Picking the Perfect Right Project Management System (for Apt Design)

First of all a confession: I love project management. I guess it’s the organizer in me that just wants to create tasks, view deadlines on a calendar, and plan entire projects before they even start.

A second confession: While most of my blog posts are well-thought-out, organized and structured, this post kind of just follows my process for picking a new PM system in the same order that I did. It’s as close to stream-of-consciousness as I’m going to get.

Quick Context

I’m a small visual design shop, just me as an employee with 2-3 subcontractors. I love to work efficiently (my Myers-Briggs personality type values “efficiency over everything”). I want to be able to track all my projects, see what tasks I have that need to be done, have a central place for project communication, track my time and get some basic reports about my business. I don’t work from my phone or tablet. In reading these reviews please remember they just reflect what I am looking for and my opinions. All of these PM systems have their merits and may be great for certain organizations.

I’ve loved Basecamp since I started my business. It’s fast, easy to use, and does most of what I needed. But recently 37Signals (the company behind Basecamp) decided that instead of continuing to upgrade Basecamp they would create an entirely new Basecamp product. In doing so they stripped out some of the features of the old Basecamp and left the old version to collect dust. I’m still confused as to why they did this. In the new version of Basecamp there is no longer any time-tracking feature, something I 100% need for my business and something I’m confused why any business wouldn’t need.

Previously in Basecamp my workflow/needs looked like this:

Start Project

  • Add Clients
  • Add Milestones
  • Add templated ToDo lists

Work on Project

  • Track Time
  • Review Versions
  • Create/Track Feedback and Communication
  • Hit deadlines
  • See/organize my ToDos across all projects
  • See what subcontractors are doing
  • Have a place to store Settings for project/client

Finish Project

  • Review hours spent vs. what I billed (sometimes)


Estimating, proposals, and invoicing all took place outside of Basecamp. But in looking for a new PM system I thought it would be wonderful to pull my entire workflow into one system and do all of this from one place:

Send Estimate

  • Get contract signed online
  • Send initial Invoice

Start Project

  • Add People
  • Add Tasks
  • Add Deadlines

Work on Project

  • Track Time
  • Review Versions and get them approved online
  • Create/Track Feedback and messages
  • Hit deadlines
  • See/organize my ToDos across all projects
  • See what subcontractors are doing
  • See % of project done vs % of budget spent
  • Have a place to store Settings for project/client

Finish Project

  • Bill online or via email from previous Estimate
  • Review hours spent/money made


When I started Apt Design I promised myself I wouldn’t get in a rut and rely on software that didn’t fit my needs or wasn’t up to par simply because I had used it for a long time. So, now that Basecamp was no longer meeting my needs, it was time to strike out on a new adventure – finding a new Project Management System!

So, with my specific needs in mind I opened up and quickly glanced over a myriad of PMs, including but not limited to:


Finally I narrowed it down to 3. I signed up for the free trials of each system and got some initial findings on each:


ActiveCollab offers just about everything. It can do just about everything that I was even considering a PM system might be able to do. It looks decent, though still pretty “Web 2.0″-y. The ability to completely customize your homescreen is wonderful. In essence, ActiveCollab can do just about everything, but it doesn’t necessarily do well or do it quickly. And the speed of AC is something that just kept coming up over and over. Not only do you have to click multiple multiple multiple times to get to where you want, but I had to wait forever for each page to load. I even got a loading bar between each page that showed me just how slow we were going.

In the end if I used this all day every day I would lose a lot of time just trying to get where I wanted to go and waiting for the system to load.


MavenLink is the system I wanted to like the most. It has many of the features I wanted, including the ability to setup a new project lightning-fast. Adding tasks, milestones and deliverables is so quick. But after that actually working on a project seemed pretty unintuitive. The Project Tracker that I thought I wanted to see most is tucked away in a weird slide-out, and attaching files or comments to a task or milestone is done by linking to the Project Tracker. Overall it felt like there was just a lot of confusing information vying for my attention and I couldn’t tell what to do. I think with a UI overhaul MavenLink could be a great solution (maybe whoever redesigned their frontend site, which is much more beautiful than the inside). Or, if you have a bunch of people who need to work together and who don’t have a workflow in place you could start from scratch and learn this one.

MavenLink was the first system I reviewed that really got me excited about their Estimating/Budget-tracking/Invoicing setup. It was also nice to be able to see how far along a project was coming compared to my estimate.

