Design Kanban: A freeform Kanban system for creative teams

Over the past few years at Conceptboard, we’ve seen many creative teams developing different strategies to collaborate on visual assets. Incorporating their workflows into Kanban, here’s a proposal that combines visual project management with visual content collaboration: Design Kanban.

Time lapse of a 26 days product sprint from Visual Backlog to Design Kanban https://vimeo.com/conceptboard/designkanban

TL;DR There is Kanban, a visual project management system. And there are creative workflows that rely on visual assets, as in graphic design or product development. Combining both sounds like a natural fit, but it is actually challenging for creative teams, because current systems draw a boundary between the domain of the visual Kanban structure and the visual content they refer to: visual assets, like designs or screenshots, end up being ‘just’ an attachment to the Kanban cards, disconnecting them from all conversation in the visual system. Now, if we were to remove this separation we could expand the benefits of the visual system onto the content level, unifying communication and improving collaboration quality in the creative process. Here’s a proposal of doing so, called Design Kanban.

The modern workplace runs on teamwork. Whether you work in marketing, product development, or engineering, you’re always collaborating with people — often with different backgrounds, professions, or mindsets. This can make collaboration a challenge, because it’s hard to maintain a common understanding and to successfully communicate your ideas.

Having your project members on the same page enables them to see the same big picture and to see what’s important for which stakeholders. This lays the foundation to make them understand each other’s feedback and ideas — and therefore, feel like a viable part of the project. But in many companies, we still see workflows that conflict with this, workflows that bury information in emails, or rely on a lot of non-transparent status meetings.

That’s where visual project management comes into play. Dan Markovitz, an expert on lean thinking methods, describes it like this:

People can’t see the problems their work creates for colleagues working downstream. Or there’s a deep-seated “us vs. them” feeling: “We do our jobs well in marketing, but it’s those guys in sales that create all the problems.” Or people can’t even agree on what the actual problems are. Or they just don’t care. That’s why visual management is so important. — Dan Markovitz, @danmarkovitz

Systems that use visualization for project management have the potential to achieve a common understanding between all project participants. They simplify collaboration, increase productivity, and team happiness.

But if visualization is such a good thing, then do they also foster collaboration on actual visual assets? Do they enable their users to contribute visually themselves?

For a lot of creative teams, these questions are relevant because many work with visual assets on a daily basis, or in workflows with the main purpose of creating and delivering visuals. But it turns out, they struggle to find systems that allow efficient collaboration on their content — and at the same time, offer the benefits of a visual project management system. As a result, many teams either use two separate systems, or skip the visual management one.

But some teams take it one step further: they see the advantages of a combined system and use online whiteboards to achieve it. The flexibility of these tools lets them adopt various visual management approaches and, at the same time, directly work on their visual content. This is what we see at Conceptboard, and out of what works best for these teams, we’ve condensed the Design Kanban approach. To understand how Design Kanban works and who will benefit from it, let’s start by looking at the bigger picture.

Visual project management with Kanban

Visual project management systems had their breakthrough for knowledge workers with agile software development: as the requirements and goals of a project often evolve during the actual project, workflows need to be adaptive and embrace change. This can be achieved by breaking down large projects into iterations, and including feedback cycles that enable the team to react and reprioritize the objectives. To do this, a strong team is needed, a team that oversees the project’s status in its entirety — a natural fit for a visual project management system.

By making the work visible a team may self-organize to achieve incredible performance — Jeff Sutherland

The most prominent visual project management system is Kanban, originating from manufacturing processes at Toyota back in the 1950s. In the early 2000s, people at Microsoft started adapting Kanban to agile software development processes. Today, several variations exists, such as Lean Kanban, Scrumban, or Personal Kanban, spreading out to many different industries. They are used by small teams, as well as, large cross-functional organizations.

So how does Kanban work? Kanban structures can be complex, especially in large projects that use several boards at once, but the simplest Kanban only needs 3 columns: To do, In Progress, and Done.

