Professional Design Practice :: Lesson 3 :: Project Planning

By running your business along well-oiled, well-organised lines you’ll be able to wring the most amount of time out of your days, maximise your profits, avoid mislaying things and generally inject some calm into your busy life. A modicum of planning, far from acting as a restraint on creativity, can in fact free us to spend more time on the creative process. It should therefore be an integral part of all our working lives. Follow the guides below, or a life of professional chaos awaits!

Project Planning

First Things First

To begin with, you’ll need a system for booking jobs in, and allocating project codes/numbers to them as they arrive. This could be termed “Processing”. Designing a system for these codes/numbers can be entirely your own decision, the only rule being that once you’ve devised it you should keep things consistent across all projects. You might take the first three letters of your client’s name, add a numeral(s) indicating which project for this client this job is and happens the year and month the job is booked in.

When devising your project plan, break your jobs down into clearly delineated milestones for best organisation. Image courtesy of JohnnyEnglish

Create a folder with subfolders on your hard drive. The name of the first-level folder should correspond with your client’s name. Do the same within your email account. As correspondence and attachments starts to flow back and forth between you both you’ll be able to archive and store information, messages and files in an organised manner.

Job bags are useful for storing things in which relate to projects. Plastic A3 folders make good job bags. At the start of each job you might not have a lot of physical ‘gumph’ to fill them with, but once your project is underway, and depending on how you work, you may find yourself accumulating a daunting amount of scraps of paper, printed emails and sketches from meetings and the like which it’d be useful to store all in one place. Attach a label with the client name and project number/code on it and affix to a consistent place on the job bag.

Planning Jobs & Projects

Planning is a set of systems and methods. Good planning is purposeful and clear-sighted, effective and efficient; it helps to avoid mistakes.

Download a free PDF template that you can print out or save and fill in for each of your projects, download HERE

Important Planning Questions

  • What am I trying to do? (Aim)
  • What is important? (Criteria)
  • How do I best go about achieving the aim within the given conditions? (Working method)
  • When do I start? (Deadlines and time)

Without having an aim, it’s difficult to score. Image courtesy of Skyline Studio


As it states in ‘The Little Know-It-All’ “Aims are a decision-makers’s guidelines and signposts.” Without setting your aims, how can you expect to attain them? There’s a good mnemonic which psychotherapists and life coaches use when explaining aims to their clients; SMART. Aims should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based. Put them down in writing, lest you forget things. As repeated elsewhere, once written down, aims and goals take on a concrete life and become commitments. Review them periodically and amend wherever appropriate.

Every project you embark on will need some kind of plan, which should be broken down into a list of jobs based on priority. The most important jobs should be tackled first, and anything that can be done in under three minutes should be attended to immediately.

A good project plan should remain intuitive and realistic and help you find your way around the job. Wayfinding signage from Berardo, Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon courtesy of Prentiss Riddle

Top Tips for Effective Job Planning

  • Self-discipline will be required
  • Little jobs needing less than three minutes should be done at once
  • Larger jobs should be broken down into several steps
  • Check the job list once a week
  • Set up a calendar
  • Keep a deadline reminder within your calendar

Note: A reminder system is a good thing to build in to your project plan. At risk of over-stating the point, without writing things down small jobs can fester in the mind, build up so they seem insurmountable and stress you out. Even if you haven’t forgotten anything, you may convince yourself that you have simply by not recording things on paper.

From the book ‘The Little Know-It-All’: “Self-discipline means being able to overcome our innate laziness and inertia, and to carry out even unpleasant tasks in order to achieve more in the end.” Employ SMT (single-minded thought) as often as possible. There exists a theory called ‘The 80:20 Principle’ which states that for many people we waste around 80 per cent of our time on unproductive activities, and that 20 per cent of our most productive time leads to 80 per cent of our success.

“Time is money.” Image courtesy of Patrick T. Power

Time Management

We’ve all heard the oft-quoted phrase “Time is money”. It’s a phrase that holds water as the more time we squander on useless activities the longer the time period the money we’re earning is made in. Set overall and milestone deadlines for each job within your project on paper, and stick to these deadlines to maximise your productivity and profits.

It may help to keep this overall concept of your projects in mind: A project is an undertaking with a delineated beginning and end, in terms of deliveries and timescales involved. They’ll vary in complexity, but all projects will involve stages and sub-projects within the larger whole, and each will need its own thought-through and planned timeline and defined aim. Assembled together, these sub-projects should come together to help realise the larger, project aim.

