This article was published on July 19, 2016

How to successfully manage creative projects

How to successfully manage creative projects
Matthew Guay
Story by

Matthew Guay

Matt is a marketer at Zapier. Matt is a marketer at Zapier.

A hot cup of tea or coffee and your favorite designer notebook at your side. Your to-do list carefully prioritized in your favorite task management app. All your favorite design apps are open and the warm glow of your computer monitor beckons your masterful, creative brilliance. It’s time to get work done.

But this isn’t all about your favorite preferences and processes. This is client work. You might prefer this shade of millennial blue/green or that expensive Hoefler and Co typeface, but today, the client’s king. It’s their task app, their existing brand typeface, and their development team’s project management method you’ll need to accommodate.

Perhaps that’s what makes managing creative projects so difficult. You know there’s a better way to organize tasks, share deadlines, and discuss changes to the project. Yet try as you might, it’s nearly impossible to get everyone on the same page. There should be a perfect project management tool — but it never seems to be the ones you’ve tried.

Maybe it’s time to rethink how creative projects are managed.

There isn’t an app for that

If there was an app that did it all, we’d be all over that

In an ideal world, there would be a perfect project management app that handles everything, so you can focus on your real work. It’d remind you when tasks are due, break tasks into achievable chunks, and remind your clients of the long hours you put into their projects. It’d even make you a coffee when you’re tired.

In the real world, things aren’t nearly as rosy. There are dozens of project management apps, each with their own features and workflows. They’re each great in their own way, and you just might fall in love with one.

It might be the tool that’ll work perfectly with your clients. But more likely, you’ll end up sticking with the time-honed app that will never die: Email.

Email: The ultimate project tool

Email may be outdated, but it works

“Email is the only shared hub for me,” says product designer Bryan Landers. Freelance illustrator Lindsey Wilson echoes the sentiment: “Everything starts with email.”

Email’s the lowest common denominator, the one app everyone uses. No matter what project management software, chat app, or design feedback tool you use, chances are it works with email. As Lindsey says about her inbox, “It’s where I get all my notifications.”

So embrace it. Project management apps may be designed to handle everything, but they can’t. You’ll still have files scattered across your desktop, notes in a handful of apps, and clients with different favorite communications tools. The one constant is email.

Your projects will likely start out in your inbox, with a message from potential clients. “Email is almost always how I’m introduced to new design client leads,” says Landers. “We use email as a way to figure out if a call is worth doing.

“If we decide to work together, email becomes the way to send messages that will guarantee a timely response. I then send estimates via text-only emails.”

It’s old fashioned, but it works every time. Sometimes the lowest common denominators are best.

Build a project management system

If you build it, they will come

But you can’t do everything in email. That’d be madness. Shared folders and version control and in-line comments are popular for a reason.

With email as your common ground, though, you’ll have a much better foundation to build a successful project management workflow.

The workflow is what matters, what makes project management systems so vital. Workflows give structure to your work, help you know what needs done when — and what’s left to get that task done. Project management systems may sound boring, and the advantages of lean workflows or scrum sprints can quickly spark arguments. What matters most is the way they can help you organize tasks.

There’s two main ways of organizing tasks: by due date, or workflow. Gantt charts, to-do lists, and calendars are the former: they show what needs done, and when it’s needed. Kanban boards, and the general idea of lean, is more about workflows: They show where each task stands, and what’s left to finish those tasks. Scrum sprints give you a bit more flexibility on the time-focused management, while PRINCE2 and other more advanced project management systems give you an even more strict workflow.

What’s important is figuring out what works for your needs. Your clients may love Gantt charts, and your boss may organize tasks in Scrum sprints. You, however, can make your own system that covers what you need most.

To do that, you’ll need tools.

Find a toolkit, not a tool

Whatever gets the job done

Perhaps the greatest folly finding apps is thinking you’ll find one app to do it all. Yet, sometimes the best apps are those that are the most focused. They do one thing great, instead of half-heartedly doing everything.

