Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Six Tips for Better Project Management

Efficient project management does not have to be a foreign concept to designers. Keeping the process simple, with regular client updates and project tracking, can make your working life easier. These six tips can help build a better framework for your project management system.

When it comes to design projects — whether it’s an in-house team, an agency or a single freelancer — the management process can always be refined. After everything else boils away, you’re left with one goal: to keep your project management system’s time invested / time savings ratio very high.

In other words, you want the effort you’ve spent updating your internal database, clients and workload calendar to facilitate the project’s completion. Sometimes that means figuring out the quick, 20,000-foot status update in just a couple minutes, but it could also mean flipping through your stack of comps to find the version the client describes as “from like two months ago with the photo of the guy doing the thing on the laptop in the glassy building.”

1. Give Every Project a Unique ID

Give the project a human-readable, unique number or tag that will make it easily findable. For instance, I use an internal system of YEAR-##-CLIENT, like 2006-45-MCD, or project number 45 in 2006 for McDonalds. At my in-house day job, I use type-descDATE, like booklet-healthcare0608, or the healthcare services booklet printed in August 2006.

I tag all folders, production files and database entries with this ID. When I need to dig up some information, I simply search on my machine for the tag and everything related to that project is returned.

2. Use an Application That Works for You

There are an infinite number of software and project management application combinations you can use, and it can take time to find the one that works for you. Don’t settle. Time is money, and inefficient processes — especially those related to project management software — waste it quicker than a creative director with an expense account.

For my freelance work, my process is simple. I have a series of Excel spreadsheets that track invoices, project start and completion dates and aggregate revenue. My invoices are created with InDesign. At my in-house position, we use a complex Notes database with a zillion options and tracking options. In either case, they work.

3. Keep it Simple

To piggyback on the previous point, there is also no point in complicating your life. While building your own online CRM with AJAX and XSLT sounds like it would get you chicks (you could even call it Chck Gettr), in reality it would be easier to use the tools already out there.

When tweaking your project management habits, always strive for simplicity. Do you need to use every widget and sprocket in Basecamp? Probably not. Speed and accuracy is the name of the game. You want to get in, retrieve or update the data, and get out.

4. Spend Time to Make Time

Project management diligence is imperative to project management success. You have to dig in and update your projects every day. While it sounds easy to just wait until the end of the week to plug in all the details, dates and numbers, it’s too easy for that data to get lost, shuffled and forgotten. Spend ten to fifteen minutes every day on project management, and you will save yourself tremendous headaches down the road and free up your Friday afternoons to catch up on fantasy football before Sunday.

5. Update Clients Religiously

The importance of touching base with your bread and butter can not be understated. This is both a proactive and reactive habit. Proactive means voluntarily reaching out to clients on status updates, new comps or ideas that popped into you head.

Reactive means quickly responding to questions, inquiries or even simple thank yous. In this era of overwhelming e-mail, it’s refreshing for clients to interact with vendors who answer questions immediately. Be one of them.

6. Make Sure Everyone Is on the Same Page

As a freelancer, no one is going to argue the process you dictate. But in a group of creatives, it is important for all members of the team to be on the same page. Whether you create the project management system together or charge one person with the responsibility, make sure, at the end of the day, that each designer not only understands the functionality and capability of the system, but uses it as well.

It’s not always a bad idea to clue clients in as well. While they don’t need to know all the details of how the sausage is ground to appreciate the final product, revealing bits as needed can help smooth the road. For instance, I always tell my clients their project number (like 2006-45-MCD) so when they see it, they know it’s related to the project.

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commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Thursday September 14, 2006

An excellent article on project management.

Some excellent tips there, not only for organizing companies work but freelancer as well.

Thanks for sharing your insight.


wrote the following on Wednesday September 27, 2006

Great piece of article.

Project management it’s always (for me) a matter of tastes too, but what programs do you recommend to perform the basic tasks.

Great site!

Sameer Shaikh

wrote the following on Friday September 29, 2006

Good Article.. I understand them as the basics. I also think innovations and creativity in Project Management is atmost required. I am trying to find some references for better estimation and project tracking in agile.