Project Scheduling – 14 Designers Share Their Advice


Given the complexities of the various phases of the web design and development process – including many variables often revolving around pending client feedback – I have often wondered how other web designers go about scheduling their own projects.

Status Quo

Although I officially started my web design company, iDesign Studios, in 2001 – it was originally nothing more than a bit of side work here or there. It wasn’t until the last couple years that I finally had the drive and determination to take my business to the next level.

Next month marks my one year anniversary of having quit my day job to run my company full time, and things have been steadily getting busier. Up until recently, my general policy on scheduling new projects was to start work on them immediately upon receipt of a signed contract and 50% deposit, delivering each major phase within one week (with two to three business days for minor revisions).

With this method, my workload has been (for the most part) completely manageable… until the moon and stars align, and I get hit with three or four people sending in their contracts and deposits over a two day period – leaving me with a very busy week ahead!

I’ve found this to be happening more and more frequently lately, and realize it’s finally time to re-evaluate my scheduling process.

Time For A Change

One of the primary reasons I made the move towards running my own business full time – in addition to being able to earn a decent living doing something that I love – is so that I could have more control of my life… aka work / life balance.

Over committing myself to too many client projects at a given time is not only stressful, but stretches me thin.

In addition to the health factors associated with too much stress, it can also lead to less creativity and lesser quality work – something that I am not willing to compromise on.

Twitter Feedback

Currently Booking Projects Starting ___ [Insert Date Here]

I often see sites where developers post a note stating something like “Now booking projects for ___ [x date in the future]”

What I always wondered, was how do they determine what that future date should be? How many active projects do these designers take on at a given time?

I recently posed these questions on Twitter and got a lot of great feedback in 140 character blurbs. At the same time, I also found that several of you are struggling with the same scheduling issues.

@107designsI work on no more than 3 at a time, but I’ll tell prospective clients what day on which their project could start.

@brianyerkes – I think the most I’ve taken on is 3 larger sized web development projects in a week.

@cg219since I am in school, around 1 – 2 per week is a manageable number without falling behind in school.

@dafyddbachwhen I’ve got enough work to last me a while, I pick a date in the future and don’t take on anything new till then

@edavis10no max, I just schedule them into my workload (e.g. 50 hours over 5 weeks starting May 1st)

@jrbeilkesounds similar to my project scheduling, I try to take on 1-2 projects/week and I usually end up completing 4-5/month

@MikeNGarrett – I try and estimate when the current job will end and I book it for that day. If there’s a little overlap that isn’t too bad.

@SIX15My personal limitation (learned the hard way) is no more than 4 active prjs. I tell new prospects so, then sch based on that

@thriveyourtribeI use a kindergarten-style planner to let me manage many projects at once–I split day into 3rds &tag each w/client’s photo.

@veeroo18 –  i took mostly 2 full web design per month. .. though its too less but i do some other design jobs too like logo icons :)

14 Designers Share Their Advice…

Despite the great advice I received on Twitter, it was obviously limited to short one liners. Since the issue of project management and scheduling seemed to be on a lot of people’s minds, I wanted to expand upon these short responses by asking for more detailed explanations from some of the designers and developers who are quite active in the design community.

You might want to pull up a chair and grab a cup of coffee for this one, because it is a bit lengthy. However the wide range of scheduling techniques shared below are worth the read!

I know that I’ll be pulling bits and pieces from the suggestions below as I re-structure my own scheduling process – I hope you are able to do the same!

Project Scheduling

How do you go about scheduling work when you sign a new client? For example, when people say something like “now booking projects for June 2009″

@andysowardsAndy Sowards,

This process is not always set in stone, I will typically get all the details from the client on the project and finalize exactly what they need done (this usually takes a few emails to narrow down). Once I have all the details and they have been quoted on the project, I will then ask them for a deadline, I then try to work around all the projects I receive and get the ones that have the closest deadlines done in the order that they were received.

Although this does not always work out to be a perfect scenario, so some deadlines may have to be re-adjusted based on the work already scheduled, clients make changes to scope, etc. I typically try not to allow a client to make a deadline that is within a few days so that they won’t expect to get a ‘rush’ project done on a normal busy week sometime in the future without being subjected to a rush fee.

I try to set client ‘expectations’ so that they know what to expect next time they need something done :).