Work items are created as cards that move through these columns when people are working on them. With this method, everyone’s work is made visible, everyone sees what’s currently happening, what has been completed, and what will be next. It gives everyone a full picture, emphasizes the common goal, and increases productivity — especially when following the Kanban principles:

  • Visualize: Kanban translates to “signboard” or visual card. The Kanban cards that are moved throughout the board represent the status of progress within a project. They describe each task and contain meta information, like related team members or priorities, often using certain codes like colors or badges.
  • Let it flow: Letting team members pull the tasks they are currently working on establishes a lean process with little overhead. It prevents a state where a lot of tasks have been pushed into the system, without them getting actually completed. This goes hand-in-hand with the next point.
  • Limit work in progress (WIP): Working on too many tasks at the same time has negative effects on team members’ motivation and efficiency. Letting team members work on only one or two cards at the same time allows them to focus and get their work done.
  • Improve constantly: Kanban is about constantly striving to improve the process. Define a workflow and let the team follow it closely, but keep an eye on all feedback to find bottlenecks, and improve the workflow if needed. If something doesn’t work, change it until it does.

In 1953, Taiichi Ohno, the inventor of Kanban, put it like this:

It is said that improvement is eternal and infinite. It should be the duty of those working with Kanban to keep improving it with creativity and resourcefulness without allowing it to become fixed at any stage. — Taiichi Ohno

So, Kanban is a simple, but well thought out visual management system, that invites its users to adapt it to their workflows. Let’s take a look at how this can be done.

Kanban boards: offline vs. online

For many teams, implementing Kanban with sticky notes on a physical whiteboard in their office works great. If you want to dive deeper into this, there are a lot of great books to get you inspired from the beginning. And having a whiteboard on an office wall in front of your teammates is the essence of a visual system — it keeps all information visible.

But once a team needs to include remote workers into the process, or collaboration starts to take place across different departments, switching from physical whiteboards to a Kanban software is often inevitable. Such tools replace the office wall with the displays of the team members’ devices. As the visibility decreases, communication within the team will ultimately become affected as the board is no longer present in front of the team and instead is hidden inside of an app or a browser tab. Putting up large displays in the office to maintain a common view on the status of the project and maintain its visibility helps in some cases. However, due to scrolling techniques that many virtual Kanban boards use, it is not always possible to restore the experience the offline whiteboard solution originally offered.

Kanban tools compensate for this drawback by offering project management and additional communication features. These include comment functionality, @mentions, notifications, task management, etc. — and in fact, this achieves the common understanding a visual management system is supposed to create. It even centralizes communication, for example, by replacing email conversations with built-in task management.

Despite these improvements, the tools’ visual management capabilities do not include any visual content, that is hidden behind the work items. Coming from a strong management perspective, most Kanban tools implement strict schemata to streamline the working with and the processing of the Kanban cards. At the same time, the flexibility to add ad-hoc visual information is very limited: everything that doesn’t fit into the schema is excluded. Especially in creative processes, this harms collaboration as it prevents people from communicating and sharing their ideas, which can break the inspiration flow.

This is the reason an increasing number of creative teams implements their visual project management using online whiteboards.

Online whiteboards & freeform Kanban cards

At first glance, implementing a Kanban process on an online whiteboard does not seem to have many benefits compared to a specific Kanban app: in both cases, the board’s visual presence on the office wall is traded off for remote accessibility. In both cases, project and task management capabilities are added. Often Kanban apps even offer more functionality to fix and track a process.

But applying Kanban on an online whiteboard within a creative process reveals a different picture: the freedom to work with various digital documents and file formats directly on the board becomes a huge advantage, as it substantially increases flexibility for the creative team. Kanban cards can now consist of textual and graphical descriptions — ranging from a small scribble to a high definition photo.

With that, an online whiteboard is capable of handling the visual content, that a work item refers to, in the same structure where the actual work item description takes place. This lets the visual management system include the visual assets within its communication. Comments and discussions that take place on the level of the Kanban card can now directly refer to details of the visual context. Zooming and scaling capabilities of the online whiteboard make sure the Kanban board’s complexity (as it now contains cards, visual artefacts, and discussions of varying sizes) stays manageable.

These freeform Kanban cards and the online whiteboard are the foundation to start with Design Kanban.

