How to Estimate Design Hours & Plan Creative Projects Realistically

Aleksandra Doknić, May 3, 2024

How to estimate design hours

“Okay, but how long will it take? Can you estimate design hours?”

If these two questions made your skin crawl, I’m sorry about it and I get it.

Whether you are a designer getting asked this question (over and over again!) or a Project Manager (or a Creative Director) shooting the team straight with estimation questions, it’s never a fun time.

The truth is that creating a design project estimation is a necessary evil. A Creative Director needs to estimate the project hours to determine its completion date and plan the budget.

But what if it’s impossible to give a straight answer? For several reasons:

  • The client’s project requirements are new to the design team, and they’ll need time to familiarize themselves with the technology the project calls for.
  • The design team can’t really measure how much creative juices will flow each day.
  • Designers can’t predict how long it will take them to brainstorm ideas and do creative thinking.
Design project estimation determined by designers' creativity

And these are all valid points and time-sensitive challenges.

But, trust us at Memtime, there’s a way you can plan your creative projects realistically and turn designers’ tasks (a.k.a time spent in Figma, Adobe Illustrator, etc.) into realistic estimates and billable hours for clients. You just have to be diligent about time tracking and project planning.

I’ll explain everything as we go.

A potential client asked you for an estimate. What now?

Let’s imagine that you have had your first convo with a potential client.

The online meeting went well, and now it’s up to you to give design project estimation.

But before you can discuss the project with your team, you should create an outline of the project scope that you’ll present to clients on your next call. The scope should contain:

  • Your views on the client's problem.
  • What you propose as a solution, and how you plan to solve the problem, with the specific tasks mentioned.
  • When you'll need the client's input.
  • What you'll consider as milestones and timeline.
  • What the delivery date is.
  • What your pricing is, and how you'll charge for the project.

Out of all the steps mentioned, the two that’ll probably give you a minor headache are the second and the fourth one一outlining the specific tasks and their time estimates.

So, to complete your project scope with quality information, you’ll reach out to designers, mentioning the project and its tasks, and ask them to estimate their work time.

You’ll listen to their shivering voices as they share some random numbers of hours, and then, you’ll remember:

  • Designers can be productive for about 6 hours per day. Their days can consist of a lot of interruptions, like Slack messaging with their colleagues back and forth, handling urgent, unplanned tasks, communicating with several clients on different projects, etc.
  • No matter how skillful your team of designers is and how dedicated you are to your clients, unforeseen situations happen. There will always be situations that will cause a slight increase in the original project estimate, so adding an extra 10% to 25% in your estimation for circumstances you can’t control is a good idea.
Estimating design hours

But even with all that information, you're in the danger zone of underestimating.

Your team is unsure of how long it will take them to complete tasks. Naturally, you begin to wonder…

What if the project requires new technologies designers have never used before?

What if your designers are unfamiliar with the client's industry, so it'll take time to get to know it?

What are they basing their estimates on? Are they accurate or approximate at best?

So, to stay on the safe side, you’ll probably choose the route of underpromise and overdeliver.

But you don’t have to do that. There’s a way you can accurately estimate design hours even this early in the negotiation process.

Here’s how you can plan creative projects efficiently and stop worrying about estimation.

How to estimate design hours一the bulletproof way

Estimating design time is always a gamble and predicting the future in an already busy week sounds like mission impossible.

Moreover, the responsibility giving an estimation carries can be daunting. By creating design project estimates you are partially or fully (depending on your role at the company) responsible for choosing the right solution for a client, ensuring the project’s profitability and your team’s dedication. All that’s in your hands and it can be overwhelming.

Luckily for you, the next 6 tips can help you provide potential clients with accurate estimates, even if you don’t have much time.

Here are the tips.

Tip #1: Ensure you understand the project scope.

As mentioned, the project scope is a checklist that you must go through with your client before discussing the final design project estimation. The checklist includes:

  • Project description or how you understood the client’s problem.
  • Project goals.
  • Technology stack (since used technology affects time and budget).
  • Requirements from the client.
  • When you’ll need the client’s input.
  • Time and budget aspects.

Once you fully understand the client’s needs and project, you won’t have an issue presenting it to a team of designers and breaking the project down. This step is essential, as all other steps rely on it.

Understanding project scope

Tip #2: Use bottom-up and/or top-down estimation.

So, there are two ways you can approach the “how to estimate design hours” path: bottom-up and top-down estimation.

The premise behind bottom-up estimation is that you start with the smallest task to define the project’s time and budget. This method is quite precise, as it requires you to write down all the tasks, estimate each and then make a complete estimate.

But there’s a downside to it一it takes a long time to complete.

So, if you don’t have much time to create a design project estimation, choose the top-down one.