@angbowenAngie Bowen, Arbenting

I don’t really take on enough clients to have to worry about this. When I sign a new client I sit down and do a rough timeline for the project but that’s usually the extent of it.

@brianyerkesBrian Yerkes, Brian Joseph Studios

We typically will only take on 3 large projects at a time. We always have smaller projects being completed each week (print designs etc), but to really provide exceptional service to our clients, we only work on 3 larger projects at any given time.

@fudgegraphicsFranz Jeitz, Fudgegraphics

Usually I have a clear plan in my head so I can give a rather precise deadline for the work. I always take into account the number of active projects and the priority of those. I have discovered to work very well under pressure which is why I regularly take on last-minute projects (charging accordingly though).

@leemunroeLee Munroe, Lee Munroe Freelance

I’m usually always up for discussing new projects, even when I am super busy. So I usually start by talking things over with the client straight away, finding out what they want and putting a proposal together.

Depending on my work load I’ll start working on the project within 2-4 weeks, depending on when they can provide me with all the assets and a deposit.

@edavis10Eric Davis, Little Stream Software

I use a spreadsheet where I track the amount of time booked and available each month.  When I’m discussing the project with a new client, I’ll use it to let them know when I can schedule their project.

I also don’t lock in a date until I have a signed contract and deposit back from the client.

@mcgstudioJosh McGlinn, MCG Studio

I’ve averaged about 100 project a year now since freelancing fulltime three years ago.  Some of them are large multi-month projects, others are simple three day turnarounds.  No matter what the project involves, I have learned that the best thing to take into consideration is your own ability.  I’ve gotten to the point where I know how long it will take to design a mockup, animate a Flash banner, or design a logo.  Because of this I can manage my time better.  I also am a big fan of sticky notes and a calendar.  It really helps to know what projects are coming up and which ones you are awaiting feedback from.

Overall, I typically have 3 or 4 projects going on at the same time.  Each is scattered and in a different phase of development.  So while I may be waiting to hear back from Client A about layouts, I can be working on Client B’s Flash header.  Then I can switch gears to Client C and start developing their site in HTML/CSS.

I also enjoy bouncing between projects as it helps to keep things from becoming stagnant.  Projects that have long timelines can get boring if that is all you are working on.  Though in all honesty, I’ve never had a project that took up 100% of my time.  Typically there is always at least a few days of downtime waiting to get feedback or approval between development phases.  This is especially true for larger clients.  Generally speaking, the larger the brand is, the more time needed for feedback.

@dannyoutlawDanny Outlaw, Outlaw Design Blog

Before I sign a new client I usually give them a basic idea of how long it will take me to complete the project based on the brief as well as when I will be able to start the project.  After the project gets the green light, I also provide clients with a list of milestone dates.

@andrea_rAndrea Rennick, Ron and Andrea Dot com

Oh, I need to re-think *everything*. :)

If I say, for example, now booking at the end of May, in my head I know I can start two new client projects that week. At least two major ones. It depends. We get a lot of little jobs, so we fit them in and around everything else.

We probably juggle too much though. I have a hard time turning down projects, especially if my referral list is as booked up as I am.

I’ve got a big blank desk calendar on the wall and tend to slot people in on Mondays. So whoever gets to me first, I slot them in the next available start date. Next client on the list gets started a week later, depending on how big the previous job was. Sometimes if they are BIG, I’ll space them every 2 weeks.

And then add in little one-off jobs around them.

@six15Jeff Mackey, SIX15 Solutions, LLC

If there are no other open/active projects on my plate then it’s pretty much whenever the prospective client is ready to begin. If I am entertaining two or more prospective projects at the same time, the scope of each project along with the client’s constraints dictate my response to each. One of the first questions I ask the prospect during initial conversations is “Do you have any upcoming external requirements for this project, such as a scheduled press release or event?” If not, then I present to them my typical two-month project plan of attack. Explaining this to them, along with what they are responsible for and how it affects the proposed launch, usually makes them think about what they’re asking of me.

If the project has no pressing timelines right off the bat, once an estimate is approved (via Freshbooks) I’ll kick off the project by setting it up in Basecamp, assigning milestones, to-dos, permissions, etc. From that point, it’s in my process flow and everything is in one place.

