Despite the perception of design as something “tedious” or even “boring” to our industry, project management systems also require design. Fortunately, the best tools available today are created by, or in collaboration with, talented Designers!
The growing conversion of workers to self-employed professionals or freelancers is a reality. In the US, 34% (53 million) of people work for themselves. This trend is also reflected in Spain, according to the EPA (Active Population Survey) in our country there are nearly 2.04 million self-employed non-employers, that is, pure freelancers. According to another Infojobs report in 2014, the second most crowded sector of freelancers and with the greatest growth are those related to the digital field such as “Digital Design” which constitutes 14% of the total of freelance professionals in Spain.
I hope this article will help you:
Know the Project Management Systems you can use to build digital designs and manage small teams agilely.
Learn how to calculate the base hourly rate to become a freelance designer.
You will know how to build a budget and define the scope of a project.
You will have a compendium of tools, many of them cloud-based, to manage your future design projects.
Keys for Design Project Management
Managing projects well helps to avoid serious problems, such as your client losing money, you wasting time (which translates into money), and, most importantly, damaging your credibility as a design professional in the market.
As a designer, you must be the bridge between the users of your digital products, the product itself (or design), the team that defines and builds it, the suppliers, and, above all, your client. Without experience, it can be very complex to manage this communication and commitment between the parties without a good project management system.
For design projects of medium or long duration, it is common for there to be tension between Design and Client, or even with Suppliers. The objective of this topic is to provide you with knowledge and a compendium of tools to avoid these situations and be successful in your projects.
“Self-management as a goal to be more efficient in your work, to charge a good hourly rate and to have the freedom to choose the projects you want to design.”
Here are some of the most relevant project management concepts:
Be realistic and plan your projects pessimistically.
If you can’t, it may happen to you like the designs in “Perfect Games” that ruin companies like Thegamecompany.com.
Build Your Own Methodology
Analyze which market niche you want to target, with which you feel most comfortable or foresee that it will have a better future. From there, use Design Thinking to understand how you can work (method) and shape it into an infographic, for example.
Adopt a System of Personal Productivity Improvement
This implies that you will spend less time on administrative tasks and more time researching, defining, and building designs. So, first manage yourself well, and that will enable you to manage others better.
Your Team and Colleagues Come First
They are your best bet for projects to move forward; if they fail, you will be lost or have rotation problems. If you speak badly of your team, your clients will lose confidence in you.
Be a Chameleon
Adapt to the circumstances of the project, anticipate variations and risks before they occur, or, if not, be the first to detect them.
Communicate Quickly and Efficiently
Utilize cloud communication tools and file storage systems like Drive or Dropbox, which avoid excessive use of email and allow content to be shared remotely.
Start Your Work Weeks on Wednesdays
Instead of the usual, which is usually starting a week on Monday and ending on Friday, starting the week on Wednesdays helps minimize the need to work on the weekend. It also prevents your team or collaborators from working inefficiently on Fridays.
Have Short Follow-up Meetings Every Day
Use whatever project management system you have; always prepare meetings at the start of the day with your team to talk about:
- What you did yesterday
- What is blocking you
- What you are going to do today
Learn to Manage Expectations
It is common in early stages of digital design projects for the client to have expectations much greater than those you or your team can have. It is a good idea to simply and visually explain how the final design product will be and the steps to achieve it.
You Are Not the Boss or an All-Knowing One
If you act as a facilitator, using your client’s knowledge and analyzing what your user needs (and how it is), it is much more likely that you will be successful.
Behind a good design there is always a lot of invisible work
Project Management Systems
That a Designer succeeds is not only due to an exceptional talent, a complex abstraction or very solid knowledge of design disciplines. To be a good Designer, to be free to decide which projects you want to do because they interest you and which ones not, it is important to have Project Manager qualities and have a good Project Management System, simple, complex, in the cloud or on paper but a system in the end.
Sending a vehicle to Mars and being crewed remotely requires a high level of management, but Designing a native mobile application for iOS and Android for 20 million people can also have a good degree of complexity.
There is a specific and habitual terminology in project management, many of the concepts are inherited from theories that come from the US, Japan and other countries:
Some relevant definitions
Traditional System (Waterfall)
Waterfall is a system that has marked the industrial eras. To build a tank, objectives are first defined, then a plan is drawn, and then engineering, materials, and other tasks are completed until the tank passes quality controls and is sent. In summary, in Waterfall, tasks are completed sequentially until the final product is reached.
Agile is a relatively modern system in which tasks are completed in certain phases or sprints. This system is gaining more and more followers each year, particularly in sectors that involve a lot of human work.
Resources are what is needed to build the project, including people, materials, suppliers, equipment, and deliverables.
MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product. It consists of defining the minimum scope necessary to complete the project and continue evolving. This is agreed upon with the client, and there are several methods to do so, such as 2×2 attractiveness/effort matrices.
PM (Project Manager)
The Project Manager is the figure that directs the project to a successful completion. They are the person who articulates the communication between the client, team, and suppliers. Their main roles are planning, management, risk prevention, and project closure.
A milestone is a specific moment when a task must be completed. It can be a day or even a specific hour.
A Gantt chart is a list of tasks to be completed, hierarchized and ordered with a structure based on the available time and resources (people). It defines the path (trajectory) of construction.
Float is the amount of time a task can be delayed without impacting the rest of the upcoming tasks.
Scope defines the amount of tasks to be performed to build the product during the duration of the project.
Effort is the amount of time a resource can dedicate to tasks per day.
Duration is how long (for example, in days) it takes to complete a task by one person or a group of people.
Duration is not the same as effort. For example, when a task is done in 8 hours, but the person who is going to do it has 4 available per day, this gives a result of:
- Duration: 2 days (4 hours per day)
- Effort: 1 day (8 hours)
The critical path is a list of tasks that must be completed before the project ends, resulting in the global estimation of the project.
A project management system helps to organize roles, simplify execution, and identify potential risks until the goal is reached.
Types of Project Management Systems
Common project management systems today include:
Waterfall: A traditional cascade system, where one task is completed before the next one can be started, until the project is closed.
Kanban: Developed by Taiichi Ono for Toyota in 1953 to improve production in car construction plants. It is an agile system that can be used for small or large, long-term projects.
Agile: Derived from agile systems of 1957, it gained momentum after the Agile Manifesto was designed by several engineers in 2001. It focuses on collaboration between team members and speed when addressing problems or deviations.
Lean: Often used with Agile, it helps maintain product quality throughout the construction process.
Six Sigma: An evolution of Kanban, designed by Bill Smith in 1986, it focuses mainly on quality control and problem elimination. It is mainly applied to large constructions or long-term projects.
PRINCE2: PRojects IN Controlled Environments. Consolidated by the British Government in 1989, it focuses on quality and the finished product. It is suitable for large companies or government agencies.
Most used Project Management Systems
Waterfall is the traditional system in which one phase must be completed before continuing to the next. Planning typically involves creating a list of tasks at the outset, which is then visualized in a Gantt chart for the Project Manager and their team.
How it Works
The process begins with an initial analysis to define the scope, after which tasks are divided into milestones. Each task is assigned a time frame for completion. It is common to track each delivery or milestone, and review and modify the plan to identify actual and potential deviations, allowing for the effective management of risks and the avoidance of wasted time and money.
Waterfall is useful for projects with clearly defined tasks that must be completed sequentially. For design projects that require an iterative, artisanal approach, it is recommended to use a mix of Waterfall and Agile, or to use Agile or Scrum alone.
Waterfall is a rigid system that does not lend itself to easy pivoting. If an error is made in the early stages and corrected in the later stages, it takes more time and money to fix it.
Agile originated in the 1980s when Hirotaka Takeuchi developed it with the aim of enabling teams to work together as a unit. Scrum is based on Agile principles, but is structured to improve work flexibility. Tasks are completed in phases, and scope reviews are conducted in each iteration.
How it Works
- Create the product backlog, a list of all the components needed to meet the project’s scope.
- Generate user stories. These are written in the form: “As a [type of user], I want to [do a system or artifact] to achieve [desired benefit]”. For example: “As a BBVA customer, I want to create a new savings account to be able to make online transactions”.
- Use planning poker to assign tasks a score. This exercise gives a measure of the relative size of all stories in relation to each other. This generates the Story Point.
- Prioritize tasks based on the Product Owner’s (PO) input. This can change throughout the project, but the story points size must remain the same.
- Use agile planning and estimation to determine the project’s deadline, which iteration each story will be ready in, and to reduce the risk usually taken in traditional projects.
- Use Burndown charts to monitor the project’s progress and present results in each iteration.
- Hold daily Dialys (15 minutes max) to update the team on what was done yesterday, what will be done today, and what is blocking progress.
