You might find resistance in the beginning from some people, clients, collaborators, or even from yourself. This is normal, not everyone is prone to change. Keep your eyes on the prize. From our personal and professional experience, the initial struggle to propose better collaboration methods really pay in the long run. You will compound the saved time, and everybody will work less. Clients will be happy once they understand the logic behind what you ask them.
Shared files – avoid the ping pong
Working on a NAS or in the cloud usually gives online access and collaboration capabilities to users. This is priceless. You usually work on files (creative assets) to gather and process information and feedback from a broad group of people. Usually this information travels by email, or in some cases by a messaging system. That means that there’s usually one person that reads (or listens) and then transcribes it into a file.
Some other people (in order to avoid the transcription burden) send files back and forth, creating a very dangerous ping pong that might soon become a versioning nightmare.
Instead of playing ping pong or hot potato with your files, the smartest approach is to work on a shared file. One file, with simultaneous access. Let servers and computers deal with versions and updates (keep reading to learn more about versions).
You need a system
This one is hard to avoid. In order to share files you need some sort of infrastructure. Here I’ll mention a couple of them, but there are literally dozens in the market with very similar characteristics and
Google Drive, or Google Workspaces, or Google Docs, is one of the first services that pretty much revolutionized the remote collaboration. A system that allows you to work at the same time in one or more files or folders, giving personalized access to them and
Microsoft answer to Drive, Microsoft Teams, works similarly. In my opinion they got there too late, and not as well as Drive. I personally don’t consider it too friendly for creatives.
Network Attached Storage systems have now proprietary versions of Docs that look and feel very similar to the other services, with the difference that the files live in your own Storage, and not in the cloud. This has both advantages and disadvantages. In my opinion, a combination of both systems is the best approach. Redundancy is key, as we saw on previous articles
The power of versioning
There’s an increasing amount of platforms that provides the “versioning” service. Versioning is the capacity to create, edit and restore different snapshots or versions of a given file. It allows us to declutter our folders, since instead of saving different files, we just have one file and the system deals with the different versions of the same file.
Versioning is very popular in software development, where keeping track of working versions is very important to retrace back our steps if necessary.
Both cloud and NAS systems have different types of versioning systems, that are worth checking up.
Spreadsheets or the Severus Snape of creative work
It’s no surprise. Besides accountants and a few other people, everybody hates spreadsheets. They look complicated. Hard work. They appear mean, and unforgiving. They remind us of very negative things. But spreadsheets have an undeserved bad name.
If you think it through, a spreadsheet is nothing more than a table. You have elements in the rows, and characteristics of the element in the columns. Combining tables is pretty much everything you need to make order out of anything.
Using spreadsheets to organize creativity
When dealing with creative projects, you need to combine information and decisions from different people into a single element. An element can be a shot, a video clip, a piece of wardrobe for a theater play, a poster of an outdoor campaign. You get it. It is pretty much inconceivable that you don’t use some sort of spreadsheet to organize elements, or that you haven’t come across one.
Each element has attributes, that are defined columns, and each column can be assigned to a different person or group of people. That alone can become a single element of collaboration.
For example, imagine you have to deliver a group of flyers for different concerts. The element could be the poster, and the attributes could be the name of the venue, the date, the prize, and the concert lineup. All the different people involved with those attributes (the person who rents the venues, the manager who decides the prices, the curator of the concert lineup, and the organizer) could collaborate simultaneously, each one adding their own information. Imagine organizing a world tour, with 50 dates. Can you imagine the amount of emails, voice and text messages, and work that could be saved if everybody would work on a single file?
And if someone makes a mistake?
The first question that arises is “what if somebody touches a cell by mistake?” Well, cells can be frozen, hidden or locked, to avoid typos and mistakes. As we mentioned before, shared files systems often count with a versioning system as well, and that means that if you need to login to the system to edit it, you know exactly who did what, and then, and you can go back if things go south.
Spreadsheets are the most inexpensive way to setup databases. Databases usually are made combining tables, and tables are spreadsheets.
“Why do I need a database? I’m a creator” you might be saying now. Well, any collection of structured information is a database. Your grocery shopping list. A Wishlist. Your CV. The list of films on Netflix. All databases. Organizing information allows us to clear our head for more interesting stuff. When things are clear, they are easy to share. It’s easier to bring people onboard.
Of course, the more elaborate your workflow, the more complex the database can become. There are several instruments more developed and specialized to organize work, but also less flexible. So starting with spreadsheets is a great start to get more self aware of your processes.