Lately I’ve been working on at least three projects at the same time, in various stages of completion. RFPs continue to come in, almost in sporadic spurts. Some are for consulting and advice, some are for full blown projects. I am up front and honest with all new prospects, letting them know what I currently have going on, and when I think I’d be able to get to their project. They seem to appreciate the openness and candor. I recently added a line to my RFP form stating that I am booking for projects starting in May, only because I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t handle any more active gigs while trying to be a family man and have a social life.

@chrisspoonerChris Spooner, SpoonGraphics

I don’t tend to have any highly detailed scheduling plans, for me it’s more a case of checking over jobs I’m working on and at what pace they are progressing, then book in as appropriate. In cases where I’m a little worked up I’ll postpone new work for the following month or so.

@jophillipsJon Phillips, Spyre Studios

Well, I always have a steady flow of work both from new clients and existing ones that I never really had to put a ‘not available’ or ‘now booking’ notice on my site. If my schedule is full I’ll refer the client to a fellow designer, or ask the client if he or she could wait [insert number of days/weeks here] for my schedule to clear before I start work on their project. :)

@nikibrownNiki Brown, The Design O’Blog

I try to schedule about a month in advance. Most of my clients have no problems knowing that I am booked until XYZ date. Letting them know that I try to only work on one project at a time shows them that their project is important to me and gets the attention it deserves.

@thinkdesignNick Pagano, Think Four Graphic Design

I don’t really have a set way I schedule projects. I am always aware of my current work load, so when discussing new projects with new clients, I give them a rough schedule based on what I know my workload will allow.

Project Scheduling

What is the maximum number of active web design / development projects you have going on a given week? This is in reference to full design and / or development – not so much the “little” jobs like making quick updates to an existing site, etc.

@andysowardsAndy Sowards,

I typically try to only have 2 big ‘full site’ projects in any given week, because most of the time when building a site from scratch its going to take more than 40 hours to get it all squared away.

2 Projects gives you enough time each day to make a good amount of progress on the sites without working a 100 hour week to keep up with everything (including the little stuff that you get anyway, like maintenance). It also depends on the size of the projects as well, so this is a little adjustable given the situations.

@angbowenAngie Bowen, Arbenting

I try not to take on more than 3 full projects at a time otherwise my focus becomes too split and I can’t do my best work.

@brianyerkesBrian Yerkes, Brian Joseph Studios

If we receive additional inquiries while we have 3 large projects running, we provide an estimated commencement date for any new projects. Most of the time, the clients are happy to wait to have their project started as they have researched companies quite a bit, and have decided to work with us, even if we can’t start their project immediately.

It is really down to how well new/potential clients respect your company and the potential you have to make their project successful for then.

@fudgegraphicsFranz Jeitz, Fudgegraphics

That is a tough question since I’ve only started doing freelance work and uni has kept me busy until now. I do however have 3 active projects at the moment. In future I plan on having one or two large projects per week while working on lower priority jobs simultaneously.

@leemunroeLee Munroe, Lee Munroe Freelance

I usually focus on 2 projects per week, while dealing with small updates, admin and communicating with new & other clients on the side.

@edavis10Eric Davis, Little Stream Software

I don’t have a maximum number of projects, I work based on my availability.  I might have two large projects going on at once or 6 small projects.

@mcgstudioJosh McGlinn, MCG Studio

The most active projects I’ve had at one time was seven.  A couple of clients had some large last minute revisions before launching the site and just by chance I had received feedback and approval on other projects all at the same time.  It really doesn’t happen but once a year at most, but when it does you have to be willing to put in the time.

I’m a stickler on deadlines, and if I quote a timeline, then I will do everything possible to meet that deadline.  It ended up being a very hectic week with many long nights, but I didn’t miss a single deadline.  One of the projects I was working on that week was even awarded an Addy award.  Sometimes pressure can bring out the best in you.

@dannyoutlawDanny Outlaw, Outlaw Design Blog

I work with a small team of designers and developers so I can handle a lot more projects than just a single freelancer.  As far as my design business goes, WordPress Designers, I can usually handle about 5 design jobs and 5 code jobs at once.

@andrea_rAndrea Rennick, Ron and Andrea Dot com

On any given day, we’re working on as many as 4 to 6 different sites, jumping back and forth. If we need feedback from a client and have to wait, we just start on a task on the next client or one of those small jobs, or the still-in-progress previous client.

