Hustle and Flow

FolderThe designer’s workflow is a paradox — how do you compartmentalise creativity? It’s all about automating your admin and keeping you in the creative zone longer, and Drew Turney discovers some of the best productivity tools to do just that.

When you were dreaming of being a commercial artist or designer you were probably thinking about the cutting-edge, award-winning work you’d be doing. Now that you’re spending hours on job creation, client proposals and chasing up money you probably feel like you mistakenly studied business administration.

Admin and workflow tasks can be particularly frustrating no matter what your business size. Often time spent on them amounts to unbillable ‘dead’ hours. If you’re a one man show or too small to have a dedicated accounts or admin person the temptation is to shunt it all to the bottom of the list and risk not doing any of it properly.

But there’s a wealth of tools around to make life easier when you’re not putting chargeable time into groundbreaking work, and you’d be surprised how many (either in combination or alone) make the whole process automatic, everything from winning a job to paying tax on the money you earned from it.

Face time

You have a busy life — you’ll never remember everything. If you don’t use calendar software start right now. If you’re on Windows, your Outlook client’s calendar component should be your best friend. On a Mac, iCal is perfectly adequate, but for sharing calendar appointments and inviting colleagues or clients you’ll need something more business oriented like Entourage. As most people outside your network are most likely using Outlook, it’s the most compatible for issuing or accepting calendar invites.

So you get to the big day, the client meeting. Pitching a client with a great speech about how suited you are is a good start, but we work in a visual medium and humans are visual creatures, so you better have something to show rather than just talk about. High quality prints in a presentation folder are nice enough, but here’s what people seldom realise about pitch meetings. The client will often be far less technically literate than you, and your IT prowess will help reassure them you can translate their message and make the whole process easy for them.

Then there’s the time and effort you’ve put into the presentation. If you stumble in expecting a cup of coffee and a chat, it won’t make nearly as much impact as if you have a well thought out series of images to argue your case.

So avail yourself of either PowerPoint or — if that’s just too nerdy for you — Keynote. Presentation software has a bit of a daggy reputation for being about pie charts, but with your talent and great concepts you can make it look much better than the boring sales meeting standard.

Then you win the job — congratulations! If you’ve only got one client and you know them well, life will be easy. If you have dozens or even hundreds, remember that every client you have is the most important one, so if they spent ten minutes telling you about their beloved toy poodle on the phone last week, you don’t want to mistakenly call it Slasher if they told you it’s named Killer.

Contact relationship management (CRM) packages are a dime a dozen, and range from hundreds of dollars a month to a free or shareware version off the net. Many workflow tools (including the ones mentioned in this story) have CRM components, but using even a basic system is a good idea. An example of a fully featured one is Bento, an application from Filemaker that can create and keep records for anything you can think of, including customer contact and address books.

When you’re not sure if you’re waiting for the client or the other way around, whether they said PMS 210 when they meant 201 or you’re sure they called their poodle Slasher, trawling through emails is unwieldy and time consuming. A good record of everything that’s been talked about and decided upon will be priceless.

Alive and Well

Sooner or later, the spreadsheet where you keep all your jobs that seemed so manageable before will slow you down. When you build up a decent body of work you’ll lose track of jobs and times and it’ll be harder to find the record you’re after. That’s the moment when you realise you need a dedicated jobs database.

Streamtime was created specifically for the design and advertising industries. It’s a complete admin database that lives on your server and can be accessed by all staff with all levels of access permissions. It holds and controls all your contact databases and CRM, quoting and estimating, job creation and tracking, invoice and billing.

Individual tasks in the brief can be allocated to different staff, and you can look over production schedules and work in progress in virtual whiteboards that let you move tasks around, extend or alter them as you see fit. When the job’s finished, all the job tracking and quoting data is then carried over to the billing system for full control of your invoicing and accounts, which can in turn be sent to your accounting software.

A more cost effective solution if you’re starting out or don’t have much capital is a system like Group Office. With many of the modules you’ll find in any good administration system (such as email, calendars and contacts) it’s far more affordable than most.

The vendor offers a hosted service or you can download Group Office and host it yourself. Each user logs in through a web browser interface where they can create jobs by job number and click them to clock on and off, all work time recorded per user. The Group Office interface is intuitive for creating, actioning and closing jobs and each one has an icon that changes colour depending on the status, so you can filter your list to show only live jobs, jobs waiting to be billed, closed jobs, etc as need be.

Billings is an attractive Mac package that also takes care of job records and the tasks and time sheets stored in them. For a full description see the review in this issue, but it’s an inexpensive program that does everything many of the major applications do and you’ll enjoy the clean, Mac-friendly interface.

Memes on Paper

Now the job’s been set up, it’s time to get creative. Sketch, doodle, talk to co-workers or stare out the window at passing cars and wait for inspiration to strike. Your method will be as individual as you are — a successful web development company once described theirs to a delighted conference audience. Instead of the high-falutin’ technologies and methodologies everyone expected them to talk about, the staff write the name of each website page on a huge sheet of butchers paper and arrange them around the floor of the studio until they have the most efficient sitemap.