Have your expected project start and end dates in place during the initial phase of project planning. Image courtesy of Anna Leahart

The Four Prime Components of Planning

  • Evaluation: What are the challenges here and what needs to be done?
  • Planning: How do I deal with the challenges?
  • Execution: What will my solution look like?
  • Observation: How do I check the outcome?

Without adequate planning, projects can quickly fail in a number of ways. Deadlines may be exceeded, milestones missed, jobs forgotten about and things mislaid. You can find yourself on the backfoot, having to play at catch-up because of your own inadequate planning.

With the best will and design skills in the world, without adequate planning, you run the risk of your project turning into a mess. Image courtesy of Frontline Blogger

Projects usually succeed if…

  • Everybody involved in the project has the same clearly defined aims and outcomes in mind
  • The project is adequately planned, above all to prevent false starts and having to repeat individual steps
  • The work is carefully timetabled and monitored to ensure the project can be concluded
  • There are open channels of communication at all levels and at all business locations
  • You have in place emergency plans you can fall back on if events do not run as planned

Further Rules of the Planning Process

  • Plan ahead
  • Consider contingencies and emergency options
  • Break projects down into manageable milestoness
  • Make a list of resources needed
  • Draw up a project budget


  • Review project aims
  • Stay motivated and enthusiastic
  • Complete the project

By constantly monitoring project progress you’ll be able to stay on top of events. Image courtesy of Lars Schleicher


  • Constantly monitor your daily activities and workflow
  • Keep an eye on timeframes and progress
  • Do the same for events
  • ot down any outcomes, both foreseen and unforeseen


  • Solve problems as they occur
  • Keep plans supple and amend if necessary
  • Take emergency steps if need be
  • Conclude project on time

The project plan

The project plan is a detailed description of what is required of each project, and is made up of some or all of the following parts:

1. Project Definition

  • A description of the tasks to be carried out
  • Project resources needed
  • Stated project aims
  • Project outcome
  • Projected project outcomes

2. Project Variables

  • Jobs to be executed
  • Project start date
  • Predicted project duration
  • Predicted end date

Another way to view the project plan is as an intricately-composed system of variable key segments. Image courtesy of Adele Turner

3. List of Milestones and Jobs to be Done

  • Responsibilities (if working in a team)
  • Jobs
  • Predicted outcomes
  • Planned start date
  • Planned end date
  • Actual start date
  • Actual end date

4. Project Budgets

  • Actual project budget
  • Projected budget (if different)
  • Any other expenses
  • Unforeseen costs

Sometimes things just happen that are beyond our control, so always have a contingency plan in place. Image courtesy of Laura Thorne

5. Supplementary plans

  • “B” plan
  • Emergency plans

6. Project approval

Case Study: CFTC Experts brochure

Client: Commonwealth Secretariat

Designer: Poonum Chauhan

Design Agency: The Fink Agency LLP

I recently caught up with Poonum Chauhan, a senior designer at The Fink Agency in London, to ask her about any projects she’d been involved in where good project planning had been essential. Her words on a particularly devilish project, in terms of logistics and planning, are given below.

The CFTC Experts brochure is composed of information supplied by countries stretching from East Africa to the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean.

This project was quite a large one with a lot of different elements involved, and which all had to be pieced together to produce a highly professional document.

With countries involved from the entire Commonwealth, and individual experts from these countries each writing profiles, the planning, collation and timing of this project needed to be highly organised and efficient, which, as we discovered, didn’t always turn out to be the case! Time zones, work trips, meetings abroad and the general hierarchy of the organisation proved to be challenge, along with budgets too!

Also, the print was given away, so liaising with the Commonwealth’s printers to ensure the job came out how we wanted it was imperative. A 152pp, 210x210mm brochure, with a throw-out cover, and a 6 colour job were all things to take into consideration when we started this. Also, having to think about courier costs around the world, we had to drop our original case-bound idea as production and postage costs would’ve been just too high!"


In ‘The Professional Practice of Design’, Dorothy Goslett writes “Many designers, though admitting its necessity, think that design administration is boring, a tiresome chore always to be put aside for doing second if something more exciting crops up to be done first. But good design + good administration = good fees well earned.” If you don’t pay enough attention to it already, get involved in project planning and administration. The routines will soon become habitual and the benefits will reveal themselves to be substantial. For what designer, or client for that matter, doesn’t want his project finished on time and within budget?

Did you meet your planned end date? Were you on time and on budget? You must’ve been if you’ve followed this guide! Image courtesy of Teena Vallerine


A chapter on project planning in the excellent ‘The Little Know-It-All, Common Sense for Designers’ book, which I recommend to you all.

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