Project Management Software for Graphic Design

Filed Under: Tools and Resources

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.

What services do you provide?

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 orders.

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.

Are you an in-house department or an independent consultancy?

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 every month.

What are your management needs?

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:

  • Customer relationship management (CRM), with detailed contact tracking, mailing lists and reminders for follow-up activities
  • Estimating through billing-meaning initial project budgeting, the tracking of actual time and materials as work is being done, comparing actuals to estimates and preparing invoices to clients
  • Accounting, including overall financial management and reporting for the entire company
  • Resource management, including the scheduling of individual tasks within projects, assigning work to specific resources, tracking work status and milestones, managing company-wide traffic and optimizing workflow
  • A newer category that's somewhat separate from those listed above is group collaboration, which involves use of an extranet to facilitate communication and digital asset management. Standalone systems have been developed specifically for group collaboration, such as Basecamp from 37Signals.

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:

How large is your organization?

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.

What systems are available?

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 not.


As you look through this information, keep a few things in mind:


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 development costs.


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.

Purchase vs. subscription

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.

User support

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 fee.


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.

Test drives

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 design.

Checking references

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 more question:

What's required for a successful implementation?

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., 877 714 2587, ext. 10

Job Tracker from Clients & Profits Worldwide, 800 272 4488

OmniPilot Agency from OmniPilot Software, 954 874 9049

Rebus from Rebus Software Inc., 877 310 0444

Studio Manager from Tokerud Consulting Group, 415 388 8563

Studiometry from Oranged Software, 312 943 4164

TimeFox from FunctionFox Systems, 866 369 8463

Traffic from Sohnar Limited, 800 730 2620

This article was first published in STEP Inside Design, July/August 2007. 


About the Author:

Shel Perkins is a graphic designer, management consultant and educator with more than twenty years of experience in managing the operations of leading design firms in the U.S. and the U.K. He has served on the national boards of AIGA and the Association of Professional Design Firms. He has been honored as an AIGA Fellow "in recognition of significant personal and professional contributions to raising the standards of excellence within the design community." The third edition of his best-selling book, Talent Is Not Enough: Business Secrets For Designers, is available from New Riders.