How to Organize Complex Design Projects

Not every design project is easy to delve into. Some projects, particularly new branding guidebooks, materials or website redesigns, can take a lot of time. There’s just so much content contained in the project.

Some projects are packed with information, images, video, downloads and other content that must be part of the final design, creating a specific design challenge. We talk about simplicity a lot, but what about those times when the project is anything but simple? Here, we’ll walk through ways to organize, manage and plan complex design projects.

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What Makes a Complex Design Project?

complex projects

Every designer’s idea of a complex project might be a little different, depending on the type of work you are used to doing. To keep it simple, a complex project is anything that stretches beyond the scope of most projects. It can include print or web-based design work and usually comes with a timeline that will occupy a significant portion of your calendar.

Complex projects often come with a lot of stuff to organize.

  • Massive amount of content, including text, images or other media
  • A complicated structure, such as the intricacies of a game
  • Undefined goals or outcomes
  • Big ideas with lack of supporting content or imagery
  • New branding
  • Massive inventory of items
  • Redesign of a well-established project, such as a website that’s grown tremendously since it was initially launched

As with any other project, a complex project should solve a problem. What are users coming to this project for: To learn something, play a game, make a purchase? Before you go any deeper into the project, think about the problem and how the design will provide a solution.

Audit and Organise Content

complex projects

Big projects often start from existing projects and come in the form of a redesign. (Although that’s not always the case.)

The starting point for a content-laden redesign is an audit. Evaluate the existing project from top to bottom.

  • What content stays? What content goes?
  • What part of the color/font/branding will be retained?
  • How is the design used? Look at user patterns and analytics for digital projects.
  • Evaluate the quality of information and if it is still relevant today.

Then it’s time to organize content. Break the website down into three “buckets” of content – keep, revamp, toss. You’ll also have a fourth bucket to think about when you get to the design phase – new content.

Once content is organized, you’ll want to divide it into more manageable bits to move forward. If you are working as part of a project team, make assignments for how content will be handled so that all rewrites, photo shoots and other assignments can happen as the framework is developed. For digital projects, if website content is going to be migrated from an old location, someone needs to be responsible for paring down the site before migration or editing it afterward.

Outline the Visuals

complex projects

Take inventory of the visuals. This extends beyond photographs to color, typography and brand guidelines. It encompasses the style of the project and will dictate the overall design framework as you move forward.

Take those visuals and think about how they pair with all that content. Map out pairings to help figure out where you might have holes. Consider the size and shape of visuals and how that might impact the design.

Stick to the Basics

complex projects

Although you aren’t working on a simple project here, the guiding principles of simplicity and design theory can help you create a framework that successfully supports an abundance of content.

The inclination can be to shovel everything in and hope it works out. You won’t have a usable end design if that happens. Stay calm and focus.

  • White space is your friend. Just because there is a lot of content, does not mean you should skimp on spacing. Quite the opposite is true. Increased spacing and white space will make a lot of content seem lighter and more digestible. (The trick here is if you are limited by size constraints when it comes to printed or physical design products.)
  • Each element should contain one action or message that’s clear and easy to understand. Think of every new page as an opportunity to say one thing or get users to complete one action. The design should point toward that action.
  • Design using accepted user flows and patterns. Don’t expect users to learn something new just for your website. (The content alone is intimidating enough.)
  • Not everything will be on the front or the homepage. It’s acceptable to “hide” information in pop-ups or through links or even in the footnotes of a paper to help maintain flow and make a project easier to navigate and use.
  • Stick to one design trick. Do you have a great animator on the team? Use animations throughout as the trick that “sells” the design. Do you have unusual imagery? Or a bold or colorful typography palette? Identify the one design element or trend that makes the project stand out and go with it. Don’t overdo it.

Fill in Content, Edit and Evaluate

complex projects

We are going to skip ahead a little here. There’s a lot of design work that happens between outlining and getting to the stage where the content is set. You are undoubtedly comfortable with walking through concepts and revisions.

Once you have a final design, you need to apply all that content from the audit to it. And edit it a lot. Get rid of anything that doesn’t work in the new framework. Get rid of anything that duplicates other content. Consider ways to merge and flatten pages or pieces of the design now that it’s all coming together.

Then put it to some actual users and see how they feel about it. Do they interact with the project like you would expect them to? How is it different? (And is that a good or bad thing?) Gather as much feedback as you can. The big issues with complex projects are that you will tire of working on it, and there is so much information that it can be hard to go back and look at everything with a sharp eye.

This is the phase where you want to think about the future as well. How will the project evolve and be maintained? What are the ground rules for this work? How much room is there for expansion? These are all healthy questions that might have different answers for different projects.


I once worked on a website project that included more than 500 pages of content. Admittedly, the task was pretty daunting. It was just as rewarding to see the end design. Getting through big projects takes plenty of planning and organization.

Approach each project with a clear mind-set and break tasks into smaller projects. This will make the overall design easier to manage, the problem easier to solve, content easier to understand and result in a better project.

Stock Photos Courtesy of Creative Market.