I am always overbooked and always running over, so I need to figure out something. Since the kids are around and we have a pretty full life anyway, we have a lot of interruptions. I keep regular hours, but Ron gets up late and goes to bed late because he works really well at night.

@six15Jeff Mackey, SIX15 Solutions, LLC

I try to limit myself to four active projects–full website development or redesign projects for businesses, using WordPress as the back-end CMS of choice. This doesn’t necessarily mean I am actually working on four projects every week, since more often than not I am waiting on client input/feedback/content. I am still a one-man shop, and a good portion of every day is spent on client communication and project management. I am getting better at this as time goes on (I’ve been doing freelance work since 2003); it is a trait that requires constant training.

I’ll also do occasional maintenance work for past clients, that aren’t necessarily active. And of course I will certainly allow some time for a Twitter response, email, or phone call for consulting, advice and the like.

@chrisspoonerChris Spooner, SpoonGraphics

I enjoy taking on projects that cover logo design, a character design or two and maybe a t-shirt or skateboard deck every now and again as well as general web design. There’s also quite a difference in time spent on jobs consisting of just the Photoshop mockup and those involving the actual site build. With this in mind it’s difficult to put a specific number on active projects, but six is a nice average. From past experiences I don’t like to take on more than 10 jobs at any one time as a personal rule of thumb.

@jophillipsJon Phillips, Spyre Studios

I usually have a max of 3 projects I’m working on at the same time. It happens I’ll have more though cause we know sometimes some projects take longer than expected, but usually not more than 3 projects in a week.

@nikibrownNiki Brown, The Design O’Blog

I try not to take on more than 1 web design / development job in a week. If i took on more than this I would probably go nuts. I have a full time job and maintain my blog on top of freelancing.

@thinkdesignNick Pagano, Think Four Graphic Design

Again, I don’t really have a set maximum number. Some projects are on a much larger scale then others. Sometimes, I could get several projects done in a few days. Other projects may take several days individually.

So again, for me it’s about knowing my workload, and scheduling jobs at a pace that keeps the client happy, and keeps me sane.

Client Delays

As much as we can plan for the various phases of a full web design project, there are inevitably client delays in providing feedback, content, etc… How do you handle these delays when they put a wrench in your project scheduling?

@andysowardsAndy Sowards,

I try my best to keep projects moving forward and as fast as possible and within the deadline. Anytime a client starts slacking on the details or direction of a project I get as much of it done as possible so that the ball is in their court in every way, then I send periodic or daily email reminders to them just checking on the status of the items in question.

I also try to be as friendly as possible when doing this, because lets face it, daily emails asking for assets are annoying, but are sometimes necessary to keep a project moving and within the designated deadline, and not stuck in the background while you are taking on new projects and trying to schedule those and get them done in a timely manner. Sometimes the client needs to be reminded of the deadline, and if they want to successfully reach that goal, they need to send you the feedback or assets that you need to accomplish this.

@angbowenAngie Bowen, Arbenting

I try to look at it optimistically and treat it like found time. I generally take these opportunities to work on my own side projects.

@brianyerkesBrian Yerkes, Brian Joseph Studios

We basically ensure that the client knows each time a delay occurs that it delays the overall schedule of the project, and as a result, the initial completion date that we provided at the start of the project is no longer accurate. If the delay is for a really significant length of time, then we have to let the client know that it can often lead to a delay in getting the project started again. We make sure that they understand that if an extremely long delay occurs  then we obviously have to continue to take on new projects…and we can only place their project back into the schedule when there is room available.

@fudgegraphicsFranz Jeitz, Fudgegraphics

From the beginning on I always make it very clear that each project is a collaborations between the client and me. Both must be involved and keep up with schedule. The way I handle delays varies from the number of active projects I have. In slow phases I will send e-mails to remind the client of that he still needs to provide me with more information or resources. If I have a lot of work I will put that particular project on hold for a while and catch up with others. There is no clear plan, it depends on many variables which have to be taken into account.

@leemunroeLee Munroe, Lee Munroe Freelance

Usually there is another client project I can work on but I also use this as an excuse to work on my own work. Side projects, writing blogs, learning etc.