Visual project management with Design Kanban

Implementing Design Kanban as a visual project management system on an online whiteboard starts like a regular Kanban: having cards, clusters, or columns, and following the pull, limit WIP, and constant improvement principles when processing the work items from left to right. The difference is that, instead of using sticky notes, freeform cards come into play: In Design Kanban, teams use design drafts, screenshots, visual snippets, or scribbles as their Kanban cards. This allows teams to match the actual form of their cards to their use-case.

While processing a work item, team members can add and remove information, or hold discussions the same way they would on a regular Kanban card. But they are also free to add visual ideas, further graphical examples, and to cluster them so that a collection of items composes the freeform card together. Creatives are encouraged to use all benefits of the visual system to collaborate and discuss their content, providing a better understanding that supports the creativity in their process.

Design Kanban expands Kanban’s visual management capabilities onto a creative process’ visual assets

In many cases, this also reduces overhead: when the team’s workflow handles a lot of visual assets from the same category, like design drafts or bug descriptions, then the amount of information that needs to be added manually is minimal. Often the visual asset and its position within the Kanban columns speaks for themselves, working with the items and their assets is streamlined and easy.

Example: a creative team uses Design Kanban to prepare assets for a marketing campaign. They use the regular Kanban columns (To Do, Doing, Done) for each step of the creative process (concept, design, feedback, and approval), but their cards contain the actual design assets together with necessary meta information.

Compared to a “regular” Kanban that keeps the assets as attachments to a card, there are two major advantages:

  • Visual collaboration: It’s easy for all participants to contribute with visual feedback. The system encourages the participants to communicate their ideas and inspiration, without building hurdles that restrict inputs in a certain structure or format. Creativity and creative exchange are nurtured.
  • Visual arts control: The visual management system not only gives information about the progress, it also shows design consistency. For example, for all assets to conform with the campaign or brand language. As each work item displays its related content, zooming out shows the direction the overall design takes. Artistic coherence is fostered directly on the board.

The principle of Design Kanban is that the communication within the visual project management system includes the content level. Within a creative process that is based on visual assets, this improves overview, collaboration speed, and quality. Design Kanban builds the base to restore this natural fit between visual project management systems and creative processes that rely on visual assets.

Design Kanban for agile product development

An ideal situation to use Design Kanban is a product development sprint. Before the release of a new product, an intensive period of quality assurance and detail finalizing takes place. All features are checked for functionality and usability, roadblocks are identified and solved, and many details receive their fine-tuning. In any case, visual communication about user experience is required between many stakeholders — no matter if it’s a software product or a marketing campaign.

Quality assurance and finalization can often last for several days or weeks. In agile tradition, they are performed iteratively: small cycles of testing, feedback, and change are applied one after the other, until the product can finally be delivered. In each cycle, the testers collect everything that doesn’t match their expectations, give their feedback, and in doing so, define work items that need to be completed for the next cycle. The issues they find often contain visual elements — UX flaws, software bugs, design inconsistencies or textual mistakes — and capturing them as a picture (or a screenshot) with a short comment is most efficient. This creates a large amount of homogenous work items with visual assets that is ideally processed in Design Kanban.

For the 26 day product sprint of one of their latest releases, the product and UX team at Conceptboard abandoned their regular project management system and only used an online whiteboard. They processed more than 800 work items and performed more than 130,000 updates on the board, that in the end served as their Design Kanban board. On the top of this post, you can find the time lapse video, that replays the whole process in 2 minutes.

Within those 26 days, they discovered how to best combine visual asset collaboration and Kanban. Here are their 3 major learnings when applying Design Kanban to a product development sprint:

  1. Maintain a centralized visual backlog: Identify the state of the current development by visually capturing bugs and change requests.
  2. Omit pushing work items whenever possible: Assigning tasks to specific individuals is tempting, but may not be the best way.
  3. Follow Kanban to a maximum: Letting the freeform cards flow establishes the best visual management system.

1. Maintain a centralized visual backlog

A typical start for a Design Kanban is to bring together all visual work items in one place, each of them including a visual snippet and a comment defining the actual task. Clustering all the visual information will help you understand the status of your project and fill your backlog.

For example, if you are in a testing process of a user interface, the screenshots will show visual information about the bugs, while the textual comments give further details. Or, if you are reworking your marketing campaign, the visual snippets might contain everything from your ad screenshot to your new website layout; whereas the connected comments describe the changes for the next iteration.