Simpler tools give you the flexibility to work better with clients. Start with email as your common ground. Then, figure out what fits everyone’s needs, and build a toolkit of apps with tools to do everything you need.

“When clients have their own apps for task management, I will use them if I think that it will save time with communication,” says Landers. “Sometimes they use Asana, sometimes they use Trello, sometimes they send meeting minutes via email and each person maintains their own tasks elsewhere.

“It is definitely challenging because it means managing tasks across multiple apps, but it’s worth it for the transparency and alignment with the client gained.”

You don’t have to use what the client uses, though. Wilson manages projects in Basecamp, even if clients object at first.

“Client feedback and information can quickly get lost in a cluttered inbox,” says Wilson, “so I move as much as I can into Basecamp. Sometimes clients are a bit resistant to using Basecamp. However, I still use it on my own end and enter everything they tell me into Basecamp so I can stay organized.”

Basecamp also has an extra advantage: it’s designed to work with emails, so you can pull in client’s info into project automatically. Built-in integrations or 3rd party tools like Zapier can often help out, as well, linking email and other tools into your project management app.

That’ll help you make a custom solution that fits you needs perfectly. High Sails Media uses a mix of Trello and Asana, to handle workflows and deadlines effectively in their projects, connecting them with integrations. Tinkerbox Studios is building their own project management tool, after struggling to use Basecamp with clients.

Try something simple, a project management app that looks like it’ll do what you need. Maybe you’ll use it on your own; maybe you’ll get your client involved, too. Either way, what matters most is your work. The app is just somewhere to list the stuff that needs done.

Share your work

Sharing is caring

Feedback, however, is the crucial, make-or-break part of client work. Get it early and often.

“Make it as easy as possible for the client to give you feedback and see the status of the project,” advises Wilson. “Do all the heavy lifting so the client doesn’t have to.”

The Stampede Design team has this down to a workflow, with tools for chat, project management, and file sharing that all work together.

“Depending on the clients, we have dedicated Slack channels with clients,” says Stampede culture manager Zana Fauzi. “Otherwise the communication will mostly be on Basecamp.

“A Dropbox folder will be shared with client, where they can share the assets and where we also shall share the PSDs with them. Design drafts are first shared with clients on Basecamp, where we acquire sign-offs and communicate about the project.”

epending on your needs, email might actually be enough for most feedback. For more specific feedback, tools like InVision can come in handy. “If I find that text feedback is difficult with a client, or if it’s a complicated design, I’ll put drafts in InVision so the clients can leave feedback on the exact item they’re talking about,” says Wilson.

It doesn’t have to be that hard. All you need is a way to get feedback, and apply it to your work to get this project finished.

Keep things organized

A little OCD never hurts

Workflows keep you from missing any step in your work. Deadlines keep the project on track. But it’s organization that’ll make or break your project.

“When you’re a one-person show, organization is even more critical,” says Wilson. “If there’s five of them and one of you, you’re the one in control making sure that everything gets done and runs smoothly.”

The one advantage to using only one app for projects is that it’s easy to keep everything organized. There’s nowhere for ideas to die, nothing that’s not a tap away.

Your inbox is a wilder place, filled with receipts and newsletters, unanswered messages and a dozen other things. And once you bring on a handful of your own apps — and your client’s apps as well — you’ll need to carefully make sure each thing’s in its place.

It’ll take trial and error, but with a bit of effort you can tame even the most unruly of projects.

Project management is part art, part science, part being human and trying to do your best work. The skills you use when you land a new client or convince your boss it’s time to redesign your site — and those tricks you use to make sure you finish everything by Friday — are all needed, as are the people skills you’ve learned throughout your life.

It doesn’t have to be so hard. With practice, you’ll be able to manage projects effectively, sell your clients and team on the best ways to work together, and get your next great project shipped.

Want to learn more about project management? Check out Zapier’s new free eBook for the systems, software, and strategies you need to make your next project a success.

Get the TNW newsletter

Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.