Effective Workflow Management for Graphic Designers
What is Workflow Management?
To some, “workflow management” sounds like something business-like.
Something professional and slick.
To others, it will sound like yet another management buzzword.
A simple idea we are all aware of that doesn't need explaining and doesn't need an official-sounding name or description to make real.
We're going to use the term “workflow management” in this article because, well, it's easier to say than: “the structure of work within an organisation and the methodologies used by teams to complete this work.”
Alternatively, “the toolkit and task allocation practices utilised by teams” or “a piece of software designed to facilitate the getting of things done when that thing is being worked on by more than one person, often in more than one place.”
While it's all those things, for our purposes “workflow management” will do just fine.
When you're a graphic designer, effective workflow management will be something you need to think about at every stage of your career.
Whether you're a freelancer just starting out in a spare bedroom and using a Google sheet to keep track of what's going on with whom, or a hotshot brought in by a fancy multinational, you will be continuously engaged in some form of workflow management.
This article is going to explain what good workflow management might look like for graphic designers, whether you're a freelancer or part of an in-house team.
It will be looking at how technology is increasingly at the heart of workflow management, with a glance of some the tools you're likely to encounter along the way.
It will talk about the two things at the centre of effective workflow management, and how you should be thinking about them, both as a manager and member of a team.
Finally, it's going to look at all these things in the context of projects of increasing complexity, and what to expect as you climb the ladder, becoming involved with larger and larger organisations and teams.
Why does workflow management matter for graphic designers?
Graphic designers are always team players.
It might be five to ten: an educational brochure, a small website, a really awesome infographic.
It might be twenty, or even more: a rebrand for a big company or organisation. A large print editorial project.
Working in a team means two things: tasks, and communication.
This is what workflow management boils down to.
Effectively managing these two things makes for projects that flow elegantly – and get delivered on time and under budget.
When these two things are poorly managed, time is wasted, deadlines are missed, and costs run up as people make the most of their hourly rates.
And not to mention, everyone has a lot less fun.
While these two things are straightforward in theory, in practice they can get complicated.
Everyone does and should be allowed to, work in different ways.
I've worked with people who always break down tasks into lists as bitty as can be.
I've worked with people who are happy with a brief of just three or four words and seem to keep everything in their heads all at once without any need to write things down.
This means that task allocation, from a managerial perspective, isn't easy.
To be effective, you have to tailor your explanation of a task to the individual.
At first, this can seem like a pain in the butt, but you quickly learn this approach saves time in the long run, as well as keeping team members positive when they're doing what you've given them to do.
From the perspective of someone to whom tasks are being allocated, you also have to allow for the fact that whoever is managing you, or perhaps just the person paying you when the work is done, isn't always going to have much time to answer your questions.
You have to strike a balance between being independent and forward thinking, and the need for your manager or boss or client to be clear about what it is you're sending them, and why.
Something that's specific to freelancers is that, because you're called in from the outside, you'll come across all kind of teams and managers.
You'll have to learn the best way of working with them all quickly – otherwise, the review they leave won't bring in more business, and you won't get that referral you were hoping for.
So workflow management – meaning tasks, comments, and the tools and software used for these things – is essential to the work of a graphic designer.
At every stage of your career, you will have a workflow, and it will be managed.
So, as someone just starting out, what kind of things can you expect?
Moreover, as someone perhaps now starting to lead teams and feel the joy of delegation, what sort of strategies should you think about using to keep things moving as they should be?
Starting out with the right workflow management tools
We'll continue with tasks and communication as the two focal points for workflow management, and the two most important things that need to be effectively managed for a project to succeed.
Let's begin with tasks.
When you're by yourself in your bedroom which is also an office, and you're working directly with a client who doesn't have any budget, you can write tasks down on a notepad.
Alternatively, even – at least one notch up on the professional equipment ladder – a whiteboard.
However, when you start to work for larger businesses, or as an in-house professional, you'll begin to be exposed to the world of online, cloud-based, workflow management tools.
Basecamp (also comes with a blog I recommend). Teamwork. Trello. Mavenlink. Redbooth. Asana. Work with enough teams, and at some stage, you'll be exposed to them all. All have their strengths and weaknesses.
