Critical Resources to Help Designers Get Organized

One of the most important aspects of running a freelance business is getting and staying organized. Most freelancers wear so many different hats and have such a wide variety of responsibilities that organization will be one of the critical factors in determining what percentage of working time can be dedicated to income-generating activities.

Organization is key to achieving optimal productivity and efficiency, which of course are important for any freelancer who wants to earn a living without working ridiculous hours. In the life and work of a freelance designer there are many different aspects that must be well organized. In this article we’ll take a look at a number of different ways that freelancers need to be organized, and I’ll point out some helpful resources along the way.

Inspiration Organization:

Designers rely on inspiration to help them achieve the best possible results with their work. This includes online inspiration from other websites through web design galleries or design blogs, and it includes a wide variety of offline sources, such as nature, magazines, newspapers, brochures, photographs, and the list could go on. With the amount of inspiration that is available, particularly online inspiration it can be easy to experience “inspiration overload.”

Avoiding inspiration overload requires some organization, plus the willingness to limit your sources of inspiration to those that are really helpful and productive for you. For offline inspiration, I wrote a post at Vandelay Design about using a notebook to compile and organize your sources of inspiration. I have found this to be very helpful for keeping track of things that I like and having them readily available when they’re needed.

Evernote is a great resource that will allow you to organize your inspiration by grabbing screenshots by using tags and/or notebooks.


Communication Organization:

Although freelance designers typically work independently most of the time, the communication that exists with clients is extremely important. Additionally, if you are collaborating with other designers, developers, or teams, communication quickly becomes an even bigger issue. Because most of the communication will be from a distance it can be a challenge to communicate effectively and to stay organized.

Skype is of course a very popular communication resource for designers and others who work from home.


Vyew is a resource for communicating and collaborating with clients and team members. It allows you to give presentations, host webinars, and conduct meetings. You can also upload content to collaborate with your customers or your team. It includes teleconferencing, voice over IP, and webcam video conferencing. A free version is available that does contain some advertising. Other plans are available for $6.95 or $13.95 per month.


Email Organization:

Most freelance designers send and receive a considerable amount of email each day. While it is a necessary part of the job and a very helpful communication tool, if it is not managed properly email can become a huge time waster. In my own work I have found it to be helpful to use various folders to organize my email rather than having everything piling up. Plus, most email programs like Outlook include the ability to flag messages and mark certain ones as urgent or for follow up. Whatever email program you are using, get to know it well and set up a system to keep you inbox as clean as possible and to avoid being late with responses.

Mozilla’s Thunderbird is another excellent option for managing email. One of the great things about Thunderbird is the number of quality add-ons that are available, including some that may be able to have a big impact on your organization. See last week’s post 15 ThunderBird Addons for Better Organization and Efficiency.

Darren Rowse of ProBlogger has a very helpful post, From 10,000 to 0 Emails in 24 Hours that is worth a read if you are struggling with managing and organizing your inbox.

File Organization:

Freelance designers deal with a lot of files on their computers, so keeping everything organized and secure is very important. Time can easily be wasted searching through various folders looking for the right file, and even more troubling is the potential for data loss. Having an organized system for keeping your system backed up may not seem like a critical thing to do until it is too late.

Dropbox includes features for syncing files between computers (such as your desktop and a laptop or an iPhone), sharing files with others, online backups, and more. There is a free plan that offers 2 GB of storage, or you can pay $9.99 per month for 50 GB or $19.99 for 100 GB.


Mozy is a low-cost and convenient solution for backing up your hard drive. Automated backups will help you to have a disaster recovery plan in case your hard drive dies. Mozy also has a free account with 2 GB of storage, or Pro plan pricing starts at $3.95 per month plus $0.50 per GB.


Time Organization:

Managing time effectively is a challenge for must of us, but taking control of your time is essential in order to be successful as a freelancer. There are so many different things to do and distractions that occur. Setting priorities and following through by completing the necessary tasks are important daily activities for freelancers. I recently published the post 13 Principles of Effective Time Management for Freelancers, so I won’t get into too many details here, but I would like to point out some helpful resources.

