Suspect packages

Designers are happy to use the latest graphics kit, but when it comes to management software few are as keen. Design Week canvasses the views of creatives and suits and discovers it’s not about what you use – it’s how you use it

You can almost hear the groans when you mention studio management software to top creatives. These are the systems that sit on the desktop and integrate job-costing, project management and accounting functions. There’s plenty of evidence that they can cut costs and up profitability, and, if advocates are to be believed, they’re invaluable for creative companies who make their money by charging for people’s time.

One is Debbie Longbottom, finance director of Elmwood Design, who is clear-eyed on the benefits. ‘Consultancies are paid on time,’ she says, ‘so we need to know how time is spent.’

Longbottom, a former Coopers & Lybrand staffer, refers to the complexities of scale in larger consultancies, with multiple jobs and dozens of staff. She says that in this kind of environment it’s just not possible to keep track of projects and costs with informal catch-ups over the water cooler. Instead, Elmwood uses Paprika (formerly known as Rebus), which its makers say is on the desktops of 40 of the Design Week Top 100 consultancies.

Longbottom refers to how Paprika provides detailed job costing and accounting functions, as well as giving all project managers the same access to information irrespective of their location. She also cites the benefit of its electronic time sheets, which expedite invoicing and cost control, although she also stresses the importance of finding a technology partner you can rely on. ‘You have to be able to trust your supplier,’ she says.

If you can’t face dealing with one of these, the alternative is to commission your own software. That’s the approach taken by Design Bridge. ‘It was a comparable cost to buying a completely new one from someone else,’ says client services director Birgitte Woehlk, ‘only completely tailored to our needs. We didn’t have to adapt it as we would have done if we’d bought an off-the-shelf system.’

‘Every creative company has its own way of working,’ she adds. ‘Our system has helped us to work more efficiently, and to offer a better service to our clients.’

Another advocate is Blue Marlin head of client services Roger Hart, who refers to studio management software facilitating ‘quicker, more informed decision-taking’. But he also says they are very much a ‘support function’, and that consultancies can’t let the software tail wag the design dog. ‘Systems shouldn’t hinder creativity,’ says Hart.

Given its size and global operation, you’d expect Interbrand to want the integrated reporting and management controls that studio management systems can bring. However, the multi-site consultancy uses what finance director Tim Hayter calls a ‘mongrel mix’ of applications. ‘It is important to have a system,’ he acknowledges, ‘but it doesn’t matter what the system is, provided everyone understands it. Resources and planning are a mindset, not a software system.’

It’s a sentiment echoed by many smaller design studios. ‘We’re not against software, and we’re certainly not against making money,’ says Nick Jones, creative director at Browns Design, whose 11 staffers still enjoy a water-cooler culture. ‘That kind of software is for a different model – consultancies with shareholders who want to see measurable growth. We don’t work that way. We know how long a certain type of job will take, how much it will cost, and how much a client has to spend.’

Jones also questions the reliability of time sheets. Most studio management systems, such as Paprika, Synergist and Streamtime, make much of their ability to collect time data electronically, and then use it to build budgets and accounts. But Jones believes that only a minority of designers religiously log what they do. ‘And, anyway, how long does it take to think of an idea? Two minutes? Two weeks? Or is it the past ten or 20 years of your professional working life?’

Many single-office, smaller-scale consultancies share his doubts, albeit for different reasons. Figtree partner John Holton says that off-the-shelf integrated systems can be unwieldy. ‘They almost make you learn stuff you don’t need,’ he says, adding that it’s the Web-based systems, like Base Camp, that he’s found most flexible.

Despite such reservations, some smaller consultancies are taking the software plunge. One is Airside, a studio with a payroll of 12. Studio founder and managing director Nat Hunter describes the effort of implementing a management system as ‘considerable’. ‘It’s not just the financial investment,’ she says, ‘but a change in the way we work.’

Hunter explains that it was a lack of transparency in its existing systems and the need to curb the over-servicing of clients that prompted Airside to buy the studio management software called Traffic. ‘And it’s a good leads-management tool,’ she says. ‘If I meet people, I can log who they are and where I met them, and then follow them up a week or a month later.’

Applied Information Group’s managing director Kasper de Graaf echoes Hunter’s concern about the management effort and number of people needed to implement a system. De Graaf estimates that a whopping 20 per cent of AIG staff were wholly or partly involved in running its new studio management system. ‘But 100 per cent of staff have to be fully engaged with it,’ he adds.

Despite this, De Graaf still values the business benefits the software can bring. ‘These systems are critical if design consultancies want to be properly organised and avoid working hand-to-mouth,’ he says. ‘However, buying software doesn’t automatically mean you’ll know how to use it,’ he smiles.

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  • Aaron Green November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Great article. People should not be put off however by lengthy training / staff adoption times and complex setups. At Streamtime we have a worldwide average setup time of 24hrs and a worldwide average training time of 4hrs (total) for a 15 user site. Our philosophy is that using systems like this should be fun and easy for everyone. We own an advertising agency and with their help have built an interface that “people use” – drawing on the idea that “less is more” when it comes to good design. We would love to see our product reviewed and ranked against all the others listed here specifically in the areas of usability, features and cost, we are constantly told by our client base we win hands down in all these areas! We’ll see you all at the Design Week London Design Awards, we are the proud Headline Sponsor of the 2009 event.

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