an online conversation
about design management

Getting stuff done

When the strategy, presentation and negotiation are done and dusted, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get the job done and that can mean critical time management skills to keep your clients (and colleagues) happy.

Lists help keep the jobs on track

If I could grant one magic power to every graduating designer it would be the power of time management. It’s not taught at uni but it’s the one skill we need every day.

In a commercial design practice, deadlines are part of every project, whether they are self-imposed or client-driven, and they need to be managed.

We’ve had a few very talented designers through the studio that were commercial disasters. Not because they weren’t creative but because they constantly failed to deliver on time. Regardless of whether it was a two-hour or two-day project, the only way they could deliver a project on time was through micro-management and that’s been painful for both of us.

As a studio owner/manager, scheduling projects consumes a large part of my time. It’s my role to manage projects through the studio and ensure that client’s expectations are met (and hopefully exceeded).

Additionally, because many of us work collaboratively, our lack of time management may well negatively impinge on the next process.

There are many different ways to manage your time and it doesn’t matter which technique you use, it just matters that you use one. The bottom line is it doesn’t matter how good a designer you are – if your design for the most creative, innovating website ever seen doesn’t go live on the day of the launch, you failed.

The method I use is simple and I learnt it very early in my career to survive a boss that was constantly setting increasingly short deadlines, then making demands on my time and changing priorities. This method meant that when he came to me with a new urgent job I could show him my list and ask him to rank the new job against the existing jobs. Which one stayed in the ‘urgent list’ and which was downgraded? They couldn’t all stay on my list as urgent.

It worked then and it still works now.

It involves a pencil and paper and involves 3 steps.

1. Set goals.

The first step is to list all the projects that need to be accomplished and by when.

2. Write a list of actions.

I list all of the actions or tasks that need to be done.

Two things to note here: I haven’t stipulated that I need to accomplish them personally, and secondly they are actions or tasks not projects.

A project may go over many weeks, so listing the project name in my daily to do list is not helpful. Instead I list the tasks needed to be done to keep the project on schedule.

Examples may include anything from calling a printer, emailing a schedule to a client, or designing a report cover.

3. Organise the list into a plan

The next step is to allocate a time next to each task.

This is a vital step and it will only work if you are realistic when allocating time.

At the beginning it is difficult to judge how long some tasks may take, but the more you do it, the better you get.

Next – and here’s the crux of the action – I add up the time needed for each task and draw a line under the number of hours I am available to work in that day.

The result is a list of tasks that I can realistically accomplish in one day.

I can then decide to:

  • work longer hours to do more (not a solution if it’s the solution every day)
  • push some of the less time-sensitive tasks onto the next day
  • delegate / outsource some of the tasks (in which case I need to add briefing time into my allocation for the day).

Once that’s done I prioritise the tasks, literally numbering them in an order.

Most tasks that will take less than 15 minutes (like logging a project in our job management system) or involve information needed by others (such as getting a job out for a print quote) are put at the top of my list and done at the start of the day. I also tackle jobs that I don’t enjoy so they’re not hanging over my head for the rest of the day.

This works for me because I know that I design better later in the afternoon with a clear head, plus it’s motivational to get a few tasks crossed off my list quickly.

The rest are prioritised according to deadline.

I have tried more sophisticated methods but listing suits my working methods. Sometimes I transfer my list to my job management system, and sometimes I’ve done it on my phone on the way to work, but it’s usually done by pen on paper.

That’s why I was interested when Twenty4’s  latest newsletter arrived in my inbox. It included an article by Matt Gillman about how he manages his time, and it couldn’t be more ying to my yang. While my process is very analogue, Matt’s is heavily technical.

What’s really interesting is what we have in common:

  • the basis of both methodologies is a list
  • we both do things we dislike first to get them out of the way
  • our aim is to list tasks to clear our head for designing.

I love this quote from Quora included in Matt’s blog:

Your brain is not for storing information, it is for processing information and if your brain is using space for storing information, then it is not making the most of it’s processing power.

Matt explains it by saying ‘If you don’t get out what is in your head and remove that storing and retrieval system from your brain, it is difficult to get work done and prioritise because you will always be concerned that there is something more important to be done.’

While I use a pen and paper, Matt uses Notes, MindNode Pro, Pomodoro Timer and his trusty monthly calendar ical.

A description on how he uses the tools are detailed on his blog here.

There’s many advantages to getting organised early in the day. It allows you to be more proactive than reactive. If a client or a colleague requests help – you can tell, at a glance, if you have time available rather than saying yes and regretting it as you work further into the night.



managing a design studio