Remember the Milk
Remember the Milk is an online to-do list manager that will help you to keep track of what you need to do each day and what you have already accomplished. You can set your task lists, get reminders by email, share your task lists with others, and even integrate maps with your tasks. There is no cost to use Remember the Milk, and it is easy to integrate with an iPhone, Android, Gmail, Blackberry, Twitter, and more.

Remember the Milk

Tracking Time
Tracking Time is a great resource for getting the most out of your time. It allows you to easily track your time, run reports, set estimates for your projects and compare them with how much time you actually spend, and more. There are some additional features for timesheets and payroll that will probably not be needed by freelancers. Time Tracking is currently in Beta and offering free access.

Tracking Time

Project/Client Organization:

Most freelancers are working with several different clients at any given time. With multiple projects at various stages and other potential clients in need of quotes, there is a lot to keep track of. Staying organized with your clients and projects will prevent you from wasting time searching through emails to find a clients response, or even worse, from forgetting something and doing work for a client that winds up needing to be re-done.

Bidsketch will help you to stay organized with proposals and quotes that are sent to your customers. Here you will be able to manage your prospective clients, manage your proposals, present better proposals to clients, track results to see what is working and what is not, and customize things to meet your needs. A limited free plan is available, or you can get unlimited access to as many proposals and clients as you need for $19 per month.


Jumpchart is a resource for planning websites with clients or teammates. If you are collaborating with other designers or developers Jumpchart will help to improve communication and eliminate the need for lots of emails going back and forth. It improves the way you will be able to get feedback on your work and will help to keep it all organized and accessible. A free account is available that will allow you to work on one project with other limitations, and paid plans range from $5 to $50 per month.


ProofHQ is another option for getting feedback and organizing your communication with clients. You create a proof, choose who you want to share it with, and they comment and mark-up the proof. ProofHQ will allow for better organization between teams or with clients, and it will help you to get approval on your proofs quickly and in an organized fashion. There is a free 14 day trial period available and plans range from $17 to $499 per month (freelancers would be at the lower end of that range).


Huddle is a collaboration tool that will allow you to work with your clients more effectively. It helps you to share files, get approval from clients, and keep track of your projects’ progress. A limited free plan is available with paid plans ranging from $20 to $98 per month.


Financial Organization:

Keeping track of finances and managing money is not a favorite part of the job for most freelance designers. As a result, this is an area of the business that often gets neglected and does not receive the attention that it deserves. Managing and organizing your money is obviously an important part of the business in order to stay in operation. Here we will look at a few resources that can help you to get your finances organized.

Less Accounting
Less Accounting is simplified accounting software. It has all the features you’ll need without the ones that you don’t. You can send invoices and proposals, see who owes you money, track expenses, import your bank data, and provide access for your accountant. There is a limited free account available and paid plans range from $12 – $24 per month.

Less Accounting

Free Agent
Free Agent is online accounting specifically created for freelancers and small businesses. With Free Agent you can manage your projects and the time you spend on them, track expenses, produce invoices, manage your bank accounts and more. The cost of using Free Agent is $20 per month.

Free Agent

Fanurio is time tracking and invoicing software that will help you to manage your billing and receivables. You can manage an unlimited number of clients and projects and create an unlimited number of invoices. Fanurio is a one-time cost of $59 with a free trial available. If you’re looking for a solution to organizing your time tracking and invoicing, see our post at Vandelay Design about getting $10 off of Fanurio’s time tracking and invoicing software (through December 16th, 2009).


Time59 is software for time tracking and invoicing. You can easily track the time you spend on client projects and bill an hourly rate or a flat rate. Plus you can enter expenses you incur for clients and include them on invoices. The cost is $49.95 per year for an unlimited number of clients, projects and invoices.


