the process, but should be prepared to step up and serve as final arbiter if the need arises. They typically leave the day-to-day communications to the Project Manager.
As you cast your stakeholders into these roles, keep in mind that any one person may wear multiple hats. In many cases, the Client PM is a Content Expert—and perhaps also the ultimate Decision Maker.
Regardless of how your stakeholders stack up, it’s wise to ensure that each person understands which hat(s) they’re wearing—and which hats they aren’t—before everyone puts on their “thinking caps” at that very first brainstorm.