Get things done the creative way

Let's face it: solid project management, dull as it may sound, facilitates creativity. Staying on top of your workload, tracking time and invoices, keeping track of to-do lists, and making sure your team - and your clients - are all on the same page is essential for success.

It might not be the sexiest side of your job, but whether you're a busy freelancer juggling multiple jobs or a fast-growing studio, a number of productivity tools aimed squarely at creative pros, with polished, user-friendly interfaces to match, might just take the edge off.

UK-based graphic designer Jerome Iveson is the creator of one of the latest such management tools. Solo is pitched at creative freelancers, and is currently available for $10 per month. "During my 15 years as a designer I've used many methods to manage my time and juggle multiple projects," Iveson begins. "I found that they were either too expensive, or didn't fit my workflow." So he opted to produce his own, putting a real focus on great design.

"A lot of websites and web apps lack individuality, and seem a little cookie cutter," he continues. "I really wanted to buck that trend. In a world where competition is fierce and there's a downward trend on pricing, Solo focuses on maximising time and utilising business data."

Based out of Oregon, USA, two-man studio Colorcubic has recently started experimenting with Solo, having used both Basecamp and activeCollab too. "The interface is gorgeous, and designed with designers in mind," reflects creative director Christy Lai. "Although of course when something is too pretty it can sometimes become a distraction from the task you're trying to accomplish," he adds.

Solo's timer and time-tracking features are both particular highlights for Lai, although she admits that the lack of file storage in the current version is an issue. Iveson is realistic that his brainchild is still a work in progress: "I have great plans for Solo. There were so many features that I had to painfully cut to make our deadline," he confesses. "These will be re-introduced, plus many more. We're also developing a multiple user version called 'Studio' and an iPhone app."

Another popular approach for both freelancers and small studios is Action Method, developed by the team at creative network Behance. Molly Morris at Chichester-based The Neon Hive is a fan: "It's at the core of our entire business: project management, planning and finance, and general internal communications, through to taking a client brief or meeting," says Morris. "We even note phone calls in our Action Journals to ensure that nothing is lost, and no action forgotten," she explains.

Action Method uses a simple, practical philosophy: any project can be broken down into a series of actions. By combining a range of print products, such as Action Journals, with an integrated online system, ideas, plans and task lists are logged in an orderly manner.

Morris had previously tried Huddle, Basecamp and even Google Docs, but was completely won over by Action Method's simple clarity: "It's designed with commercial creative productivity in mind, so there are no nice but saccharin features that dilute the concept," she goes on. "The ethos is simple: making ideas happen. No dancing around points, no lengthy email chains, just simple calls to action."

Action Method Online links up the system for both internal team members and external clients, and features a 'nag' button to prompt co-workers into action. "AMO cuts it all back down to action: who is doing what and when, with no mess and less risk of miscommunication," adds Morris. "Aesthetics are a contributing factor, but function is essential too."

AMO offers a free initial sign-up period, which permits unlimited projects but is limited to 50 'action steps' - while the premium plan costs $12 per month, and includes 2GB of storage space as well as a discount on the paper products, which range from $5 to $17.50.

Like Action Method, Basecamp enables multiple parties, both internal and external, to share a project space. "It is by far the easiest and friendliest tool for client collaboration, especially for non-techie ones." argues John Sinclair, AKA sinx, co-founder of 'Ustwo.' The studio has been using it since 2006: "We literally have hundreds of client users logged into the system, so moving to another tool would be a serious hassle for us."

For Sinclair, message threads are the most useful feature - and these become a centralised conversation around any project. "It basically enables each user to have access to specific threads without having to receive all the emails associated with them," he explains, "which is especially useful for more senior members of the project team."

Basecamp operates a five-tier pricing structure to tailor the service to your needs, from the very basic free version, up to $149 per month for unlimited projects and 75GB of storage. Its intuitive look and feel was an important deciding factor for ustwo: "If you spend a lot of time using a product, it's important that you enjoy looking at it," reasons Sinclair.

For Lai, Basecamp appealed at first for its ease of use and reasonable entry-level price, but as her storage needs increased the costs began to add up, prompting the switch to activeCollab, a self-hosted, fully customisable service with a one-off licence fee of either $249 or $499.

"As creatives, we spend the majority of our time managing projects, communicating, tracking, billing and all the boring admin stuff we'd like to spend less time doing," she concludes. "We may as well enjoy using the technology that makes that possible."

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