Pulse helps small businesses with cash flow management. It allows you to track your income and expenses form any given time frame, at a glance, or by project. It includes all the reporting capabilities you need to see how you are doing.


Collaboration Organization:

Many freelancers work with other designers, developers and agencies from time-to-time or on a regular basis. If this is the case for you, you know that this communication and the related projects require additional organization. Working from a distance can bring even more challenges than you would face if you were in the same office with your colleagues. Here are a few resources that can help.

Backpack from 37signals provides a number of features that allow you to collaborate and communicate in an organized and efficient manner. You can share notes with team members, use calendars to organize schedules, share messages and feedback, set reminders and more. Prices range from $24 – $149 per month, depending on the number of users, pages, and the amount of storage needed.


ZCOPE provides a central working space for your team. You can plan and work on projects efficiently and share ideas and feedback with your team members and with clients. You can manage and assign tasks, set your schedule and more. Prices range from €19 – €199 per month depending on your needs.


General Organization Resources:

The following resources could fall in to more than one of the categories above.

Subernova provides some project management features as well as some financial management features. You can track your projects’ deadlines and milestone dates, track the time that you are spending on a client’s project, send invoices, track payments, and more. Subernova costs $5.99 per month.


Daylite is a business productivity manager (for Mac) from Market Circle. It includes features for project collaboration, shared calendars, task delegation, sales tracking, contact management and more. Daylite costs a one-time fee of $1,299 for up to five users with higher-priced plans available form more users.


Work Etc.
Work Etc. includes CRM features plus project and billing features. With Work Etc. you can manage projects, bill customers, offer support and customer service, work with leads, and more. The freelancer package is available for $29.95 per month.

Work Etc.

Projectivity is an open source enterprise management platform. It includes a number of features for portfolio management, project management, knowledge management, and collaboration.


What Resources Do You Use?

How do you go about keeping yourself organized? Feel free to share in the comments.

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design, a popular design blog.
  1. November 24, 2009

    Awesome collection of resources! I love Evernote!

    Some of these resources look interesting as well. Will definitely get around to trying some of these.

  2. ChiliPepr
    November 24, 2009

    MozyHome works pretty well for me – on both Mac and PC. MozyPro needs some work, however, the interface is extremely convoluted and not user-friendly at all.

    Use the following link to get 10% more space on a free MozyHome 2 Gb account:

  3. November 24, 2009

    Nice list – I use Evernote everyday. Here’s a few more nice apps – Ember – for storing inspiration, screenshots etc. InvoiceMachine – the best invoicing tool I’ve found after trying lots, including the mentioned Subernova and Passpack for storing and generating passwords, I have 200+ saved in my account, another one I use everyday.

  4. November 24, 2009

    What a great compilation of resources! Love Evernote… Wish this was a list of your top 10 favorites. Will have to bookmark and come back to it. Thanks.

  5. November 25, 2009

    Read ith great interest, thank you

  6. November 25, 2009

    Great article and examples. Thanks!

  7. November 25, 2009

    Thanks for the mention Steven. ProofHQ loves you too!

    We would be more than happy to give your readers an extended trial (they can just email me at mat [at]

    Plus a 10% discount through 2010 if they signup with the code “designmag”.

  8. November 25, 2009

    Wow… is a huge list ..

    And a lot of very useful things … thanks.

  9. Mihai
    November 25, 2009

    I consider Mozy an excellent backup tool, no wonder they are so talked about and have recieved numerous awards.

    You are not sure if their services is right for you, they have a 2.5GB version that is totally free for users to try at

  10. Martin
    November 26, 2009

    Great article! We have been using tracking time in our studio for a while and the results are amazing. At the beginning it was quite difficult to remember to track and stayed organized but after some weeks it became a central task in our daily workflows. What we discovered after tracking a few projects completely change our work methodologies. Now we don’t longer spend 100 hours working on a project that is only worth 50 as we usually did before 😉 and our clients know exactly what they are paying for since we share with them all of timesheets.