Copper Project

Copper seems to be a complete package. Their Gantt-chart thingy looks cool in their videos, but once in I was flummoxed as to how to actually build one easily. And that’s the feeling I got overall – nothing is easy here. The text is tiny, important buttons are hidden, and overall this just feels huge, bulky, complicated, and old. From their marketing site Copper looked nice, but it only took 5 minutes inside to realize it wasn’t for me.



Then, in a continued search I somehow found 3 more PM systems that looked promising, and tried them out too.


Pancake is nice. It’s small and new, so it’s still very much in development. Pancake feels like it was built very much as a Invoicing program first, with a few PM options added later. And honestly those options weren’t robust enough for me. The Task management is very simple, with not much else in the way of client communication or planning.

But if you’re looking for a cheap option that you can store on your own hosting, this is definitely worth looking at. I could actually see this working well for other industries besides my own, even for something like landscaping services.


Solo is the new darling of freelance designers and small design firms. With absolutely no offense to Solo, I’m not sure it warrants that status. Many people love it’s beautiful design, and while I agree that is is very pretty, I don’t think the design is very easy to quickly read and review which is what I ultimately want. All the text is super-tiny and buttons are pretty small too. I couldn’t find Project Templates which would mean I’d have to enter 20+ tasks every time I setup a new website project. And again the site was fairly slow.

I can certainly see Solo becoming great for very small businesses, and it does have some nice reporting features right on the dashboard. Right now it’s still missing some fairly big (though planned) features. At $12/month though if it does what you need it’s worth looking into.


Projecturf seems like it was made for web design teams. It’s well designed compared to the others (my favorite design so far), it keeps your recent projects accessible in tabs across the top, it includes spots to store code snippets and Project Briefs. But the coolest option was the feature that let’s your clients click an icon to approve a specific design. That’s cool. Not necessary (right now I just have clients say they approve a design in a message), but cool.

In addition, Projecturf is fast, easy-to-use, has Project Templates, has a really nice global view, and can generate some strong reports. The only thing it didn’t have was the ability to have discussions about a single Task, something I use frequently with my subcontractors. That wasn’t a deal-breaker though. In general I liked Projecturf quite a bit.


Bring out the Chart

To help me really look at these systems objectively I created a giant spreadsheet where I listed the features I wanted in order of priority (making more important features worth more than less important ones). You can view that huge spreadsheet in all it’s glory here. I not only rated each feature, but marked in red the few definite killers for me that made it so I couldn’t use a system. (Remember, these priorities and ratings are what I needed and my opinions.)

I realized that in order for the Estimating/Invoicing functionality of a PM system to really be of use to me the system would also need to track all my Expenses. You see, I already use Kashoo for my basic accounting needs, including sending Invoices by email. While sending Invoices that you can pay online would be nice, it wouldn’t be worth doubling my data entry. Also, the PayPal fees really add up and that’s why I usually don’t have clients pay online unless they request it.


Basecamp (the new one)

Just to be fair I decided to give the New Basecamp a shot and see how it handled things. I’d seen all their fancy “look-at-us” “everything-is-new-and-great” ads and tutorials, but never actually gotten inside. So I tried making a quick new project…

Oh my.



After spending hours on a variety of very different systems getting on the new Basecamp was the difference between night and day. Fast. Easy. Beautiful. Fast.

Everything was where it made sense to go. I could get to just about anything with the click of a button, or less. Drag-and-drop interface. A page-like structure that was brand-new and yet made perfect sense the first time I used it. Basically it was everything their fancy new ads promised and I wanted to cry because I couldn’t have it.


or could I?


Harvest/Toggle Integration


Basecamp had cut time-tracking out of their new version, but after backlash from all the clients who actually used that feature they added integration with some other time-tracking software. I was looking for one that would integrate seamlessly, generate good reports, and hopefully be free since I’m already paying for Basecamp. Alas, there wasn’t an option that met all of those requirements. Toggle came close and has some really nice features, but it wasn’t seamless.

The closest to fitting in perfectly was Harvest, which I believe is the only app Basecamp specifically worked with to integrate well. And upon a closer look Harvest is pretty darn sweet on it’s own.

While I tracked thousands of hours of time in the old Basecamp, I never really did a whole lot with that data. There just weren’t any options to. Harvest has great reports that run automatically and even show up right on your dashboard (like showing % of time tracked that is billable).

Like I said, I didn’t want to add another Invoicing system that would add another layer to Estimating/Project Management/Invoicing/Accounting. But Harvest has Expense tracking as well. I’m not sure it can do everything Kashoo can, but it might be able to do all I need. Oh, and one other thing? Invoices paid online with Harvest only cost ¢50!