@edavis10Eric Davis, Little Stream Software

I try to plan around delays by working on sections that need their feedback first.  I handle smaller delays by shifting projects around for the week.  If it’s a larger delay, I’ll contact the client and see if we need to renegotiate the timeline or responsibly.  The important part is to make sure you have at least one other project to fall back on, either a client or personal project.

@mcgstudioJosh McGlinn, MCG Studio

Client delays happen.  It’s just the nature of business.  I include a clause in the estimate that warns the client that each phase of the timeline is impacted by response time.  I ask that they provide me with one main point of contact and that I need that person respond in a timely fashion.  If the project is larger, I add invoice dates into the estimate. That way, even if the client is holding up the project I can still submit an invoice and receive payment.

@dannyoutlawDanny Outlaw, Outlaw Design Blog

In the list of milestones, I also include dates for client feedback.  This helps to keep them from blaming me for not getting a project done on time.  They can clearly see that I need their feedback by a certain day to continue.  They see this from day one and have no one to blame but themselves if I don’t have their feedback by the date in the milestones.

@andrea_rAndrea Rennick, Ron and Andrea Dot com

It depends, I guess. If I’m waiting for their feedback and it’s been long enough I know it’s going to interfere with a proposed deadline, I’ll email a reminder and a notice that for every day they delay an answer, the deadline will be pushed back. I’ll even state flat out I can’t move forward / finish until and unless I get a reply.

@six15Jeff Mackey, SIX15 Solutions, LLC

Ah yes, the toughest part of any client interaction! I am actually dealing with this situation right now: client wanting to change the look and feel of the home page design two weeks before the scheduled launch date (original design was already approved). Generally speaking, since everything regarding the project is handled within Basecamp, the client can see exactly who needs what and when. And if something falls behind or isn’t completed it becomes readily obvious. In my experience, a message explaining the situation (late content delivery, feedback, and the impact) followed by a phone call to the decision maker usually lights a fire under the person(s) responsible for the delay. In polite terms, I simply say “work on the project will stop until…”

@chrisspoonerChris Spooner, SpoonGraphics

I generally don’t worry about delays too much, the downtime for one project always comes in handy on another, or to spend some time pumping out some blog posts for the upcoming month. As long as when said client comes back after 6 weeks they don’t expects their job to still be at the top of the list :-). However a quick check-in email can usually push a job forward when it reaches a stale point.

@jophillipsJon Phillips, Spyre Studios

I try not to worry too much about this since it happens all the time. In the event a client is taking a bit longer to provide feedback on a design I’ll work on another project in the meantime or I’ll if I can I’ll work on my personal projects. I always have personal projects that need some attention so delays are rarely a problem.

@nikibrownNiki Brown, The Design O’Blog

I try to let clients know that signing contracts and estimates and sticking to deadlines helps us both. The more prompt they are the faster their project gets done.

@thinkdesignNick Pagano, Think Four Graphic Design

Client delays seem to always happen. Thankfully, I normally have several other projects I could be working on as well. So, if I do not have what I need to finish a project at it’s ‘scheduled’ time, I’ll move onto the next.

Project Management

What Is YOUR Scheduling Process Like?

Now it’s time to hear from you!

  • What techniques do you use when scheduling
    work for new clients?
  • On average, how many projects do you take
    on at a given time?
  • How do you deal with client delays?

Please share in the comments below!

Of course, it goes without saying that I’d like to give a big thanks to all the designers who shared their scheduling process with us!


  1. says

    We always put a project timescale in place when an order is received. Set milestones for project elements such as functional spec, 1st stage design proof, wireframe, content being supplied, coding, testing, site launch.

    We are a small team in studio full of other designers/writers (see FunkBunk for more details) so we take on as much work as possible as long as it is profitable and fits in with our work ethics.

    Project timelines must always be flexible. But always, always keep the communication flow going with the client. Then if a deadline has to be moved it is never a shock, and you will all come out smiling.

  2. says

    This was a really great read, I love reading about how other freelancers handle these things. Thanks for including me in the interview :)

  3. says

    I think I gleaned a few ideas myself, there’s always room for improvement. We do a fair amount of development work, so maybe that’s one reason numbers are higher too.


