In the past, when you asked designers about business systems software, you would get a good measure of moaning. Business systems can be cumbersome, user-unfriendly and often end up not even being used.
‘My whole business is built around horror stories,’ says Harold Hambrose, founder of US design consultancy Electronic Ink, which focuses on improving the way people interact with technology. ‘We get so many calls from people complaining that “nobody’s using the darned thing”.’ A graphic designer himself, Hambrose believes creative consultancies tend to ignore the fact that ‘they’re businesses that are driven by profit, and you’ve got to have the tools to support that’.
Some of the traditionally negative feelings about business software are inherent, believes James Flook, who designs customised systems for consultancies including Bloom Design and Design Bridge. ‘In design, [by using automated business systems] you’re trying to attach science to creativity, and a lot of creatives hate that,’ says Flook. ‘They don’t want to put a price on what they do, but if they want to get paid, that has to happen.’
But these days, consultancies increasingly recognise what systems can offer. Silk Pearce recognised the importance of business software a long time ago, opting early on for a state-of-the-art system. Unfortunately, it proved inappropriate for design service. ‘It was customised for us, but it was too complex. So we used to refer to it, but transferred data back on to paper, because it was so user-unfriendly,’ says Jack Pearce, creative director at Silk Pearce.
But he persevered, and has been using Co-efficient for the past five years. ‘It claims to be designer-friendly, and it does take into account the peculiarities of design, how you charge and how the goalposts change as you go along,’ he says. The number of variables in design work means a system is vital, says Pearce, because ‘one of the main issues is that we’re not selling nuts and bolts’.
The consultancy employs 12 people performing different job functions at different times, charging different rates. It is also constantly varying bought-in costs, such as photography, illustrators and print services. ‘We couldn’t make do without a business system,’ says Pearce. ‘Even with our earlier imperfect one, it allowed us to keep track of things.’
‘Whether you do it manually or in an automated system, maintaining an accurate record of costs is critical for companies that sell their time,’ agrees Tony Marwick, managing director of Oakwood Media Group, which uses the integrated timesheet/job-costing software Synergist. ‘You have to account for the costs that go on to a job – otherwise, how do you measure job profitability?’
Procurement rules everything and design consultancies are realising they can’t just ‘do great design’, says Flook. Many clients want to break down costs of projects before they go further, so you have to have a tight budget to show them and be able to track that budget.
In the current economic climate, having a system that monitors profitability can prove particularly important. Over the past year, making money in design has become more difficult, but its system has allowed Silk Pearce, for example, to keep tight control and be efficient and profitable at a time when turnover is down.
‘The drive for efficiency is relentless,’ says Jill Marshall, managing director at Bloom Design. ‘The sensible people are running their businesses as tightly as possible, and having a project management system that works is a big part of that. Not to have one is crazy in any environment, but particularly in this one.’
For all the sense they make, choosing the right system is still a tricky endeavour, especially when it comes to weighing up ‘off-the-shelf versus custom-made’. For some, Flook’s tailor-made approach is ideal, whereas others prefer a tried-and-tested existing product, adapted and updated to their needs.
A basic accounting system, such as Sage, MYOB or Quickbooks, with no job-costing function or control of timesheets, tends to be used during the first years of a business’ start up, according to Paul Karim at accountant Kingston Smith W1. Beyond that, many consultancies tend to introduce a more comprehensive business system such as Paprika (previously known as Rebus), Maconomy or Access.
However, some niggles are bound to remain. Usual gripes include problems with the general look and feel, flexibility and usability of software. As with any new product purchase, trying before using is key, says Hambrose, also author of Wrench in the System (published by John Wiley) about creating and using business software. ‘For some vendors we are an incredible nuisance, because we get them to install the systems on some of our machines before we buy,’ he says.
But even the best in class have usability problems, and Hambrose believes that it’s time for designers to iron those out. ‘We make computers do these miraculous things, and designers can help make them pleasurable,’ says Hambrose. ‘Let designers do what they’re good at and figure out the best shape of these tools.’