A Surprise Ending

After all my frustration with 37Signals’ decisions to create a separate new Basecamp and remove time-tracking I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Basecamp + Harvest might be the perfect right solution for Apt Design. I realize that I may just like the new Basecamp because I am used to the process from the old Basecamp, and I’m going to try and be open to the downfalls of combining these two systems as I give it a try. But with Basecamp’s speed, beauty and ease + Harvest’s estimating/invoicing and reporting my workflow might be better than ever. We’ll see…

Indiewire Website Design


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Make It Pretty, but don’t forget the Point


The Magic Mouse from Apple is one of the most beautiful mice I’ve ever seen. But spend a couple hours using it and you’ll see that it’s ergonomics might not be quite up to snuff. There are  discussions here and here about how the Magic mouse might be better with ergonomics. In fact, there is a product created just to fix the ergonomic problem for people who want to continue using such a pretty device.

So, there’s no denying that the Magic mouse is absolutely beautiful, but not necessarily the best at what it is supposed to do. What happened is that Apple traded function for beauty. Undoubtedly, many people buy Apple products simply because they are so beautiful, but the company can’t forget why a user is using something.

The same goes for you and your website. (Or for you designers – how you design your websites.)

Out on the interwebs there are many gorgeous websites that might not function as well as they could for their intended users. They have also traded beauty for purpose. Creating a beautifully designed site is important – it has been shown to increase your sales and the perceived value of your product. But remember the purpose of your site (whether that be to give people information, get them to buy a product, etc
) and keep that purpose first. Make sure that your user doesn’t have a problem doing the what they came to do (more on that in a future post). When building a website it’s vital the “cool factor” and your design do not hinder your user’s experience.

Where have where have you seen examples of beauty taking precedence over functionality?

Find a Non-Work-Related Hobby

This is Part 7 in the Apt Design 2011 Ebook Series – Creating Work/Life Balance.
Click here to get the book and see the whole series.

As a freelance designer I’m immersed in design all day, which works out great because I love design. Hopefully you love your job as well. But sometimes when we love our jobs we tend to want to keep doing them even when we’re not working. So we create hobbies – “personal projects” – that we do for fun oftentimes without getting paid for them. I know many designers, developers, writers and other business owners who spend plenty of unpaid time working on personal projects.

Personal projects are great.

But when they are essentially the same thing you do all day at your job, they don’t really help you become a fuller, more well-rounded person.

And I think that can be a problem.

Being Well-Rounded

Ancient cultures considered you to be a gentleman only if you were well-studied in many areas. Confucious said the “perfect man” is one who “combines the qualities of saint, scholar, and gentleman.” And in the 16th century the Italians said a gentleman needed “attainment in physical (sports and war) intellectual (education, literary and musical accomplishments) and also moral and social mores.” (source)

Being Well Rounded Graphic

Being “well-rounded” will look different for each of us, but the whole point of being well rounded stems from the idea of being round, or being a complete circle. If your entire life is pencil-thin focused on one thing (like your job), then your are not filling out the circle of your life. I think a fuller life is one that is balanced. And that means having a variety of interests, hobbies, influences and experiences.

So, get a hobby. And get one that’s not the same thing as your job. In fact, in my opinion the further away your personal hobby is from your daily job the better. Be more than your job, more than just your profession. Basically, don’t let your work be your life. There are a myriad of new things waiting for you out there – go and explore them! You’ll be better for it.

Do This Now:

Similar to the exercise list, make a list of 3-5 new hobbies you’d like to try or new experiences you’d like to have. Then give yourself a month or two to try out each one.

Download the Wallpaper:

find a hobby wallpaper


find a hobby wallpaper


find a hobby wallpaper for iphone


Working with a Team

2010 was the Year of Teams for me. Though I’ve worked at a design company besides being a solo freelancer, I hadn’t really worked on a design team since college. But 2010 found me working a lot on teams, both as a subcontractor for others and as a boss with subcontractors working for me. It was an eye-opening experience and I really felt like the projects I worked on with others turned out better than they would have if I had worked on them alone.

There were a few things I learned along the way, as a teammate, a subcontractor and a contractor. Here are a few of them:

1. Communicate Accountability

Accountability is huge when working with others. People need to know what to expect from you and you need to make sure and set those expectations correctly. If you are not going to be able to deliver on your part of the project for a week let clients and teammates know that so they’re not expecting it the next day. Make sure you meet your deadlines, and let your team know asap if you realize you’re not going to meet a deadline. Be the person on the team that people can rely on and they’ll love working with you.

