Best Software to Run a Small Graphic Design Agency

In my last blog post entitled Designing Our Way Through COVID, I mentioned some of the technology platforms that we use to run Biscuit. Before I get into the details of those, you might want to read a little more about how we got to where we are today.

Jason and I graduated from the University of Florida in 1999 – both with degrees in Architecture. We tortured ourselves for 5 years to get those degrees – pulling all nighters while drinking copious amounts of Mountain Dew and Diet Coke in fluorescent lit studios to meet unrealistic deadlines and slicing off pieces of our finger tips or gluing them together while making models from Balsa wood and chipboard. We allowed ourselves and our blood-stained work to be judged by relentless design professors whose only goal was to break us down. We learned how to use the tools of the trade – triangles, parallels, t-squares, scales, Rapidograph pens, Chartpak markers, S-curves, & bathroom stencils – and we were good at it.

It was awesome.

Jason and I in college about to go to town on that ice cream – before we were lactose intolerant, apparently.

After we graduated, I wanted to move to New York City and Jason wanted to move to Orlando – neither of us would concede – so we both compromised on Atlanta. I had visited several design firms while on a class trip to Atlanta my junior year and really liked the work that was being done. Jason had family in Atlanta already – so it was easy for him, too. We got an apartment in Virginia Highland – like every other college graduate that moved to Atlanta in the early 2000’s – and were offered a plethora of jobs immediately. We were one of the first graduating classes that came to the table with extensive knowledge and experience using AutoCAD – the software that most firms were just starting to implement in their studios. So we were a hot commodity.

Within months of starting our careers, drafting tables and arm lamps were being replaced with fancy work desks and keyboard trays.

Blueprint machines, with that intense ammonia smell were being replaced with giant digital plotters. We would spend hours and hours sitting at our ergonomic desks with our ergonomic chairs working on construction drawings – picking up redlines. Some weeks we would work 80 hours without any compensation for our time.

It was NOT awesome.

In 2001, not long after the tragic 911 incident, designers and architects started getting laid off at our firms. Jason was designing and building Flash presentations for some really cool urban design projects which then segued into a successful weekend side hustle creating Flash presentations for architectural reps to use at lunch and learns. Some of them were really cool although I’m sure we would cringe if we watched them today. One of the companies that he was side-hustling with still didn’t have a website. Jason gave them a quote that was almost as much as his annual salary at the architecture firm he worked at and they approved it – so he bailed – and Biscuit Studios was born.

Taken outside our old studio in Ormewood Park 2017. Photo credit: Andrew Thomas Lee

Soon after Jason left, I got pregnant with our oldest daughter – who is now seventeen – and the expectation to work insane overtime hours was too much for me – so I bailed, too, and we’ve been a team ever since. As I’m sure you can imagine, since 2001, we have gone through hundreds of software solutions to run the business. Some were great and then got bought by bigger companies who dissolved them, some changed their pricing models which made them unaffordable for a small company, and some just didn’t work well. We have found the following to be the best for us.

1. DropBox: Cloud File Storage

For years and years we had hard drives. I remember we would take them to the bank every month and switch them out and store them in our safety deposit box. That is some serious old school file storage happening right there. When DropBox started in 2008, we jumped in and never looked back. It is the best way for us to share files with our clients – especially when we are building big complex websites with tons of photos and content. But we also use it for all of our internal file storage. We can access it from anywhere and it’s easy to share folders with our remote designers, printers, photographers, writers, etc. 

2. Harvest: Time Tracking, Estimates, and Invoicing

I don’t know about you, but for us, time is money. Depending on the project, we bill some of our clients on an hourly basis, so tracking that time is essential to our success. Simply put, Harvest is the best at what it does. It has both web and phone app interfaces and makes logging time super easy. But that’s not all it does – you can also set up time budgets for flat fee projects and log your time against that so you always know where you are, how much time you have left, and how to change your billing for the next project. The best part – you can automatically create invoices using the hours that you track, email them to your clients, and get paid via check or tie it to PayPal for credit card payments. It is the best.

3. Slack: Team Communication

We started using Slack long before COVID hit – and it’s an amazing tool for communicating with team members who are not in the office. But to be honest – it’s pretty awesome for communicating with team members who are in the office, too. Conversations are organized by project – so you can always go back and re-read them. The interface is clean and simple and it comes with a phone app. You can also link websites, upload images, and even share code within the chat. Screen sharing and video chat is available, too, which is great when you are reviewing something with a designer. It is fundamental if you have multiple projects going on at the same time and has proven to be an essential collaboration tool for us.

4. ClickUp: Project Management

So this is probably the one software solution that we have switched up the most. We have tried them all – Asana, Trello, Wrike, Basecamp – and while they all have things about them that we like, ClickUp has all of those things and more. It’s fluid and can be customized to your workflow. The dev team is always updating functionality which keeps it fresh and exciting. We keep all of our tasks, tickets, projects, and timelines organized here. They are truly an innovative company – I hope that they don’t get bought or sell-out and raise their prices.

5. Google Workspace: Email, Calendar, Video Chat

We know, we know…Google is a big bully on the playground and they have monopolized everything and they are the devil. But they are awesome when it comes to email, calendar events, and video chat – and we are happy to use Google Workspace for all of these things. 

6. Quickbooks: Accounting & Taxes

Yes, there are other solutions out there for accounting and taxes – we have even tried a few, the most recent being Xero. But our CPA uses Quickbooks and we want to spend as little as possible on accounting and tax fees, so we decided to keep it simple (or actually, if I’m being honest, we decided to keep it complicated – but you know what I mean) and go back to Quickbooks. It may not be the best in terms of functionality – but it’s the best in terms of syncing with our CPA. 

There are so many other technology platforms that we use daily – for web design & development, print design, photo editing, font management – and we are planning to share those as well. Be on the look out for more posts!