As a designer you are both a creative artist and a project manager. Frequently we will be sharing the project management role with the production manager and/or department supervisors such as the construction manager, costume supervisor or technical supervisors. It is essential that we work closely together and understand each others’ roles, responsibilities, lines of reporting and priorities. Discuss and clarify any project management responsibilities that are not clear to you. Constant communication is key to the success of any project. Do this before you begin and whenever a situation arises where you are not sure how it is being managed.
If you haven’t already done this, break your ‘standard’ design process down into a checklist of steps. You can use these GYST lists as a guide. Once you have your basic workflow organised you can easily adapt it to the specifics of each new project. Ask questions about each step to identify potential challenges; if the ‘script’ is in development, when will this be stable? Is the director available during the scheduled design period? When will casting be complete? Is the venue an established one, or are there variations to layout, seating, egress or equal access that need to be managed? Is all of the equipment listed in the tech specs reliable?
Develop smarter project management methodologies. These are from APDG members’ own experiences:
- Never work from scratch.
- When you use a piece of paper, or a computer screen think of each page as a preset format that suit the way you like to work, eg your page can already have a title block, or can be set up as a template for processes you do often, such as props and costume lists, budgets, weekly and monthly schedules and pitch documents. Upload the templates into project management apps (see below for a list of apps) that allow you to send invoices, receipts and meeting notes from your phone, with photographs of receipts attached. Alternatively, upload documents to a drive or dropbox for easy access on your next job.
- Build on your draft digital costumes and props lists – set up your list properly at the beginning of the project and just keep adding and amending as the project develops without ever having to rewrite.
- Set up a logical digital filing system for all of your project documents on all of your devices. Use the same filing logic for every project – a master ‘project’ folder broken up into logical subfolders. These might be ‘departmental’ subfolders (such as for set, props, costume, ‘docs etc) or process stages (research, draft, construction, documentation …). At a later stage each subfolder can be further broken down into specific ‘element’ folders such as references for each character, or venue documents. Filing this way makes it easy to find documents, and also to copy and share them with your team.
- Have a basic “admin” folder so you can copy and paste a format for every new project. You will save yourself a lot of set-up time’
- Set up a file-naming convention that works for you and use it across all files.
- Version-manage with clear file names that include the version number and date. Don’t use ‘design-final.pdf’, it’s rarely the final and you’ll end up with ‘design-final-2-updated-finalfinal.pdf’
- Stay on top of which is the most current file version and what has been issued to teams. One way to do this is to have an ‘Issued’ folder where each file is dated and any outdated versions are systematically moved to a ‘superseded’ folder. You can share a link to the whole folder and know that your team is always on the same version as you.
- Allocate an hour each week to update and backup your files. Set up an archive system for old files and projects.
- Make sure you archive production photos from all of your devices to a single backed-up location.
- Organise your workspace.
- Having the things you use all the time at hand will save time and energy. Always in the right place.
- Keep a shopping list taped to the toolbox or in a list app – for tools and materials that you need to replenish.
- Keep an itemised kit list with how much each item cost to keep track of what you use each job.
- Be ready to travel.
Meetings can be anywhere. Set up a travelling toolkit that is always ready at hand: usb stick, tape measure, scale ruler, drawing pad, laser measure …
- Make working drawings really work.
With the addition of a few explanatory notes or dimensions a preliminary drawing can become a reference for your team and get them underway with costing and planning. Draft designs at A4 size are very easy to copy, annotate and share.
- Design documentation ‘shorthand’ can save time.
We are professionally and contractually obliged to provide clear, accurate and timely design documentation, but we may not be being paid to produce a ‘full’ documentation package. A quick digital 3D model may mean a time-intensive physical scale model is not required; collated references can stand in for costume drawings when things are moving fast; adding web links to a props list can substitute for fuller props documentation; or a hand-drawn sketched isometric with some dimensions and notes added may replace a full CAD documentation package.
- Agree outcomes from the beginning.
Negotiate your design deliverables at the outset with the producer or production manager so that all parties are comfortable.
- Know the software.
Be familiar with planning proformas such as Gantt Charts and spreadsheet software so you can use them efficiently to perform more complex management tasks such as scheduling and budgeting.
Try these Project Management Apps
Recommended by APDG members.