Most of us do a similar thing on a whiteboard, which got Desktop thinking — surely there must be a virtual whiteboard out there? The Internet age didn’t disappoint us, and we were led to Mindmeister. Termed a ‘collaborative online mind mapping’ tool, Mindmeister is a web-based scrawl area where you can take notes, structure projects (anything from websites to steps of action in a project workflow) and share the results with others or even have others collaborate with you in real time.

All the maps you create are hosted and encrypted online with developer MeisterLabs, and it’s anything from free to US$6 per month, which offers an advertising free membership and the ability to attach documents to your map notations.

A slew of other features from conference calling collaborators with your Skype account from inside the application to publishing maps to the web to share them make it a very cool and inexpensive tool to show off how geeky you are, even to clients.

Timing is everything

So you’re all set up to work — you have the client approval for the proposal, the job’s set up in your system, the brief has been pinned down and it’s time to hop into your creative headspace and get down to business.

Creativity can’t be interrupted if you’re inspired or on a roll, so if you’ve forgotten to make note of the time you started work or your studio manager is on the rampage to get everyone’s time sheets filled in, you need the modern equivalent of a punch card machine so the system knows when you started and finished a job. Noting everything down in your spreadsheet is fine for a while but you only have to forget two or three times and you’ll be wildly off track.

Billings has a great unobtrusive system for tracking time. The software puts a readout in your menu bar so that — regardless of the application you’re in — you need only go to the top of the screen, click once to start counting the hours on a job and then again to stop.

Streamtime’s comprehensive yet simple interface has two dropdown boxes that let you select your start and end time. It’s not quite as user friendly as a single button to click and unclick, but if you’re too busy to log in and do so maybe it’s time for more staff or a raise in your rates.

Group Office requires you to log into the system as well, but signing into and out of a job is once again a single click, and the job icon turns into a little clock to remind you which one you’re working on if you go off track.

While we’re on the subject, Group office is an example of why web-based time management systems are often best. The record is held on a vendor’s server (or your own), which means if you close or quit out of the browser or even restart your system, the clock’s still ticking.

Of the web-based solutions we found, 88 Miles was the easiest and quickest — it took less than a minute to set up an account, create a job and start timing. It’s a delightfully simple product that does only what it delivers, so there are no CRM or fancy add-ons.

You can download your timesheet data in several formats (or export it to an online accounting package called Saasu) for integration with your accounts workflow, and there’s a mobile edition for when you’re on the road, so coffees with clients can also be counted (if it’s good enough for lawyers to charge you for every phone call…). You can also set a project limit so the system warns you when you’re getting near the allotted time.

Failing all the above, of course, you can download one of the thousands of tiny stopwatch applications and utilities. Many of them are free, but the downside is you’ll be back to filling everything in on a spreadsheet.

The phrase that pays

The job’s only half over when the proofs are signed off and the printer delivers the finished product or the client launches the website with a flourish. Now you have to get paid.

If you’re still writing invoice numbers in a little book, opening the last invoice and doing a Save As to create a new one, there’s a whole world of accounts management out there waiting for you. Applications like Quicken (QuickBooks If you’re on a Mac) or MYOB make mincemeat out of recording your earnings, expenses and deductions.

If your job tracking software or method doesn’t integrate directly with your accounts application, it’s usually a matter of opening a new record for an invoice and then applying a payment to it when you receive it. The popular applications like the above are written for accountants, so while there’s a lot of power to wield over reports of late payments, partial payments and more, you won’t need most of them.

Billings has a neat idea to deal with payments. After you’ve produced an account the system leaps on late payers by colouring their client icon red in the main window. A single click can then send that tardy client a statement of their account reminder, so there’s no need to trawl through your bank accounts to see who’s paid so you can ring them up every time you go chasing outstanding money.

The certainties of life

Of course, the job’s not over once you get paid either – that unavoidable part of earning money will rear its head once a year (or four times a year if you collect GST). For the uninitiated, there are two kinds of tax to pay. First, you have to add 10 percent of the cost of many goods and services (GST), collect it on behalf of the government and then report it and pay it yearly or quarterly depending on your earnings.

Then, you have to pay income tax on your earnings (after GST). A good rule of thumb as a sole trader or small business is to put away 20-25 percent, and be disciplined about it — you don’t want a bill of several thousand dollars with nothing to pay it.

(A further word of warning; the Australian Tax Office isn’t nearly as casual chasing up outstanding business activity statements as they are personal tax returns. A few months late and you’ll cop a fine.)

So, the pro accounts packages that cover these bases will be indispensable as they give you a snapshot of your earnings and liabilities at any time and for any period. Reporting GST is as easy as selecting a preset report that gives you your earnings, expenses, and tax paid on both for a given period. Using it to complete a BAS is a one-minute job.

Similarly, a picture of your financial picture so far in the year can’t hurt to make sure you’ve been putting enough away to cover your tax obligations, though a basic knowledge of accounting terms will help.

Now, of course, if they could only create an application that could design for you which the beach looks so nice…