Use Simple Tools, Keep On Track

by Ian Dapot

With design teams taking on increasingly complex problems it’s surprising so many overlook simple tools and habits that would help them work more effectively. Rather than depending on memory, or an implicit understanding between colleagues, designers can use the most basic techniques to make working together easier—and more successful.

Publish A Calendar
Meeting deadlines, whether self imposed or client driven, can be a critical factor in the success of a given project. This basic observation seems obvious enough, but it’s surprising how often designers and design teams don’t ever collaborate on organizing a calendar with important milestones, meetings, and potential conflicts. There are a multitude of options for sharing and publishing calendars online, but it doesn’t hurt to use analog options either. Whether you use digital or paper options the real value is in making the schedule visible to yourself and others. Block off significant phases of work, regardless of the length of the project, to visualize shifts in thinking or actions of the team. If possible, share important dates with clients as well, if they have events relevant to your project, or needs directing their attention elsewhere, it pays to know when you might be helpful to them or if they’re available to respond to your requests.

Make A To-Do List
Simple to-do lists can be remarkably effective in organizing and prioritizing tasks. One positive aspect of to-do lists is the variance in level of detail they afford while remaining effective tools. Keeping simplified list of macro tasks (e.g. send invoices, update website, etc.) can help avoid potential missteps. During crunch periods, a prioritized list of more focused tasks can help to keep overall time schedules in check. A shared production schedule, including content, author, and time frame can help make sure different team members are aware of how their contribution fits within the larger scheme and influences deadlines. Another fantastic feature of lists is the ability to adapt as you go, and to simply track what’s been accomplished and what remains to be done. As with calendars, shared or public to-do lists are best. Co-creating the list can reveal differences of opinion on the team and an opportunity to resolve them and make an open agreement about the direction of the project.

Re-read The Proposal At Regular Intervals
Projects take on a life of their own in good ways and bad: creative momentum can push teams into new unexpected spaces, or unexpected complications and requests can eat into working time. Take the time to periodically re-read the proposal or statement of work to make sure the project’s progress aligns with the original goal. This habit can be especially useful on longer projects or if the proposal has interim deliverables or milestones written in. A shared copy of the proposal can serve as a useful reference for the team, and ensure the finer points aren’t missed—or point out where teams have exceeded expectations.


Rather than depending on memory, or an implicit understanding between colleagues, designers can use the most basic techniques to make working together easier—and more successful: publish a calendar, make a to-do-list, re-read the proposal!

Image courtesy of Ian Dapot


Dig Deeper!
1. To-do lists go digital: Jayme Yen and Tracy Otoide build Roolist, a tool to build and share lists online (cool access via SMS for those without a smartphone)

2. Studiomates swissmiss and Fictive Kin collaborate on TeuxDeux

3. 37 Signals offers Basecamp and Ta-Da List for organizing projects and keeping to do lists (shareable with teams and clients)

4. Evernote allows users to make captured photos, web clips, and text indexed and searchable

5. If you’re a Mac user you can share calendars with others using the publishing feature in iCal

6. No list would be complete without mentioning Google: Calendar and Docs products are powerful tools available for free to anyone with a gmail account (and while not necessarily the most beautiful interface ever created they allow robust sharing between Mac and PC users from almost anywhere)


3 thoughts on “Use Simple Tools, Keep On Track

  1. Marty

    I always tell my students to keep it simple when creating organizational systems for themselves. Ex: create a larger monthly calender, but also create a new to-do list everyday — try using something small, like an index card. Only the items that make it on the card (no itty-bitty writing) are the priority for the day. It helps to prevent unrealistic expectations that result in disappointment and frustration. Nothing like checking off every item on your to-do list to give you even more motivation!

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