2. Communicate Consistently

Whether its a daily call or a weekly email your team should be communicating at consistent times to keep everyone on the same page. Team members should never have to wonder where a project is or what they are supposed to be doing next on a project.

Also as much as possible, pick a consistent way to communicate. How do you and your team prefer to communicate otherwise? There are hundreds of tools out there for keeping teams updated – try some out and find the one that works best for your team.

The more you can get this communication down in writing the better. That way everyone can be part of the conversation and  you can go back and review if questions or issues arise.

3. Communicate Personally

When you work with people on a team you’re working towards a common goal. Fancy corporate-speak and formal wording is unnecessary, especially the longer you work with someone. I’m not saying be a slob and fill your emails with cursing, but communicate personably while being professional.

Also this is your team you’re working with – so get to know them! Learning a little more about people’s personal life helps you understand them – how they tackle problems and handle situations. It also makes it easier and more fun to work towards a common goal with people you know and enjoy.

4. Communicate Feedback

The point of working on a team is that you’re better together than alone. Therefore get everyone involved on a project to produce better results. Make it easy and acceptable for your team to give each other (and you!) feedback. Then, don’t just brush it off. Even if you don’t implement their feedback talk about why and make sure they know their thoughts were heard.

Learning to accept feedback graciously about your part of the project is skill that you need to learn if you’re going to work on a team. See constructive criticism for what it is – other people trying to help make the finished product better!

5. Communicate Expectations

Let people know what you are expecting from them. And again, putting this in writing of some form is really crucial. Its important to communicate to people working for you what you expect them to deliver to you, and when you expect it. It makes their job easier if they don’t have to guess what you are wanting or needing from them.

One person that’s really taught me a lot about working on teams is Shane of Shane&Peter. He’s kind of a working-with-teams guru. Check out his extremely popular presentation on working with Distributed Teams.

For some final notes on teams here is my favorite inspirational video about teamwork:

Guest Blog Post on Creating a Healthy Work/Life Balance

There hasn’t been much action here on the Apt Design blog lately.  One of the reasons for that is that I’ve been working on a post for another, bigger blog – after Preston invited me to write a guest post.  Recently I finished up the article and it was published.  If you want, just jump right on over there to read my post Creating a Healthy Work/Life Balance.

Work/Life Balance is something that a lot of people have problems with whether they be mechanics or CEO’s.  Designers and developers certainly share this problem with other industries.  In an attempt to not overwork myself and burn out I’ve read a lot of blogs and books on the subject and decided to share some things that have helped me achieve work/life balance.  The article deals with things like saying “no” and the importance of figuring out why you are doing what you do in the first place.

GraphicDesignBlender was the perfect outlet for this article, as it helped me reach a community of almost 5,000 designers.  Preston D Lee has done a great job helping freelancers Master the Business of Design by consistently offering informative and helpful articles about things designers want to read about most.

So thanks to GraphicDesignBlender, I hope you enjoy Creating a Healthy Work/Life Balance.

18 Beautiful Websites built with WordPress

WordPress was first built as a blog platform but has now developed into a full-featured CMS (Content Management System).  It is easy to design in and develop for.  Add to that its easy-to-use backend and scalability and you can see why more and more sites are being built using WP.  Here are a few of my favorites sites built with WordPress:



Might as well start with the best of the best.  Clean and simple display of the content, with elegant and perfect design. Read More »

How To Cook A Wolf

At Apt, we are always interested in websites that employ horizontal scrolling. Why? Horizontal scrolling is basically a huge no-no when it comes to web design. It is taught against in schools and railed against online. And for good reason, for the most part scrolling sideways is highly counterintuitive. At least online, where user experience is king and most people are accustomed to going down a page for information.

That makes it all the more beautiful when a website is created in a horizontal fashion and done well at the same time. Such is the case for a new website we found called How To Cook A Wolf. The site is for an (apparently) upscale restuarant in the Seattle area. Georgeous photographs, sparse type, and great layout make this site work. What makes it stand out is the navigation. Visitors have the old option of scrolling across with their scrollbar, but LookAtLao Studio has added JavaScript buttons that slide nicely to the sections of the site.

Makes us wish we would have thought of that.

The Design Puzzle

“Design is a puzzle you create for yourself—you have all the pieces, but it’s up to you to decide how they fit.”

- from Design is in the Details by Naz Hamid