When you're set up as a new and often temporary user, you'll quickly have to learn how each one of these tools is used by your team.
They're all designed to be intuitive, and you've mastered all of Adobe's design software, so learning how to use these desktop apps should be easy.
You'll quickly learn where to look for notifications and for the list of things you're supposed to do.
However, sometimes it will feel uncomfortable: you might be forced to work in ways that you're not used to.
Often you're not given everything you need to progress the items on your list.
This is where the next aspect of workflow management comes in. Communication.
Most of the time there will be two kinds of communication channels: immediate, and, let's call it “indeterminate”.
A face-to-face talk is immediate. As is picking up the phone.
Posting a letter isn't immediate. Neither, unfortunately, is an email.
Response time, indeed whether the recipient ever receives your message, is indeterminate in each case.
Increasingly instant messaging is used as a way to bypass the uncertainty and inefficiency that email brings.
One of these days, you'll use Slack (and probably love it), or you might use Skype, or you might use an IM tool that's a part of a project management software package (Redbooth is an example of project management software with a handy IM function).
Just pick up the phone!
Some companies are ditching email altogether in favour of picking up the phone, or at least sending an instant message to someone they know will see his or her message as soon as it arrives.
This is something that I like. Moreover, it's something graphic designers tend to be bad at.
To get something clarified so you can progress your task, an email is usually the wrong option.
A phone call is often best. IM can be great too.
Sending an email and not receiving a reply, and then feeling stuck, is not the best way to follow through on your task, and not the best way of growing your reputation as a professional and competent graphic designer.
You might create incredible assets for your clients, but if you don't communicate with them directly when you need to, you either won't complete your task on time or won't be given the professional credit you deserve. This works both ways.
As a manager, you have to initially be at least reasonably sure whoever is allocated a task will be able to go away, do it, and deliver it when expected without any further intervention.
When something seems to be going slowly, check in using an immediate method of communication.
Check in even when things are going well. IM collective channels are great for this.
Just two words –”everyone OK?” – can often remove roadblocks you had no idea were even there.
Effective workflow management for larger teams
This is how medium and some larger projects will be run. Some will have slightly different ways of doing things.
Some will perhaps even use software designed specifically for designers.
However, as a cog in a small-to-medium machine, you can expect things to be run this way, and the way your team uses their toolkit will often determine how effective the workflow is.
Then there are the behemoths. The projects involving multiple offices all over the world.
How is workflow managed when you're part of a team working on an advert for a multinational cosmetics company, for example?
When you have photographers, copywriters, marketers, and you, the graphic designer, all responsible for a small part of something massive?
Alternatively, perhaps you've just starting working in-house for a large company or organisation, with terabytes of assets to manage, and seven stages of approval to be met before a task is marked off as being “complete”?
If you're lucky enough to work on these kinds of projects, you might find yourself exposed to all the tools mentioned above, and then some more, and then some new ones too.
Or – and this by far the better scenario – you'll find that your toolkit is stacked, and everything comes under one roof.
There are tools like this made specifically for designers (for example Aproove, which boasts some big multinationals as some of its users), and things like LiquidPlanner, one of the most comprehensive project management tools on the market today.
Then there are tools for more specific obstacles, such as digital asset management.
Tools like Adobe Experience Manager or ResourceSpace are developed for the kinds of companies and organisations that have vast amounts of assets to create, review, and use, and these companies and organisations always have graphic designers as part of their teams.
The right tools, the right way
A lot of the focus of this article has been on specific tools. This is no accident.
Increasingly the choice of tool you use is going to govern how effective your workflow will be.
Vast amounts of resources are being used to create software dedicated to making workflow management more straightforward, and even automated to some degree.
However, all tools will have to encompass task allocation.
All will have some method of communication built into them. You will have tasks, and you will communicate.
How all these things come together under one project is what effective workflow management is all about.
However, remember – no matter how complex the software or how steep the price per user – sometimes it's just better to pick up the phone.
If you wish to discuss how we can develop your brand or provide graphic design for your product or business, email us: [email protected]
Inkbot Design is a Creative Branding Agency that is passionate about effective Graphic Design, Brand Identity, Logos and Web Design.