  4. says

    Thanks so much to you for the article, and the advice from the best of the design world. This is such a struggle for me, since now that my husband died, I am the only source of income. I need work regularly, so very seldom turn it down, but a client who does not get back to me really seems to throw a kink in everything, and makes it hard to make a schedule. Then when they finally do, they want it done now..or so I’ve found. I think I will be rewriting my contracts, and start utilizing some of the suggestions here. Lots of mention of basecamp…do find your clients really use it?

  5. says

    Great article Selene. At the moment, I have 5 projects on the go. I must admit, it’s a bit too much work so I’ve had to set some deadlines back by 2 weeks. In the future, I think I’ll set my limit, like many here, to 3 :)

  6. says

    I’m really glad you wrote this. It really helps to know that there are others feeling the same way. Lately I’ve been taking on quite a few client projects also and not getting enough sleep, constantly worrying, and pretty much neglecting my own projects.

  7. says

    Thanks for the great comments, everyone! I’ve certainly learned quite a bit from the interviews (as well as comments).

    As for my own process, I’ve decided it’s more than time to make a few changes. This week in particular will hopefully be the last time that I overbook myself. With three complete WordPress sites to develop, a decent amount of updating to two others, in addition to the usual administrative type of work, like emails, proposals, phone calls, etc. – well this has proven to be quite the stressful week!

    I’ve just started telling prospective clients that I’m currently booking projects 2 weeks out, basically as a “first come / first served” format. I’m sure this time table will change depending on how busy things are (or aren’t). But I can honestly tell you that I’ve got a feeling of relief knowing that next week will be completely manageable, and not out of control crazy like this week!

    @Arlene – I haven’t used basecamp myself. A lot of people, do though and many people swear by it. It’s something I’d be interested in checking into, but haven’t gotten around to as of yet…

  8. says

    Hi Selene,
    Just wanted to let you know that since I asked about basecamp, I decided to take the plunge….wow, wow…thats all I can say….no more sifting through tons of emails for this or that, everything in one place…I don’t think I will ever do it any other way now……you really have to try it….I love it!

  9. says

    Thanks for the article. It really puts a perspective on the work load issue. Income vs Quality… definitely quality is better.

    I’m a one man shop, so I try not to handle more than 2 projects a week. That of course limits my income, but I hope that in the long run, this approach will bring more business my way, to the point where I will be able to bring another designer on board.

  10. says

    Its great to see I’m not alone in the amount of work and the frequency in which I take on new work. Very cool post Selene. Thanks.

  11. says

    I must be honest and so so far I haven’t read the whole post, but sme great stuff coming out of it, nice to see such a well structured approach to this topic.

    Scheduling is the bain of my current web design existance LOL. I’ve started off trying to solve these issues by firstly keeping a strict timesheet. Knowing where your time is going is really helpful. I’ve also been tracking PC time through rescue time which helped me find some of my productivity holes.

    In terms of client delays, another major problem area, as is usually the case, everyone delays at the same time and everyone suddenly goes into red light urgency at the same time.

    So far working a clause into my “loose contract” is all I can do at the moment. Something to fall back on. Asking for a certain amount of info, content, payment, etc upfront it also helpful.

    I’d say the best effort is managing your current tasks well and working in some extra buffer time. Something I have yet to master. Still unsure how much time I have wasted reading up about time management!

  12. says

    In terms of managing the amount of projects for a specific period, things happen so randomly on my side & my clients’ side that this is almost impossible. I could be working on 1 project for 2 months and then suddenly have 6 running concurrently.

    When it gets really crazy I’ll outsource, when I have almost nothing on I teach either at a college or privately.

  13. says

    Actually after 45 hours of work/weeks any person’s productivity will start to decrease. If let’s say, you work 60 hours/week for a increased period, then the real value of your hours will be something between 25-35 hours, which is less than your initial 45 hours/week. (That’s why from a Project Management perspective overtime is always a bad idea).

    IMO, the best thing to do is to hire more people to take the load off.

  14. Kristen B. says

    Although I am not a designer, I could be able to use their advice in managing my work priorities. Maybe I should look for kindergarten planner so that I could be able to organize my working load. I am going to check their Twitter too so that I could learn more things from them. Thanks for the interesting article.

  15. chris says

    Great article, web projects are so varied it’s an art in itself trying to keep a schedule. Regarding basecamp I used it for several months and actually much prefer wrike and podio – definitely worth checking out.

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