What the heck is that?
Simply put, when it comes to working on projects of any size, having a well-defined workflow, or standardized way of performing repeated tasks, in place will free you up to be more creative and in turn more productive.
Traditionally, creative people aren’t the most organized, or self-disciplined. They spend their time making cool stuff and feel that their creativity is stifled if they are required to ‘colour inside the lines’ by spending valuable time adhering to procedures and processes. Time that could otherwise be devoted to creating. Interestingly enough, I have found that once established, these procedures and processes, collective called a ‘workflow’, have actually improved my creativity. No longer do I have to ask myself “OK, I’m about to start a new project, where shall I create the folder on my hard drive?” or “What should I name this so I can find it easily once it’s completed?” because I have created and documented processes for these things and virtually no thinking is required.
Small Changes, Big Results
In addition to an overall process, there are literally hundreds of smaller processes that can boost your productivity and creativity. Once you’ve got the broad strokes of an overall workflow down, take a look at the smaller things you do to see if there are any opportunities to increase productivity there too. Software is one of the first that comes to mind. I spend most of my day working in three main applications. Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator. Because of this, I have taken the time to learn all the keyboard shortcuts to the tools that I use most often. It may not sound like much, but instead of breaking my concentration and scrolling over to the tool palette to change tools, my left hand simply presses the key associated with that tool. The time savings may not be huge, but do that a couple of hundred times a day and it adds up.
Dave Cross (no, not the comedian) from NAPP (the National Association of Photoshop Professionals) had a great piece of advice one year at the Photoshop World conference in Las Vegas. Advice that I try to follow as often as I can. 7 words that can boost your productivity: “experiment for 8 seconds at a time”. What he means by this, is when you’re in an application, say Photoshop, take a few seconds to try out some filter or tool within Photoshop that you’ve never used before, the results may pleasantly surprise you. At the very least, you have now increased your XP in your “Photoshop Kung-Fu”, albeit ever so slightly and discovered a tool that you may not use too often; at most, you’ve unlocked a new method of doing something that will save you time, thereby improving your workflow. Do this once or twice a day, and before long you’ll start to see improvements in how well you use the application.
Reach out and touch someone
The digital age has done wonders for how we do things. Graphic design in particular has seen some amazing advancements. No longer are we spending hours doing analog paste-up to show a client, it’s as easy as sending an email with a digital proof. Sometimes, however, these emails can inhibit our productivity and communication with our client. We’ve all had those email chains that go on forever, but don’t really accomplish anything. In those cases, pick up the phone and call the client. Guaranteed, the real-time interaction will produce results that the email correspondence had not. Still want the visual impact of an email attachment, no problem. Setup a Skype call and do a screen share. Pretty much all of my clients are in the States or Europe. I live and die by Skype. Its an essential tool in my business that saves so much time that would be wasted in email correspondence.
Keep your dance card up to date
As a freelancer, you’re going to run into scheduling problems at some point. There are a few things you can do to help mitigate running into deadline issues and to help keep you busy, but not so much so that you’ll burn out.
There are several free project management tools out there to help you keep your projects in view and under control. At the very least, you can see what tasks you’ve got on your plate and cross them off as you complete them, going deeper though, you can utilise these tools to forecast and schedule your time so that your days are full and no client or deadline gets neglected. ‘Feast or Famine’ is a well-known term for most freelancers it refers to the volatility of a freelancer’s schedule…sometimes you’ve got too much work to handle, other times not enough to make ends meet. Keeping on a handle on your projects will help the peaks and valleys of your workload a little less extreme. Personally, I use Trello. I love the Kanban board type tool that it has. Its worth taking a gander.
On top of these tools, it’s a good idea to set your own personal schedule and try your best to stick to it. Late nights and 60 hour work weeks can definitely part of the freelancer’s life, but with a little bit of scheduling, they can be exceptions, not the rule.
Environment is Everything
The home office is often the natural habitat of a freelancer. For some this is a very productive environment, for others, not so much. The key is to find what works best for you. 12 months ago, I re-entered the freelancer life and setup my home office to accommodate. 1 year into it, and I’m realizing that I need a separation between home and work. I move into an office this week and couldn’t be happier about it. Whether it’s a coffee shop, your basement, or a co-working space, put the effort in to find out what environment makes you most productive.
new project workflow
Tabletop games come in all sizes, from little 1-deck card games all the way up to those huge Euros with dozens of minis and tokens, and boards, and…well, you get the point. Thing is, if you tackle each project, big or small, with the same workflow, those enormously daunting projects are really no different from that small 1-deck game…from a workflow point of view that is.
