Requests, drafts, revisions, status updates, deadlines, and never-ending feedback loops. Is your head spinning? Let’s face it — keeping all of your design projects organized presents a challenge.

You know your current system isn’t working. You have files scattered throughout Google Drive and Dropbox. Important communication keeps getting buried in emails and instant messages. Your approval process is a major bottleneck.

Here’s the good news: A design project management tool can help keep you, your team, your clients, and — perhaps most importantly — your projects on track.

There’s no shortage of options out there. In fact, if you search for “project management software” on popular site Software Advice, you’ll immediately be presented with over 320 choices.

So, how can you separate the wheat from the chaff and find one that best meets your unique needs? Here’s the criteria you should be using to identify the design project management tool that’s right for you.

1. The Most Bang for Your Buck

The cost of project management tools and systems can run the gamut from free to enterprise-level software. Price is determined by a number of different factors, including (but certainly not limited to):

  • How many users can access the design project management tool
  • Number of projects or workspaces
  • Number of features and integrations
  • Storage capabilities
  • Level of customer support and assistance

Ultimately, there’s no use evaluating choices that aren’t in your budget. So, before combing through all of your options, get a handle on what you can actually afford to spend.

We know what you’re thinking now: I’ve seen that there are plenty of free choices on the market. Why wouldn’t I just eliminate the risk and opt for one of those?

We get it. Free options are tempting. However, it’s important to note that most free tools provide a limited solution. You’ll have restrictions on things like users, projects, and data — not to mention you might not get the features, capabilities, or integrations you really need to whip your design projects into shape.

Plus, if you plan to expand your team, services, or client base, it’s likely that you’ll outgrow those solutions quickly, and will have to start the process of finding another system all over again.

Save yourself some hassle and really take the time to evaluate your budget and what you can afford to invest in a solution. As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for — which explains why enterprise software is the fastest-growing sector of IT spending for companies.

Not only will this step help you weed out options that are too costly, but it will also prevent you from getting wrapped up in the cheapest option. Instead, focus on finding the tools that are in your budget and actually satisfy your requirements.

2. The Features That Meet Your Needs

Your goal is to make sure your design projects are more organized and streamlined. But, the specific features you need to accomplish that goal can vary based on your circumstances, projects, team, and workflow.

Before evaluating your project management software options, make a list of the must-have features your tool will need. Involve your team and any other stakeholders in this process as well, so you can get different perspectives and cover your bases.

Again, what you require is highly personal. But here are some features that design teams typically require from their project management tool:

  • File Storage and Organization: You have a lot of files, so you need the ability to easily upload those design files for edits, feedback, and approval. You also need the space to store and organize them appropriately, so that designs aren’t getting lost in emails or in Google Drive.
  • Work Intake Forms: Particularly if you’re getting design requests from numerous teams or clients, your system should streamline the work intake process, so you have all of the information you need up front to schedule those projects efficiently.
  • Streamlined Communication: Project-related conversations shouldn’t be siloed in emails or instant messages. You need streamlined communication for feedback, questions, comments, and revisions, so that you can improve collaboration on your design team.
  • Customizable Workflows: Starting from a templated project or workflow can save you time. But since no design project is exactly the same, you’ll also require flexibility to customize the process appropriately.
  • Multiple Project Views: Some design projects move quickly, while others span months. The ability to customize your project view with a project timeline can help you keep track of deadlines, identify task dependencies, invoice for services rendered, and manage your resources more effectively.

This probably brought to mind even more features you’d like your project management tool to have. Jot those down now so you can refer to them as you’re exploring your choices.

3. The Ability to Work With the Tools Your Team Already Uses

We live in a digital world, which means there are some tools and apps your team is already using — ones you’re not going to want to abandon even when you have a new design project management tool in your arsenal.

When looking at your different options, make sure to keep those tools in mind so that you can find software that integrates well.

For example, maybe you want to centralize the communication that happens in Gmail and Slack within your project management system. Perhaps you’d like a platform that integrates directly with your accounting software so you can seamlessly invoice your clients. Or maybe it should integrate with Adobe Creative Cloud to make status updates and approval requests a breeze.

Remember, your goal in finding a project management platform is to streamline the way you work and make your projects easier. Confirming that your software will play nicely with your existing tools can save you a lot of unnecessary hassle.

4. The Flexibility to Meet Individual’s Needs

Your project management tool won’t do any good if people don’t actually use it. And attempts to force people to use a system that isn’t compatible with their needs and working style will backfire.

Of course, the software should systemize your projects and workflows, but that doesn’t mean it should have zero flexibility.

A good project management tool for designers should be customizable from both a team perspective (with workflows tailored to your design team and overarching dashboards, for example), as well as from an individual worker standpoint (where they can see only what’s on their plate at that time).

Finding a project management tool that helps your agency or internal team collaborate but also offers the pliability for individual people — whether it’s your team members or your clients — to work in a way that suits them best significantly increases your chances that they’ll adapt and actually put the platform to work.

5. The Option to Use the Tool on Mobile

It’s no secret that remote work is increasing in popularity, and it’s a trend that’s going to continue for quite some time.

Today, a reported 70% of people globally work remotely at least once per week. And the design field in particular is seeing an increase in remote work as well. In Buffer’s 2018 State of Remote Work survey, 10% of the 1,900 respondents work in design.

This means that your project management platform should be accessible from anywhere and easy to use on a wide variety of devices, not just on a desktop.

One thing you should absolutely look for? A native mobile app. We’re getting more and more work done on our smartphones today. In fact, Gallup’s research found that 80% of full-time workers in the United States regularly use a smartphone. That’s not far behind the 87% who use a laptop or desktop computer.

While your team might not do the bulk of their design work on their mobile device, they should be able to check in on project progress and communicate updates from the Starbucks drive-through just as easily as they would in the office.

Put simply, the easier your tool is to access (from anywhere!), the more likely people are to use it the way you want them to.

Design Project Management Tools: Find the One That’s Best for You

Wading through your options to find the best project management tool for designers can feel like a challenge. But, the above criteria can help you whittle down your choices. To recap, make sure that you look for a tool that:

  • Suits your budget
  • Has the necessary features
  • Integrates with your existing tools
  • Adapts to individual team member preferences
  • Offers a mobile app

By moving through that criteria, you’ll eliminate a few contenders that don’t suit your requirements in each category. By the end, you’ll be left with one (or a few!) options.

But, what do you do if you still have a few choices on your list? Consult with your team and sign up for some trials to give your software options a test run, and find the one that really meshes well with your team and processes. In a follow-up post, we outline 3 different ways to set up your creative agency file structure. Also, be sure to check out The Creative Project Timeline Template You Need to Kick Off the New Year.

Need more help finding the project management software that’s right for your design team? Check out our free buyer’s guide to learn even more!

Header photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash