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Free Tools for Organizing Personal Creative Projects

In this article I will briefly outline the basic process of starting creative projects and then list some related software tools.

Coming up with Ideas

Write it Down

Take notes whenever you have an idea or see something interesting you want to look into in more detail later. Unless you have amazing memory retention it is likely you will forget it unless you make a note of it.

Keeping a scrapbook, journal or sketchbook (or all three) can be useful when you need to find an idea to work on later.

Getting a Project Done

Time Management and Focus

Tracking Projects can be useful to keep you motivated and get a more realistic idea of how long everything takes to do.

It is a good idea to set a time limit on every stage in a projects development. Time boxing may be a useful technique to use in order to avoid spending too much time on any one stage and keep to overall goals. We tend to fill the allotted time we give ourselves to do something sometimes getting distracted or going overboard on a particular stage to the detriment of another, so breaking up the stages of a project into timed slots or milestones can help you keep on track.

The Pomodoro technique is another time tracking technique designed to get you working intensely in short time intervals (usually around 25 minutes) and encourage you to take breaks. It may be useful when combined with the time boxing technique.

Brainstorm

Brainstorming is an initial idea generation and development phase of a project. It helps gets you in the appropriate frame of mind and interest for the project at hand.

Mind-mapping can be done in several ways or a combination of ways. You write your central idea or focus of the project you want to work on in the center and then write related words around that word. When you exhaust the related words you can start writing unrelated words or opposites. You will see associations and relationships between the words which can be expanded upon and linked together. The SCAMPER checklist is a useful thing to run your ideas through to further develop them.

Substitute something; Combine with something else; Adapt something to it; Modify or magnify it; Put it to some other use; Eliminate something; Reverse or rearrange it.

Word listing is another mind mapping technique if you need more structure.

You make three columns for lists of words. In the first column write down as many concepts or terms as possible which are related to your focus. In the second column pick an idea that interests you from the first column and write down a series of related words. Write down words that are the opposite of the material you wrote in column one in the third column.

After this you can circle and connect relationships that span the three columns to further distill the connected words into bigger ideas. Then run them through the SCAMPER checklist before sketching your rough ideas.

Another way to mind map a project is to use picture association. Collect photos and illustrations, clippings anything related to your project. Arrange them into groups that go with each other then write words around the groups describing the essential messages  they convey. From these groups distill your findings into other directions or design sketches and run them through the SCAMPER checklist before sketching full execution ideas.

There are many ways to come up with and develop your ideas, keep trying different techniques to figure out the ones that work for you.

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Words usually inspire images or different ways of approaching the solution

Visualize it

Depending on your project and the scope different visualization methods will be useful and some won’t. These can include kanban boards, mood boards, rough sketching, thumbnails, storyboards. Whatever you use it is important not to get carried away and always remember the brief and the schedule. The aim is not to create the most beautiful planning visualizations but to complete the project.

Avoid Procrastination

Make your work area nice to be in. Set clear boundary’s with people that you live with. When you are working let them know you will be busy during a certain time so they don’t disturb you. Listening to calming music or ambient noise may be helpful to get you in the right frame of mind to work.

Keep off social media, it is a time sink and a distracting toxic thing to do, especially when you have to get something done.

Don’t over-plan or overthink your idea. Just start working on something, you can’t finish something unless you start doing it. Things will become clearer and you will become more interested in them the more you work on them rather than avoiding them.

Planning can be addictive and it is important to keep in mind the plan is all very well, but you must work the plan.

Remember to take breaks. You need to make sure you are hydrated and not straining your eyes for too long. Pace yourself and try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise in as well because it will do you the world of good in the long run.

Reward yourself for your hard work, or what is the point of doing it? Procrastination often stems from a bad experience or a perceived struggle you want to avoid, so make it fun and enjoy the process!


Here is some software that may (or may not) be helpful in relation to this article.

I’ve tried to only include free and when possible open source tools here, but there are many alternatives and similar solutions around depending on your operating system and budget.

Please note that finding the “perfect” software can become a form of procrastination in itself (like blogging about it as well unfortunately).

Software

Brainstorming, Mind Mapping and Visual Planning

Sometimes I’ll start the early planning stage with pencils and paper in my sketchbook or notebooks and then transfer things to the computer later.

Any graphics application you can draw in could be used to create visual planning notes. Storyboards for example can be created in most graphics applications that support a pen tablet device.

Krita : Free open source Painting and drawing software. You could make storyboards and visual planning diagrams. It has hand drawn animation features as well, you just have to show the timeline and other animation dockers or you can switch to an animation layout preset.

Tahoma : is based on OpenToonz. You could use it to make storyboards and organize a story or visual project. Nice brushes and simple to use, it uses MyPaint brushes for the raster tools.

Pencil2D :  This is a free open source hand animation tool. It is simple to use. Pen pressure only worked with digital ink enabled for my tablet. It isn’t as nice to draw in as Krita but it is fine for rough plans. I tried the PortableApps version.

Blender : If you want to mix a 3D and 2D workflow for your story-boarding that is possible in Blender.

Heimer : A free mind mapping and diagramming software.

Dia : Free Diagramming and flow chart software.

Pencil Project : Free prototyping and mind mapping software

LibreOffice Draw : You can draw diagrams and mind maps with this free software that comes with the LibreOffice suite. You could make mood boards with it as well.

PureRef : Free tool for making boards with images for art reference.

Organization of Information

Keynote NF : this one is getting on a bit but I still like it.

Joplin : free, open source note taking and to-do application

QOwnNotes : Free open source plain-text file markdown note taking with Nextcloud / ownCloud integration

Indigrid: If you like taking notes and kanban boards this could be for you. I haven’t tried it because I’m not really into that.

Treesheets : I use this for making detailed learning notes for my personal training sessions in software like Blender and ZBrush.

Writing

I still use physical notebooks. The trouble is I always forget what I’ve written in them and they are all over the place. Organizing notes and writing on the computer can help.

Scrivener : I used to use this, I haven’t for a while though. There was an update to a version 3 in March but I haven’t tried it.

NovelWriter : Free and Open Source tool for writers.

Manuskript : Another free Open Source tool for writing.

Bibisco : Novel writing software. Might be useful for planning a big story based project with lots of characters.

KIT Scenarist : A free open source screenwriting tool.

LibreOffice : I use this for writing documents. The spellchecker is very useful.

Artha : Free offline thesaurus.

Reading and Writing

Balbolka : Text to speech tool. Might be handy for proof reading things to check they make sense or for reading out text while you work.

Okular : A free Open Source universal PDF (and other documents) reader software. Also supports annotation and digital signing. Available in the Microsoft Store.

Tools for Focus

FocusWriter : Tool for writing in full screen without distractions.

Ghostwriter : Tool for writing in full screen without distractions.

Timers

You could time yourself so you don’t spend too long on a certain task.

Hourglass : Just an Open Source free timer. This one is just for Windows, I’m sure you could find alternatives if you had to or use an egg timer instead.

Music and Ambient Sounds

If listening to music just be careful it doesn’t distract you by being too emotional. I can’t work with music that makes me sad, it usually has to be instrumental or cheerful so as not to interrupt my work flow.

Sometimes it is better to work with no sound or ambient sounds instead. You can find things to listen to on YouTube, Spotify and Bandcamp.Things like Lofi Girl seem to be popular. Personally I like 80s Synth and anything by Mick Gordon.

There are also specialized websites for generating ambient sounds. Here are a few.

Noisli

Generative.fm

myNoise

Journal / Diary

RedNotebook : I’ve used this for years as a basic diary / reminder tool. I never write anything personal in it though I save that for my real diary.

Taking Quick Notes

Physical notebooks are still something I use. I suppose having a note taking app on a mobile may be useful but I’m still resisting the smart phone thing.

SilentNotes : This is a to-do list software and is also available on the Microsoft store as well as for other platforms and android devices.

Sleek : Another free tool for to-do lists. Available on the Microsoft store.

Windows Sticky Notes : Free and comes with Windows. If you need post it notes all over your desktop to remind yourself to do something this could be a good option.

Project Management and Tracking

ToDoList : This is the software I personally prefer for managing big projects that I want to track. It is free as well which is a bonus.

Super Productivity : This one is free and it looks really nice. Also has tools to help you focus and reminds you not to overdo it with screen time (which might be a good idea). Available on the Microsoft store.

Focalboard : This tool is free and Open Source. It is currently in early-access beta so they are looking for feedback. It is a self-hosted alternative to Trello, Notion, and Asana but they also have a desktop version available on the Microsoft store. The desktop version is pretty limited, perhaps the online version is better for teams. Developed by Mattermost.


Thanks for reading this article! I found a few interesting tools which I will put to use in future projects, and it is always good to recap the basics and evaluate process methods from time to time. I hope you found it useful as well.

Books I read while writing this article

Creative Workshop by David Sherwin

The Moving Image Workshop by Heather D. Freeman

Focus by Jurgen Wolff

Creativity Now by Jurgen Wolff

The Storyboard Design Course by Giuseppe Cristiano

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