Here’s some advice to keep things tidy and neat in a shared spreadsheet.
One item, one row
An item, is an item, is an item. There’s a very natural habit of people to create groups, by merging cells to avoid repetition. But when you merge cells in a row, it becomes hard to edit things, because you have to unmerge to edit, and then that word is only in one row, and not all of them, so you risk losing data.
The second reason is that software cannot read merged cells, and if you have easy-for-computers-to-read tables, it will be much easier to automate and flow data between programs.
Using columns is powerful, but be clear about what should be on a column. Having a good balance of specificity and amount of columns is important. If you have too few columns, all information will be mixed in that column, and it will be difficult to reorganize elements with different criteria (remember tags?). If you have too many columns, filling them can become too tedious and then your colleagues and clients might get confused or annoyed, and they might (wrongfully) think “it’s easier if I just send you an email”.
Don’t merge columns unless strictly necessary.
Same goes to columns. It might seem like it looks clear to merge columns, but that can be useful only
Freeze title columns and rows
There are two small bars that pin whatever is to the left and on top of them. That is ideal to keep your names always visible, and scroll up, down and sideways everything else. This helps to visualize where things belong.
If an element or a project is complex, spreadsheets can grow very easily in size. Big spreadsheets are scary.
Hiding columns and creating filters can help keep things simple for people who don’t need to see the big picture.
Moreover, you can have service columns that can do work for you, like counting things, or doing intermediate calculations, and are not useful for anything else. These should be hidden.
Cloud services like google spreadsheets can give permissions very specific for different people. You can allow certain people to change only one column of a spreadsheet, some people to be able only to watch a spreadsheet and not edit it at all, or only comment on cells without changing values.
These cloud services usually show you exactly who changed what, and when, which is great to give responsibility to people for their work. When you have an offline file, you make changes, you email the file, it gets in different hands, forward after forward. After a while, it comes back to you, but you don’t have this sort of ledger, so you cannot track back who made a change, who didn’t or where an error comes from, because there’s no specificity regarding people.
File requests and shared folders
File requests are, in my opinion, one of the most valuable productivity breakthroughs in the history of smart working. Having the ability to ask anyone to place files straight in your folders is one of the most underrated features out there.
A file request is a link that you share with whoever you want, and works like some sort of mailbox. Anyone that places a file in that link, will directly upload it to a folder of your choice.
Usually people use emails to send attachments. And they don’t send all attachments together. So the result is that you receive an email with an attachment, and you have to download it (usually in downloads) and then move it to a specific folder that is useful for you to not lose it.
When you need to receive several files from several people, it becomes hundreds and hundreds of minutes wasted in moving stuff around.
File requests are one way. People can upload files but they cannot download them back. Shared folders are a two way street. (Usually) people can both upload and download files from them.
Combining file requests and shared folders are a powerful way to centralize communications and save time.
Keep context of feedback: Use comments
Comments are one of the most powerful elements of any shareable document. Most of the file sharing systems allow not only to write comments in documents in very specific places, but also to open a discussion within those comments.
These features allow comments to stay in context, which is a real time saver, and avoids useless confusions traveling back and forth from different documents. It’s the closest you’ll be to have many meetings at the same time. Each person can, on its own time, become a part of the conversation. That saves a lot of time and prepping on a real meeting, since everyone’s on the same page.
Try always to keep comments as close as the commented element as possible. It will feel like you’re working side to side with each other.
Adobe and other providers have the possibility to share documents on the cloud and insert comments within the contents of pdf documents. Any document can become a pdf, and pdf is a pretty universal format. Using PDFs can save a lot of intercompatibility issues with photographs and/or graphic documents like flyers, posters, OOH, etc.
Presentations can become pdfs, saving problems of compatibility between windows/mac (but in my opinion, Google Slides are better than Powerpoint or Keynote).
[image PDF comments]
There are several systems in the market (Vimeo, Frame.io, etc) that provide services to leave feedback directly on videos. Keeping these comments in context is priceless when we deal with contents that also have the time variable on them. You can even point a specific area of the frame, to put the attention on a specific thing. It’s not even a terrible idea to render an audio as a black video and use one of these instruments to receive feedback on music tracks for example.
[Gif Vimeo review]
We saw some very concrete ways to collaborate with colleagues and clients in the creative sector, in order to save time and avoid errors. We found very interesting tools to give and receive feedback within its context. Now that we know where to leave feedback, we can analyze how to do it efficiently, in the next article.