If not managed properly, the project can drift away from its delivery objectives. To avoid this, it is essential to maintain open and constant communication with all team members and the Product Owner.
Taiichi Ono created the Toyota Production System in 1953, an analog system designed to manufacture cars in a cascade. It is also applicable to other methodologies, such as Agile or Scrum, and works well for small groups or medium-term projects.
How it Works
This system is composed of several columns, each containing cards that define a task, milestone, or group of tasks.
- Each card contains relevant information about the task, such as the part of the process it belongs to, the estimated time to complete it, its criticality, and other details.
- Priority is marked by the order of listing, with the most important tasks at the top.
- When a person finishes a task, they move it from one column to another, such as from “DOING” to “DONE”.
- The cards can be assigned to a person or group of people.
Kanban is an excellent choice for teams that work together habitually and cohesively, as they are familiar with each other. It ensures a steady flow of tasks, allowing the team to select and prioritize tasks according to their availability and preferences. Additionally, it is a highly flexible system that can be adapted to different projects and clients.
Kanban is best suited for teams with complementary skills or overlapping roles, as it can lead to one person having too many tasks otherwise. If the project has a fixed delivery date, other systems such as Waterfall or Scrum may be better options.
The perfect customer does exist. To start as a freelancer, one of the decisions to make is to know which customers to say “yes” to and which to reject. Here are some tips to help you select your customers.
The high price filter helps to avoid toxic customers. If 20% of the customers you contact tell you “your services are a bit expensive” and the remaining 80% tell you “ok, I’ll hire you”, then you can calculate it.
Consider what needs your services cover.
ROI (Return on Investment)
What benefit or ROI does your customer get from your services? This is key to generate trust and for the customer to value your work quantitatively.
Your Differential Value
What are your differentiating elements compared to your competition? Look for a market niche where you feel comfortable and generate inertia.
Specializing at the beginning of your professional career is beneficial, as it allows you to access increasingly larger customers and then grow in other market niches within them.
Research and Practice for Current Clients
- Conduct a guerrilla market study to gain insight into your clients.
- Create empathy maps of your clients to better understand their needs.
- Perform a SWOT analysis to assess the customer’s current state.
- Research the state of potential customers to identify opportunities.
- Create a customer journey map for your ideal customer.
Prescription for Current Clients
- Encourage word-of-mouth recommendations. A high percentage of professional hires are made through this method.
- Generate synergies by connecting your current clients with those you want to have.
- Identify customer life cycle opportunities to maximize their value.
CRM: A Customer Relationship Management System
A CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system helps you understand the relationship you have with current customers, potential customers, and make decisions to sell your designs or projects.
Your customers can easily find you in any context. Define your contact limits and have off-the-record conversations with current customers. Generate synergies with them by inviting them to workshops, training, Design Thinking sessions, or take them for a spin.
Make Customers Happy and Turn Them Into Promoters
If customers ask for A, give them A plus B, and if possible C, even if they don’t know it initially. This is key: provide them with lots of quality, especially at the start of your relationship.
Fulfill their needs
And add something extra. Your added value is the factor on which they will base their decision to hire you again.
Turn customers into salespeople
Offer incentives to customers who become prescribers and bring you projects.
Engage in conversation
Call and show an interest in their personal life. If necessary, join them for yoga.
Stay in touch
and remain interested after delivering the project. Contact the PO periodically to check on the status of the project; they may need something from you that they didn’t know about.
If customers ask for A, give them A plus B, and if possible C.
Strengthen your contact network.
Attend design ecosystem events to make contacts (networking).
Invest in training; allocate 10-20% of your expenses to training.
Create personal projects.
Look for promotion through social projects, such as Amnesty International and B3h1nd: https://www.es.amnesty.org/drones.
Craft Your Elevator Pitch
Develop a sales technique that allows you to clearly and concisely explain your skills, experience, and services to potential customers. It should be short, lasting about 1-1.5 minutes.
What Determines the Price of a Project?
We don’t charge for what we do; we charge for what we know and the value we generate from it. This phrase allows you to gain momentum and build a budget with certainty and confidence that you will do it with precision.
There are several types of budgets that apply to digital product design, such as an hourly budget. This type of project is interesting for freelancers, although many more experienced professionals prefer to have budgets set at the beginning.
|If the client is knowledgeable or has previous experience in design, they will understand the benefits of this type of budget.
|An estimate of hours per project is made and the hours consumed are sent periodically.
|If your client does not understand the hourly rate, they may not pay you on the agreed deadline and easily justify it.