With this technique, you should break the project into parts and try to give an estimate. This method can be useful when a client has already given you the time and budget and is expecting you to just fit it. It's up to you to see if the project can actually be completed within the given time and budget.

What should you do if a client is asking for an estimate tomorrow?

If that's the case, you won't have time to be as detailed as you wish. The best you can do is give a ballpark estimation, an approximate value based on the provided information.

If they are not okay with that, you should ask yourself if you really like to work with a client who is that demanding when it comes to quick response. 🙂

Tip #3: If you have time, break down the project solution.

This tip should remind you that the devil is in the details.

Here’s what I mean by that.

First, as a creative or design agency, you have to ensure that you come up with a solution that best fits your client’s needs. You have to nail each pixel, typography, gradient mesh, feature, functionality, etc. By breaking the project down, you can contemplate several versions of a feature, different in size, complexity, estimation, and cost.

Second, once you have a palette of feature variations, you can decide which one is optimal for your client. When you are confident in the solution, you can write down even the most minor feature details and get them estimated and quoted.

Estimating design hours based on features and tasks

Tip #4: Consult past projects.

When you’re thinking about graphic design time estimates, it’s always a good idea to consult previous projects you’ve worked on.

So, in this step, you should compare the newest, potential project with the older ones that have the same parameters.

Relying on past projects to assist in estimation is a quick way to calculate how much the project will cost or take, and it’s decently precise.

If you can’t rely on previous projects for estimation, you should start measuring time your designers spend in designer tools ASAP.

Do it with Memtime!

Our tool works in the background, so you’ll forget you're time tracking. However, the time spent using designer tools (Figma, Adobe Illustrator, Sketch, Photoshop, etc.) will be captured down to the minute.

(AND, if you are searching for design inspiration on Dribbble and Behance, or even Instagram or Pinterest, and don’t want that in your timeline, you can tell Memtime never to record such activities, or you can delete them yourself. 🤫)

At the end of each day, you can revisit your captured activities and decide which count as billable and which don’t. The billable minutes or hours can be recorded as your time entries and exported to your company’s project software.

All you need to do is start your free trial and download Memtime.

Tip #5: Compare estimated and actual time.

Once you start tracking each project you work on, you'll be able to categorize parts of the projects into consistent, repeating phases and tasks. More importantly, after a few projects, you won't dread answering the question "How many hours will it take?" because you'll know how much time each of the project phases requires.

So, for example, if you estimated that reviewing client input mid-project would take 4 hours and it took 8 instead, you'll know to leave more time for such a phase.

Comparing estimated and actual time increases the accuracy of your next estimate. Even if a client or your Project Manager asks for prompt estimation, like "I need an estimation done by tomorrow morning," you'll be good to go.

Tip #6: Offer clients several estimation options.

This may sound silly, but don't limit yourself to just one promise, one estimation.

Depending on the project, clients' requirements, and industries, you could create three different "packages" for clients to choose from. For the purpose of this article, let's call the packages Basic, Premium, and Deluxe.

The Basic package will complete the project and get clients the necessary features so they can generate profit. This "plan" is perfect for young businesses that need to penetrate the market as quickly as possible and don't have a substantial budget.

The Premium option includes a decent package of features and requirements a client would love to include in the project. Understandably, it's more expensive than the Basic package and requires more time.

The Deluxe package gets clients everything they wish and more. These packages usually come with special offers, like a client having the option to add another smaller product during a project. Undoubtedly, this is the most expensive "plan" out of the three and will most likely take a lot of (unforeseen) time.

Three packages for clients

Ready to start providing clients with accurate estimates?

If you are, we suggest you go through the previously mentioned tips and decide which tips could work for your next client project. After all, all projects are different in nature; they vary in complexity, required technology, urgency, etc.

Nevertheless, we highly recommend you give your designers a chance to streamline their creative task tracking with Memtime.

If you’d like to test Memtime as a team, book a call with us, and start a trial for your design or creative agency.

A team trial gets you:

  • Custom onboarding according to the specific needs of your creative business. We’ll ensure that everyone on your team understands how to make the most of Memtime.
  • During the trial, you’ll gain insights into how much value automatic time tracking can bring to your daily tasks and projects.

And if you are still hesitant about giving Memtime a chance, perhaps this information will nudge you in the right direction: Widgets and Stone’s Creative Director, Liz Tapp, attest that Memtime makes time-tracking fun; it’s intuitive, fast, and seamless. Give it a try and experience the difference yourself.

Happy time tracking!

Meet the author:

Aleksandra Doknić - post author

Aleksandra Doknić

Aleksandra Doknić is a copywriter and content writer with six years of experience in B2B SaaS and e-commerce marketing. She's a startup enthusiast specializing in topics ranging from technology and gaming to business and finance.

Outside of work, Aleksandra can be found walking barefoot in nature, baking muffins, or jotting down poems.