- Project Management
- Note-Taking, Idea-Keeping
- Meeting/Schedule Coordination
- Online Meeting Tools
Many ‘problems’ are obvious from the outset. Don’t dodge them – talk to your producer/production manager and director as early as possible so your concerns are understood and contingency plans can be set in place. Keep in mind that your fee only covers a certain amount of hours so anything out of your control that pushes those hours up is a potential threat to your livelihood.
Some factors that are likely to take more time include:
- Underdeveloped scripts, or scripts that are still in the process of being developed make it difficult to plan and meet deadlines. Work with the director and production manager to develop a tailored design schedule and strategy. This may mean you can commit to some aspects of the design (for the parts of the script that are more established) and keep developing the design for aspects that are less certain.
- Casting late, or challenging performer requirements (body size and shape, allergies, availability for fittings…).
- Commitment clashes – where your deadlines on one production clash with another. Work out a schedule that shows how you are going to manage the clash, and share this early with your team.
- Script demands that are not achievable within the budget. You can help your director come to terms with what is possible, and you can make cost-effective script or design suggestions.
- An indecisive or dictatorial director, or a director who has an extensive process of exploration. Use the early steps of your design process to establish what your director’s decision-making processes are, and how you can provide information to them in a way that helps them make decisions in a time-effective way. Keep your production manager abreast of your design development so they are aware of any issues early.
Manage your time
- Work out how many weeks of work your fee/salary corresponds to and work to this structure.
- Plan ahead for what you are going to be doing at every phase of the project. Be clear about what you need to deliver to the client/director/theatre company and when it is due.
- Allocate enough time for each meeting – a three-hour design meeting needs to be scheduled ahead.
- Set clear goals – short-term goals for every day and every week, and longer-term goals based on design deadlines.
- Prioritise. Work out the hourly rate you’re willing to work on a project for and allocate those hours to tasks that best serve the project. You can ask the company/director what they’d like you to prioritise if you can’t do ‘the whole thing’ for the allocated fee.
- Schedule contingency time so that you aim to have work completed ahead of the deadline. Anticipate problems well before they happen……
- Consider organising your week in a regular pattern around commitments such as production meetings, with certain days allocated (generally) to specific tasks or projects. This will help you later when you can say ‘I am available for fittings on Tuesdays and Thursdays’, or ‘Monday is my studio day’, or ‘Saturday is not a work day.’
- Make a weekly time slot for ‘Administration’ and use it to record all petty cash, write and send invoices and other admin duties.
- Track the time it takes you to do every task, and adjust your goals and schedule for future projects around how long things really take to do.
- Find out your director’s availability and schedule design time with your director ahead of time and week by week, and make sure they are aware of your deadlines.
- Organise the time, place and expectations of the next meeting at the end of the current meeting.
Tips and Tricks
- ‘Keep track and learn. I used time tracking apps on my phone such as Toggl. These help me stay aware of how much time I’m spending on projects and can adapt behaviours for next time. Here’s some others you can try’
- ‘Create a calendar (eg Google Calendar) at the beginning of the project; start by putting in key dates and identify early other commitments that might clash’
- Make a literal road map. Plan the day the day before so you tick off tasks that are ‘en route’ or close together’
- ‘Time is money. Have a plan’
- ‘Consistency makes life easier. I try to have regular scheduled meetings with a director, Monday mornings on Skype work for me. Put the meetings in your calendar’
- Meetups. Set up your roadmap for when and how long you need to meet/talk with people.
- Sharing is caring. Create a ‘To do’ tracking document with expected time frames and share with the production team so everyone can see how the project is tracking.
- If you have a phone meeting, follow up with an email confirming everything that was discussed.
- Organise your collaborators to work with you. Work with your director to schedule your time to both be working efficiently.
- Use a note-taking app (eg. Evernote, Google Docs/keep, Asana, Notion…) so you can easily and quickly share meeting and production notes.
- Use the skills other people have. Do you need to do that job, or can/should someone else do it?
- Me time. Keep the focus. When you need to concentrate, let others know. Be aware when others are demanding of your time and will distract you from the task at hand. You could set an auto-reply (out of office) on your email to let people know there may be a delay in replying.
- Use a crystal ball. Many ‘problems’ are obvious from the outset. Don’t dodge them – talk to your producer/production manager and director as early as possible so your concerns are understood and contingency plans can be set in place.