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A good system for budgeting and tracking projects is absolutely
essential for every graphic design firm. However, the process of
finding the software that's most appropriate for you can be very
confusing. There are lots of competing project management systems
out there and each has different strengths and weaknesses. This
research guide will help you sort through the options by asking
some key questions and sharing comparative information about
several of the systems currently available.
Your business processes and tools must be a good match to the
services you're selling. In the area of project management, some
resources are rather generic. This means that many of them are not
a good fit to creative firms. For example: If you visit any large
bookstore, you'll find paperbacks with very broad guidelines for
planning and managing projects in a corporate environment. If you
conduct an online search, the results will include very general
software packages like Microsoft Project, which is not generally
used by graphic design firms.
In contrast, there are tools and practices that are very
specific to certain industries. For example, software systems such
as Deltek Vision and Axium Ajera have been specifically developed
for the daily management of architecture and engineering firms,
where projects tend to be quite complex, with very long time frames
and many interdependencies.
For managing the daily operations of traditional advertising
agencies, there are software systems such as Advantage or
ValueClick Mediaplex/AdWare. These systems have been tailored to
meet specialized needs such as monitoring client retainers,
managing large media contracts and tracking groups of insertion
There's a certain amount of overlap between the advertising and
design communities-some ad agencies sell design services and some
design firms also do advertising. Because of this, a number of
software systems are actively marketed to both communities. Several
such systems are included in a comparative product information table.
In the design community, there are also variations in the
project management needs of individual disciplines such as print,
interactive and product design.
With all of these variations in mind, you will want to find a
system that's a very close fit to the work you do.
This is another very important distinction. Many in-house design
departments don't prepare proposals for their clients, so they
don't need an estimating capability. Many don't bill for their
services, so they don't need invoicing functionality. In-house
departments are not involved in the overall financial management of
the organization, so they don't need a fully functioning accounting
module (referred to as a general ledger).
Something that in-house departments definitely do need is an
efficient intake process. In companies where recurring projects are
quite similar to each other (that is to say, easily definable and
repeatable), there may also be an emphasis placed on finding ways
to automate portions of the workflow. Systems such as Agency
Central (also sold as Robohead) have been developed for
standardizing in-house production processes and efficiently
managing the related digital files.
In contrast, independent design firms face a different set of
business challenges. The nature of each project varies, which makes
production processes less subject to automation. Also, full
accounting functionality is an important issue: Design firms must
have an efficient way to control their finances and produce their
own accrual-based balance sheets and profit and loss statements
When shopping for a software system to manage the business side
of things, you have to be clear about the functions you want
included. Depending on whom you're talking to, “project management”
could include some or all of the following:
As you can see, this is quite a long list. So what's the best
way to meet this wide range of business needs? Some firms decide to
use separate software in each area. Others seek a more
comprehensive system that combines some or all of them. The best
approach for you depends, in part, on the size of your firm. This
leads to the next question:
Size is a very important factor in determining which system is
the best match to your situation.
Many graphic design firms are small, with less than 10
employees. Small studios can often get by with a manual system,
supplemented with a spreadsheet application and email. When
choosing business software, the first priorities for a small firm
will be: better estimating, better time tracking, more efficient
billing and better management of money. At this scale, more
advanced software for detailed task scheduling, status reports,
resource management and group collaboration will usually not be
needed because these issues are being coordinated offline. For most
small studios, a comprehensive software system would require too
much daily effort just to keep it current.
As design firms grow beyond 10 employees, they experience a
series of growing pains. Project management is one of them. The
workload expands to include more projects and, with any luck,
projects of larger scope. More people will be involved, and the
firm will transition from a single creative team to multiple teams.
This makes it important to sort out the hats and be more specific
about individual staff responsibilities. At some point, at least
one position will be created that's dedicated to project management
full time, and that person will be one of the primary users of a
specialized project tracking system.
This brings us to a common mistake: If you own a growing firm
and already know your way around a database program like FileMaker,
you might be tempted to create your own project tracking system
from scratch. Don't do it! There's really no need-other people have
already solved this problem for you (and, yes, some of them used
FileMaker). In mid-size firms, it's typical for the planning and
tracking system to be used only up to the point of drafting client
invoices. Then, key information must jump to the general ledger
program being used by the bookkeeper (typically Quickbooks, MYOB or
Peachtree/Sage). There might be a one way link to make it easier to
export project data, but it's also common for data to be posted
separately to each system, which can make it difficult to keep them
in synch. If you want to see the current totals on a big project,
don't be surprised if each system gives you a different answer.