The way I see it, there are three phases to projects:
The Quoting Phase where you chat with the client about the project, then generate a quote based on that conversation.
The Production Phase where you create all that cool stuff creatives make.
The Wrap-up Phase where you get the project ready for print and invoice once all is said and done.
The Quoting Phase
As we talked about earlier, games can be pretty large beasts with tons of parts and if you start off on the wrong foot, it can be difficult to get back on track. You may end up doing extra work without compensation because you neglected to clarify that there were actually 5 game card templates, and not 1. Mistakes like this are sadly inevitable, but can often be avoided.
When sitting down for the initial project briefing with your client, it is imperative that you leave the table/Skype call, etc. with a firm understanding of what they’re looking for. Ask lots of questions. How many cards need to be designed? Do they all use the same framework? Can they supply the prototype files? The more information you get the better equipped you’ll be to provide them with an accurate quote.
Now that you’re armed with the a firm understanding of what is expected, it’s time to assign costs to them. I’m not going to go into detail about how to generate an estimate (though I may do so in a subsequent blog), but my general approach is to break down the game into logical pieces, eg. Box, Rulebook, Each unique card type, Boards, etc. and then assess how long each of them will take to complete. Whether you’re quoting by the hour or at a flat rate, you need to know how long the job will take so you can be fairly compensated and that you can schedule your time effectively. OK, great. Quote generated…send that bad boy off to the client and cross your fingers!
The Production Phase
w00t! You landed the gig. Quote approved! Now what? Well, here’s where one of those great processes comes in. I find it very helpful to give every client their own three letter client code, for instance say the quote that was just approved was for ‘Laughing Cow Games’; I’d assign them the client code of “LCG” and then create an LCG client folder. BAM, Done! Now to create the project, which of course, gets its own unique number. In this case, it would be ‘LCG001’. It’s not rocket science, but rather a simple, easy to follow process that I can follow without having to think too much. This is just what I do. Everyone works differently. Find a system that works well for you and stick to it. You won’t be sorry.
A very important part of any freelancer’s workflow is time tracking. Knowing exactly how much time you spend on things is imperative to being fairly compensated for your work and to make sure you are in-turn being fair to your clients and not overbilling. I use Harvest to track my time. It allows me to setup all my clients and projects so that the structure mirrors that of my client files. There are a ton of time trackers out there, some better than others, but I’ve found that Harvest does what I need it to do. It’s solid.
Organizing a project folder can be a bit tricky, especially when it comes to games with lots of overlapping parts. Generally, what I do is create a main project folder, then a sub folder for each game component and a main ‘links’ folder for all visual assets. When tracking my time, I also specify what component I’m currently working on so that those hours can be measured against the quoted amount.
Now that your job is setup, you’re all set to start working!
Part of the creative process is the practice of iterative design. A proof will be generated, shown to the client and then returned with requested modifications. Lather, rinse, repeat (hopefully not too many times!). To help me keep track of all the iterations and the evolution of the designs, I number all my proofs with a “D1”, “D2”, etc. suffix. Each time a new proof is generated, the D number is incremented by 1.
The proofs have all been approved and now it’s time get those files to print. I’ve been a print designer for 20 years and have learned my share of expensive lessons during that time. One of which is to get to know your printer, just like how chefs say “get to know your local butcher”. If you can have a conversation with them before you prep the files for press, things will go that much more smoothly. We all want the same thing; to get this thing printed and for it to look amazing.
Files are off to print. Sweet. Now it’s time to send out the bad news. You may have already invoiced for half or like me you usually just bill the whole nut at the end. Either way, having a consistent way to invoice projects and deal with payment is a must. Not only does it give your clients a sense of stability and professionalism, but once again, it takes having to continuously reinvent the wheel off the table, allowing you to focus on what you do best, creating cool stuff!
Workflows are the backbone of good work habits that make us successful. This workflow I outlined today is an example of a generalised project workflow, but you shouldn’t limit it to just how you handle new jobs. Go deeper and apply workflows to the smaller things, basically anytime you can identify a series of actions that you perform on a regular basis, chances are it’s begging to be fit into a workflow. Don’t forget to take a look at how you do things on a regular basis and look for ways to improve it. Workflows are organic and meant to be modified as things change.
Be bold. Be creative. Be Productive.