Kanban 101: Managing Web Design Projects the Visual Way

Whether you realize it or not, you already have a process for web design projects. Maybe you work in-house at a big company, and there are lots of rules and sign-offs every step of the way. Or perhaps you’re part of a small agency team with an ad-hoc process that you’d be hard pressed to describe. No matter where you fall on this spectrum there are big benefits to trying out Kanban, a popular project management method in the agile development world.

So what exactly is Kanban?

It’s a visual way to manage projects, and rather than dictate how you work, it allows you to easily bring to light what’s happening along the way. Kanban typically revolves around a Kanban board. At Gaslight, we’ve created a huge one (roughly 6 x 5 feet) on the office wall with chalkboard paint. It’s a simple grid with a row for every project we’re running, and a column for each step of our process (up next, planning, development, design, acceptance, code review, etc.).

We write individual tasks or stories for each project on Post-it notes and move them across the board as we work. There might be a card for our company website, for instance, that says “update work page with new clients.” Or one for an auction site we’re building that says “design admin icons.” But the biggest benefit of our Kanban board isn’t managing tasks, it’s exposing our entire process and making it easy to spot areas where we need to improve.

Illustration by Lauren Woodrick

Illustration by Lauren Woodrick

Ready to give Kanban a try? Here are four steps for getting started:


  1. Document your current process

What I love most about Kanban is that you start by changing nothing. To identify those vertical columns on your Kanban board, you need to map out how your current process works. What are the chunks of work and how do they flow through your organization? Get everyone in the same room and talk through what happens: “First, I sketch out my concept then I walk it over to the such-and-such department. Once I get a thumbs up, I start creating a visual mock-up.” That’s three steps, and you need to make each one painfully clear.

It’s crucial to involve everyone from designers, copywriters and creative directors to internal or external clients, so you don’t leave out parts of the process that you simply don’t know about. Include every single step and avoid the temptation to document the process you wish you had. For starters, it’s easier to arrive at team buy-in for Kanban if you don’t change your actual work process. Once you start using this visual system, your whole team will be able to see where you need change because you’ll reveal information that previously was hidden to at least some of the team.

  1. Right-size the work + minimize work in progress

These are the two most important things I can tell you about running projects and reaping the greatest value from Kanban. As you start putting cards or post-its on your Kanban board, you’ll need to focus on right-sizing your work or breaking down your project to-do list into small, meaningful chunks. A good card might be “sketch out three different concepts for the homepage design.” Or maybe “test the buying process with real users.” They should be well-defined tasks that move across your Kanban board at a reasonable speed and make it easy for you to prioritize the most important thing to do next.

Once you’ve started breaking down your web design project into right-sized tasks, it’s crucial to always minimize work in progress (WIP). Nobody is as good at multitasking as they think they are. Each column on your Kanban board should have an explicit limit on the amount of work. You might decide, for example, that you shouldn’t have more than three cards in the design column. Setting these limits is somewhat arbitrary, but you should err the low side. Over time it’s OK to adjust these WIP limits as you gain knowledge about your process.

It’s also important to think about the WIP of the whole system and not just one column on the board. Just because zero cards are in the design column doesn’t necessarily mean you can pull another one into that process state. There might be four cards in the revision column, for instance, that need design attention. Focus on a holistic view of your Kanban board.

  1. Review your Kanban board daily

In the tech and startup world, the idea of a daily standup is becoming cliche, but there’s still a lot of value to this practice if you stay focused and set a strict time limit. At Gaslight, the whole company stands around our big Kanban chalkboard at 11:45 a.m. each day, and we spend no more than 10 minutes running through 8 to 11 projects. Not everyone in the company talks, but we go down the board row by row and focus on movement. What’s changed? What hasn’t? How much did we finish? Is anything stuck?

I love getting the whole team together around a tangible board, because it makes this visual system tactile. But you can also create digital Kanban boards with software tools like Trello, a service we use in addition to our physical board. Both these tools allow us to expose bottlenecks or areas that need attention. We might discover that the developers on one team are outpacing the designer, and a designer from a different project might chime in to say she has extra time to help. You might realize you have six different cards stuck on the creative director’s desk for approval. Or that your designer has some extra time this week to take on something new.

It’s OK to have bottlenecks. These create slack somewhere else in the system. Those developers outpacing the designer might have time to reflect on their work process or learn something new. Other people might realize they need to focus and re-prioritize. And some folks may be able to pitch in and clear bottlenecks.

  1. Reflect and adapt

The whole point of a visual process is to see what needs changing and continuously improve the way you work. As a team, you need to make a commitment to becoming better together. Making the process visual will help you find the areas that need attention. Don’t be afraid to make changes as you discover problems, but don’t make too many all at once. Even small adjustments can have a big impact–some that you didn’t expect.

There’s a lot more to Kanban than I had room to cover in this article, but luckily, there are many good resources for further study. I recommend David Anderson’s Kanban book and Jeff Patton’s article Kanban Oversimplified. As you try out Kanban for your projects, you’ll likely discover subtle ways to implement it in the best way for you, your company and your clients.

About the Author

dougalcornDoug Alcorn is a Co-Founder and Developer at Gaslight, a Cincinnati design and development shop that turns business obstacles into opportunities. On a day-to-day basis, you might find him collaborating with clients, recruiting new talent, keeping the Gaslight culture awesome, or building apps in Ruby and JavaScript. Doug has given talks at QCMerge, CodeMash, Wicked Good Ruby, Burlington Ruby Conference, and others.


Want to learn more about agile methodologies for your team? Check out the HOW Expert Guide, Becoming an Agile Designer, and explore how project management systems and tools can enable your team to release work more rapidly and more often.