  11. November 26, 2009

    Hi, nice article!

    We at Koala Design use Skype for communication and Dropbox to share and backup the data. Cause of this we will try Projectivity up now.


  12. mrdata
    November 26, 2009

    you should include Freshbooks ( that includes online invoicing, time tracking and expenses (estimates, invoices, etc), all in one. I’ve been using it for one month and works pretty good

  13. November 26, 2009

    Great resource but I also can’t believe you have not included Freshbooks. Over 1 million people use it! I’ve been using it for 1.5ys and it has saved me a huge amount of time.

    For my accounting I use but it still needs improvement

  14. November 27, 2009

    Why is Google Apps not listed here? Google Apps is imo the best tool in terms of keeping everything organised!

  15. November 27, 2009

    I use another great site called It’s still in beta but I can see where it’s going. It has a journal, todos and calendar and some of the social features like Facebook.

    You can see it here:

  16. November 27, 2009

    I agree that FreshBooks is a good choice also. There are so many invoicing apps that I didn’t try to list them all. I mostly chose the few invoicing apps that are shown here because I have at least tried them myself.

  17. November 29, 2009

    Mozy is, indeed, a great tool for designers. However, many Mac users prefer Backblaze. Both offer unlimited online backups for $5 / month, but the Mac interface to Backblaze seems more intuitive than Mozy’s PC-ported application.

  18. November 29, 2009

    Wow, you really provided a lot of great resources. Thanks for the suggestions!

  19. November 30, 2009

    Thanks for that extensive list of resources. Some of them were yet unknown to me and I for sure will check them out.

    I found that Dropbox has been a real life saver for me so far. Right now, I am still comfortable with the free account, but it’s already helping me coordinating projects.

    Coming from a huge company, we had servers to store our files on and work on it simultaneously. Running such a server with all the necessary software myself exceeds my scope of abilities and Dropbox is the perfect replacement for small collaboration projects. I usually upload files to be inspected by a partner or client there, they check it out, make changes and upload it back again. That way, we have a change history and all necessary data is accessible to everyone involved.

  20. December 1, 2009

    I know many designers that thrive in chaos. I think it just depends on what spurns creativitiy for that individual.

  21. December 1, 2009

    Thanks for including Time59. I would like to mention that the Time59 will soon be running in Mobile Safari on the iPhone and iPod Touch. This will NOT be a pale version of standard Time59. It is the full application formatted to look and work beautifully on the small screen.

  22. December 2, 2009

    This is a great set of resources that any designer or freelancer could benefit from. In fact I’ve even worked for a company that could have benefited greatly from using these tools on a regular basis.

  23. December 10, 2009

    Great list of resources, several of which I hadn’t come across, and will definitely look into. I thought Basecamp might be worth including on your list?

  24. December 10, 2009

    This is an amazing post! Very thorough yet broad enough to cover the many areas that we freelancers are faced with everyday. Thanks for this contribution….

    Justin R.

  25. December 16, 2009


    That is a great resource list. In case you or some of your readers are interested in Project Management, we’ve got an add-in to Microsoft Outlook that adds some easy to use project management features to Outlook.

    You can find more information on our web-site:


  26. January 11, 2010

    Designers need inspiration to stay creative.
    Watch what others created and learn from it.

  27. July 29, 2010

    awesome! evernote is just what i was looking for.thanks for sharing!

  28. August 4, 2010

    he work you have here with smoke is incredible and highly commendable

  29. Lesja Gontschar
    April 7, 2011

    For project management we use WorkForceTrack It is simple and cheap. Nothing that can put into trouble

  30. June 7, 2011

    Personally I am using for saving all passwords and also ZOHO Invoice for invoicing which is cheap and reliable.
    Also is a free time tracking tool which I am using for a month and I am happy with it.

  31. Vincent
    June 30, 2011

    I would like to add OroTimesheet to the list as a great time tracking software. It is very affordable and easy to use.

    I would recommend to visit the company’s website at for a free trial.

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