It offers more freedom as a freelancer and is more adapted to the needs of the client, since they can make a money forecast prior to the start of the project.
|Traditional clients, with large projects or with a lot of bureaucracy.
|In the analysis or planning phase of the project, the totality and a margin for possible deviations are valued.
|Requires more experience.
A hypothetical case of a variable budget is when the design work has a measurable economic value, for example, when we design for an e-commerce and with your design improvements this e-commerce will increase by % more purchases. That translates into more direct income for your client.
|Clients who are aware of the return on investment generated by your work and know how to calculate it.
|It is constituted by a Fixed Price + Variable %. This variable is defined by the potential benefit it would generate for your client.
|If you do not calculate correctly, you may not receive the variable or the client may ask you for the variable to be negative as well.
Define the scope visualy with the Iron Triangle
To define the scope of a project and be able to reach consensus with your clients, one of the simplest ways is to build an iron triangle. In every project there are 3 related variables:
- Scope: how many tasks need to be done to build the project.
- Time: How long will the project take
- Cost (resources): Money, people and cost of suppliers associated with the project.
For the quality of the project to remain, any modification of one of the 3 variables is inversely proportional to the other two. That is, if people are reduced dedicated to the project, it will be necessary to reduce the scope or increase its delivery date in time.
In an agile project, the scope reverses the triangle to make time and cost a fixed value and leave scope only variable.
Gantt chart. Tool that allows planning groups of people in time, according to their effort and according to delivery milestones.
How it works:
- The stages of the project are analyzed and defined.
- Then the team is added and the weekly effort that each component can undertake is added. It is important to include the holidays of each person.
- Then the tasks that make up each stage are implemented.
- Those tasks are assigned to each person or group of people and the real duration is included.
- Those tasks are related to delivery milestones or reviews.
- An MVP (Minimum Viable Project) is defined
- The Critical Path is defined.
Then it is usual to make a follow-up for each delivery or milestone. Reviewing and modifying the planning to see the real and potential deviations, so that risks can be managed and no more time or money is lost in the project.
Minimum Acceptable Rate (MAR) calculation as a Freelancer
An important aspect for design professionals, especially newcomers, is knowing when to charge for their services related to a project and how long it takes to complete it. Here is a formula that allows you to know how much you should charge for your services.
Hypothetical Case: Ingredients to Calculate the MAR
- Total Working Hours: The usual working hours are about 1800 h/year.
- Billing Percentage: Approximately 70% of the total is invoiced (calculated: total hours * 0.70).
- Net Salary: How much you need to live and grow.
- Base Rate per Hour: Net salary / billable hours.
- % Annual Expenses: How many annual expenses arise from your activity, such as licenses, rentals, etc.
Billing percentage 70% = 1260 hours
Net salary = 60,000€
Annual expenses = 20,000€
Base rate per hour: 60k / 1260 h = 47€ hour
% of expenses: 20k / 60k = 33%
47€ hour * 1.33 = 62.51€ hour
Elogia.net “Marketing Keys to Attract Clients and Generate Trust.”
References of Project Management Systems with Gantt Charts. http://teamgantt.com/blog/
Zapier Blog. Common Types of Project Management Systems
Dan Olsen (2016). “The Lean Product Playbook”. Wiley John + Sons
Jake Knapp (2016). “Sprint”. Transworld
Alexander Osterwalder (2011). “Generation of Business Models”. Ediciones Deusto.
If you’re curious to learn more
The number of freelancers in the United States is increasing, according to Statista.
The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen
(ISBN/ISSN: 1118960874, published by John Wiley & Sons in 2015) teaches how to achieve healthy innovation, create Minimum Viable Products, and do it iteratively, quickly, and accurately by building a bridge of communication with the product’s end users.
By Alberto Savoia (published in 2011, available at is a free book that summarizes the concept of Pretotyping and teaches how to test design or product hypotheses before investing money in them.
Getting Things Done by David Allen
(published by Penguin in 2015, ISBN-10: 0143126563, ISBN-13: 978-0143126560) is a method that allows you to have a “clear head” of tasks and sequence them in a powerful and very efficient way.
Sprint by Jake Knapp
(published by Transworld in 2016, ISBN-10: 0593076117, ISBN-13: 978-0593076118) is a book to learn how the collaborative design and team management method works, which helps to solve problems, create ideas, and test them in approximately 5 days.