We’ve all been there before. Juggling several projects. The desk is a mess. Post-it notes outline the monitor. You’re in survival mode and scrambling to get the tasks on your checklist finished. Often being “too busy to get organized” can be considered a good problem in nearly any industry. In fact, this New York Times article titled, “What a Messy Desk Says About You” quoted Kathleen D. Vohs, a behavioral scientist at the University of Minnesota as saying, “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights.”
However, the article also noted that, “[Researchers] have found that people blessed with innate conscientiousness, meaning that they are organized and predictable, typically eat better and live longer than people who are disorderly. They also tend to have immaculate offices.”
Obviously, we can presume from this dichotomous information that balance is key. Regardless, in this post, we explore how organization, from general project management to the nitty-gritty of file maintenance, is paramount to productivity and efficiency. Often defining a reasonable method for organizing your projects will help you find balance and success. And perhaps most importantly, it will give you more time to push your creativity to the next level, even if and when you have a messy desk.
Basic Project Management
As a business owner, freelancer, or employee, managing your projects and tasks is one of the first things you can do to stay efficient and organized. This can be done through a calendar, a task list program, project management software, or simply a planner or notebook. There’s nothing wrong with keeping it old-school with the good old paper calendar. In fact, I prefer a bound paper calendar for daily and weekly responsibilities, while my business partner Jonathan Lacocque prefers his online Google calendar. We both pair our personal calendars with the free, online project management tool, Asana. Asana, traditionally defined as the position in which a yoga practitioner sits, is an online platform that easily allows teams to track their work, share tasks, create notifications, and save conversations or notes about a project.
Regardless of the medium, the results will be the same. And as the root of Asana’s name hints, using some kind of tool to manage your projects will give you the balance needed to stay aware, relaxed and concentrated.
Document and Financial Organization
At the commencement of any project, we create an estimate and proposal. Not only does this outline our services and their costs to our clients, but it also helps us document quotes, stay within budget, and outline the scope of a project. Most importantly, the action of outlining the cost of each deliverable forces you to explore the goals and limitations of your client’s requests. Further, it helps you align your client’s vision with your own.
Originally, we were using Microsoft Excel to create estimates and later we would convert them into invoices. To follow up, we would track expenditures and incomes via a rather complex Excel spreadsheet I created. As our business grew, however, this bookkeeping method soon became unwieldy. Running reports and tracking money became a colossal time suck, and I found myself spending way too much effort “looking for pennies” to balance the budget. So, we invested in Quickbooks and it was the best ever $200 spent.”
Quickbooks does a lot of the work for you. It converts estimates into invoices, seamlessly keeps track of accounts receivable and payable, and reports on your business’ financial standing at any given moment. We know many of our independent artists use the online accounting program FreshBooks. And if you’re just starting out and budget is an issue, you should look into Wave, a FREE online accounting tool that has many of the basic features you’ll need (you can pay for additional services like payroll later). Regardless of what you use, I highly recommend implementing some form of financial management system.
The final step to starting a project off in an organized fashion is the contracting phase. Do NOT begin a project without a contract. To make the drafting process easier, you can prepare a boilerplate contract with terms that apply to nearly all your projects, and then tailor it to each client and project. Not only will a template contract save you time, it could save your butt down the road when scope changes, funds become limited, or when any other number of problems arise. Contracts are not only protecting you, they also protect your clients and any freelancers/employees you may hire. Furthermore, your clients will appreciate your professionalism and the effort you have taken to keep everything above board, clear, and honest. One good piece of advice we’ve heard from attorneys in the industry: if your client refuses to sign a well-drafted, fair, negotiated contract, they probably are not a client worth pursuing.
Once you have outlined tasks, contracted, and gotten your financial ducks in a row, it is time to begin managing the project’s deliverables. There are nearly an infinite number of ways one can do this successfully. But here are a few ways we managed two different projects.
We worked on the visual effects shots for a Kickstarter campaign directed by Thom Glunt. The Pixel Titans’ video game, titled Strafe, is a throwback, retro game full of awesome carnage. When we were nearly finished with the effects and motion graphics, this was the “status” of our Google worksheet:
We used a similar online worksheet when we animated a video for Google Docs. To keep track of completed shots, we used a well-defined folder structure in Dropbox to save assets, dailies, docs, and other files. That was also the year we starting using Frame.io for collaboration with the client. And we haven’t looked back.
Naming Conventions & Folder Structure
That brings us to naming conventions and folder structure—the two seemingly simple tasks that can wreak dysfunctional havoc on any project. There’s nearly nothing more annoying than opening a disorganized project folder that includes oddly or mislabeled footage, project files, and assets. Perhaps you’ll relate to the video below.
For every project, we utilize a standardized naming convention that begins with the month and year for archival purposes. Next, each folder is labeled with the client’s name or an abbreviated version of their name, and finally the project’s title is identified. So, it boils down to MMYY_CLIENT_Project. For example, the Strafe Kickstarter video was labeled, 1114_THOM_Strafe.
Within each project, we create the following structure of folders:
- Assets: logos, icons or illustrations from the client, and fonts our team may require to complete the work;
- Docs: direction, notes, brand guidelines, or a creative brief;
- Dailies: reviews and finals;
- Program/Projects: project files and preview files for the specific platform we’re utilizing (e.g. ‘After Effects,’ ‘Premiere,’ ‘Cinema4D,’ etc.)
I know what you’re thinking, “Man! That’s a lot of folders to have to create for every new project!” Well, automation is another key to organizational success. And for the automation of folder structure creation, nothing beats the free app Post Haste by Digital Rebellion. It can not only create default and custom folder structures, but it will also create template AE project files.
Delivering and Backing Up Files
We have tried a variety of cloud-based file sharing services, including: Dropbox, WeTransfer, Hightail, WireDrive, and Google Drive. Our favorite branded option, as we mentioned earlier, is currently Frame.io as it allows you to deliver professionally and quickly while still offering time-stamped comments, hand-drawn annotations, threaded replies, tracked changes, and version control. Plus it’s secure!
And speaking of security, it’s critical that you back up your folders for safekeeping. We use a Promise Technology Pegasus2 18TB raid array to house current projects. Each previous year’s projects are backed up twice on SATA drives. A third backup is archived, placed in a pelican case, and kept at a separate location.
Organization and project management are not very sexy topics. But if you can find a way to organize your projects, files, and collaborators, you’re bound to get more efficient and balanced. Perhaps most importantly, there are endless, and likely better, approaches to organization. Don’t be afraid to try new methods, software, or processes. You’re bound to find something that fits. And while no two projects tend to be the same, the habits you glean from “keeping organized” will become second nature, which will result in more time to get “messy” with your creativity!