As you grow toward 20 people and beyond, you'll definitely want
to combine as many business activities as possible into one
comprehensive system. The larger the firm, the stronger the need
for an integrated system that can handle many simultaneous users,
multiple business units, perhaps even multiple offices. Your
overall traffic, resource management and accounting needs will
gradually become more complex. You'll want a system that can easily
scale up to keep pace with your continued growth.
OK, now that we have a basic profile of your organization, we're
ready to start researching systems that might meet your business
needs. There are lots of project management applications currently
available. Be cautious: Some of these are no more than simple
stopwatches, diagramming tools or invoice templates. To cut through
the confusion, we'll concentrate on systems that meet a broader
range of needs. The table that accompanies this article compares 12
of them. Four have built-in accounting functionality and eight do
As you look through this information, keep a few things in
Each product has a different history. Some have been around for
a while and others are brand new. Some come directly from software
companies. Others were developed first at a design firm or a web
shop in order to meet internal needs. Only later were they offered
for sale to other firms. If the internal investment was
significant, this is a way for the studio to recoup some of its
Programming a proper general ledger is very labor intensive and
requires a significant amount of accounting expertise. That's why
systems from design firms and independent FileMaker developers stop
short of a general ledger. They need to be used in conjunction with
a standard accounting package purchased elsewhere.
The project management system you select has to fit your budget.
Some are sold outright for a one-time purchase price. Others are
offered as a monthly online subscription. In both instances, the
amount you pay will vary based on the number of simultaneous users
that you have. Call the provider to ask about this. The minimum
purchase price may be for a single user or it may be for a group of
a specified size.
In most instances, the basic price will include phone support
during the initial setup and orientation period. After that, you
may have to rely on email and the “frequently asked questions”
section of the provider's website unless you pay an additional
Most of these companies allow for some customization of their
systems. They charge for programming services on either an hourly
or a fixed-fee basis. Unless you have a really pressing need,
however, it's wise to be cautious about this. In the future, each
time you upgrade to a newer version of the software, any past
customization may have to be redone.
Take the time to test drive each system-many have an online demo
available. Apart from differences in functionality, you'll see
variations in quality for both visual design and interaction
It's a good idea to speak with other firms using the system
you're considering. Ask if they're happy with the choice they made,
and if the system was easy to get up and running. This leads to one
Choosing a system is just the start. A fair amount of time and
effort will be required for successful implementation. The initial
set-up process often involves rethinking of your business
procedures. You'll need to become familiar with the new reports
available to you (if you're using one of the larger systems, there
may be quite a few). Getting comfortable with the right set of
daily, weekly and monthly reports will help you make better
management decisions. Staff members who'll be using the system need
to be brought up to speed as well with training and encouragement.
Lastly, make sure there's no backsliding. When the first spike in
your client workload comes along, don't give in to the temptation
to do things the old way. Going forward, you must have an
unwavering commitment to using the new system fully and
consistently- if you're ever going to gain maximum benefit.
Clients & Profits, Clients & Profits ASAP from
Clients & Profits Worldwide
800 272 4488
Creative Management from Dynamic Business Solutions
949 689 8915
Creative Manager Pro from Creative Manager
800 203 7684
JobOrder from Management Software Inc.
www.joborder.com, 877 714
2587, ext. 10
Job Tracker from Clients & Profits Worldwide
OmniPilot Agency from OmniPilot Software
Rebus from Rebus Software Inc.
www.rebus-software.com, 877 310
Studio Manager from Tokerud Consulting Group
www.studio-manager.com, 415 388
Studiometry from Oranged Software
www.oranged.net, 312 943
TimeFox from FunctionFox Systems
866 369 8463
Traffic from Sohnar Limited
www.sohnar.com, 800 730
This article was first published in STEP Inside
Design, July/August 2007.
Shel is a graphic designer who is active on the business side of professional practice. He has solid experience managing the operations of leading creative firms and guiding them through periods of accelerated growth and rapid change. He has served as director
of operations for MetaDesign San Francisco and as vice president of operations for Clement Mok. He provides management consulting services to a range of creative firms in both traditional and new media. Shel has served on the national board of the Association
of Professional Design Firms and as the president of AIGA San Francisco. He has written and lectured on many topics related to design management and teaches Professional Practice at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, the California College of Arts, and the
University of California.
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