In any case, collecting the items can be performed collaboratively — and the comments can be the starting point for a discussion between the important stakeholders to further clarify what needs to be done.

2. Omit pushing work items whenever possible

For most creative teams, assigning tasks to others or having tasks assigned to you is the natural way of working. Especially when working with visual assets, it is common for people to be specifically asked to define work items in the form of comments that are related to a visual context. In such cases, a project manager will assign multiple tasks and trusts that with time they will be completed. As a result, the visual system shows you what is assigned and what is done, but it will not show you who is working on what!

Such an approach is also possible when working with freeform cards. Instead of letting workers pull the cards into their “In-Progress” column, a project manager can assign all work items to the workers by using comments and @mentions. The visual system would still be used to cluster the cards by priority or level of completion, but the information of “who is working on what” is no longer visible because it is hidden in the cards’ comment.

The resulting process might serve as a suitable step after the collection of visual information, but without the pulling principle, it cannot count as Kanban. Also, the principle to limit work in progress (WIP) is difficult to apply, since a manager needs to carefully control the amount of assigned tasks. Even with small tasks, employees can be easily overloaded and overwhelmed.

Don’t get caught in “task size” traps. The cognitive weight of small tasks is still significant. — Jim Benson

Therefore, when it’s possible to cluster the work into freeform cards that can be moved individually, going one step further and applying Kanban should be considered.

3. Follow Kanban to a maximum

A Design Kanban board follows the Kanban principles as close as possible: visualizing the project state, letting the work items be pulled, limiting work in progress (WIP), and adapting and expanding the board structure whenever needed. Task assignments are no longer necessary, instead multiple “To Do” columns with different prioritizations are effective to make clear which work items need to be picked next.

The “To Do” columns are managed by a product manager, who is responsible to prioritize the initial visual backlog, as well as, new feedback. Testers and potential beta customers can insert their bug descriptions or change requests into the “Inbox” columns on the left side of the board. While moving these cards into “To Do”, the manager clarifies open questions on the new tasks, includes any missing information, and checks their granularity — potentially merging the input of multiple cards together into one.

On the right side of the “To Do” columns, “In Progress” takes place: your designers or programmers pull the work items from “To Do” into their own “In Progress” column to start working on them. You might use one column for everyone, or divide them into individual ones. For example, they can be separated into frontend and backend development. However, having one column per person makes it easier to maintain the overview and keep track of WIP limits.

Once a work item is complete, it is moved to the “Testing” columns on the far right. Here, a tester validates the work, and reopens the card if there are problems with it. If testing is extensive, the testers should get their own “In Progress” columns, also following the pull and limit WIP principles. If testing is quick, this can be omitted. In any case, a “Reopen” column is needed to discuss work results that do not meet the expectations, and where the manager can pull items for reprocessing. Work items that pass the test are moved to a final “Done” column. A project manager can decide on deleting them, or establishing additional steps. For example, to align the product’s documentation with all changes that have been realized.

Design Kanban boards can be as complex or simple as your team needs them to be. It’s up to you to add additional columns or priority lanes, or define custom conventions, like color codes, discussion guidelines, or escalation procedures. In the end, you define what works and what doesn’t.


We’ve seen that using Kanban brings visual clarity to complex knowledge work, and thereby, strengthens your team collaboration. But the tools lack the ability to extend its advantages onto the content level — and, especially in creative processes, the collaboration quality would highly benefit from this.

Design Kanban tries to tear down this separation, combining visual project management with collaboration on visual content. Visual assets become a viable part of the visual system, rather than being “just” attachments. Creatives are empowered to better communicate their ideas and have full control of the project management status, as well as, the artistic design direction the project takes.

What do you think about Design Kanban? What are your experiences with Kanban in creative processes? How are you collaborating on visual assets?

Please share your ideas and feedback, I’d be more than happy to hear both! Comment here or get in touch with me on Twitter: @danielb0hn.

Thanks for reading 👍

Written by

Founder of https://conceptboard.com — Entrepreneur — Product guy — Hitchhiker — Trying to make sense of life, the universe and everything

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