GIFTS: Fostering Professionalism in Applied Communication Courses: Making Sense of Dollars and Cents* – Project Details

*This work was presented at the Ohio Communication Association Conference, October, 2018

Background & Rationale

In applied communication courses such as graphic design or web development, students must balance many different types of learning. In addition to technical tools, students are also challenged to develop a deep understanding of design, information architecture, communication theory, and in some cases, history of the field or notable individuals. Despite the depth and rigor of postsecondary applied communication curricula, research suggests that students entering the workforce are not entirely prepared; a PayScale (2016) survey discovered that only half of the responding managers felt that newly hired college graduates were adequately prepared for their positions. Additionally, an increasing number of communication practitioners is forsaking the “traditional” career trajectory and opting instead to work independently. Edelman Intelligence (2017) found that 36% of the US workforce maintains a freelance practice. The same study projects that freelancers will be the majority by 2027, if current growth rates persist. As communication educators, then, it is important that we help students develop not only technical mastery, but in-demand soft skills as well as habits and professional practices that will give them an advantage in a competitive industry. The ‘Making Sense of Dollars and Cents’ project goes beyond classroom learning. It gives students the opportunity to research industry best-practices; understand foundational business processes; explore technological tools/systems; and develop good habits around tracking and reporting time and money. I’ve found that this project also gives students an incredible confidence boost as it attaches a quantifiable dollar amount to the work they’re doing in class. On average, the students in a recent Web Design III class invoiced more than $5700 during the course of the semester!

Intended Course(s)

Media and/or Applied Communication courses such as Web Design, Graphic Design, Desktop Publishing, Advertising or PR Agency classes, Video Production, Capstone, or Practicum/Internships 


  • To increase student understanding of ‘the business’ of the communication profession.
  • To help students understand and apply various financial and project management tools, technologies, and techniques commonly used in professional communication settings.
  • To boost student confidence and develop positive professional habits

Description of the Activity

This activity consists of four major components/individual assignments: personal branding, time tracking, invoicing, and reporting (see below for full description of each). During the first week of the semester, students are tasked with researching tools for keeping track of the time they spend on different projects. Then they are asked to come up with a system for sending invoices (to the instructor, aka, the client), based on those hours. Students can opt to use one of many free online tools for this purpose, or they can create invoices manually in a program like Microsoft Excel. Part of the learning challenge here is figuring out how the systems work together, and how they serve the individual’s need. Upon making their selection, students submit a brief rationale for their choices. 

Students are then expected to submit bi-weekly invoices for the duration of the semester. Invoices should include the student’s personal branding which they developed early in the term. As a part of this process, students conduct research to determine appropriate hourly rates for services in their industry. Finally, during the last week of the term, I ask students to submit a report that outlines how much time was spent on each project and how much ‘income’ they would have earned. I also encourage students to create a specific section of the report that deals with the most/least profitable projects or tasks so that they can begin to identify areas for improvement or adjustments. All documents are submitted to the instructor as a PDF through the online course management system. 


Throughout the semester, the instructor can provide various types and degrees of feedback for students. Initially, I provide qualitative feedback on the student’s personal branding and offer suggestions when appropriate. I pose questions or offer professional ‘tips’ with regard to their choices for time tracking and invoicing systems, helping them think about different use cases that may challenge their assumptions about a particular choice. Full points are given for students who remember to turn in their invoices by the deadline. In some cases, however, I may challenge or ‘dispute’ a charge on an invoice. This exercise can help students articulate justifications for their work, choices they’ve made, or develop negotiation skills.


In general, I’ve found that students appreciate the opportunity to explore the practical professional sides of being a communication practitioner. Many young students may not have experience with business fundamentals and this gives them an opportunity to learn in a low-stakes environment, as opposed to in a high-pressure client situation where real money (and reputation) is on the line. Students report feeling empowered after experiencing this project. They tell me that they feel better prepared for ‘the real world’ and that they are now more confident in their ability to work with actual, paying clients. I often extend this professional development work by asking students to develop a proposal and contract for a major client project. The invoicing/time-tracking work helps students develop more accurate estimates for time and money. The end-of-term report is also a pleasantly eye-opening experience for many students. I believe that this semester-long project generates excitement for the industry, while helping the student create a positive vision of the opportunities that await them in the industry.


Edelman Intelligence. (2017, September). Freelancing in America: 2017 [Report]. Retrieved from 

Payscale (2016). Leveling up: How to win in the skills economy [Report]. Retrieved from

Sample Assignment Descriptions

Assignment 1: Personal Branding

Have you developed a brand for yourself as a professional designer?  Perhaps you have a favorite typeface that you use on everything?  Maybe a color that you feel represents your personality?

As you work toward a career in communications, it’s important to start thinking about this.  If you’re going to do freelance work, you should definitely work to develop your personal brand so that you can include it on your website, business cards, proposals, invoices, etc.

For this assignment, please create a 1-page document (PDF) that describes/demonstrates your brand.  

Please include:

  • Your logo (if you have one)
  • A typeface or two that fit your personality/brand (type out a line of text in that font)
  • 2-3 color swatches that you feel represent your brand
  • Have you thought about a tagline or mission statement for yourself?  Include some words or phrases that come to mind when you think about who you are as a designer (speedy? precise? creative? flexible? reliable?)

The document can be laid out however you want.  Keep it simple and be sure it communicates the brand clearly.

Assignment 2: Invoicing and Time Tracking

As a part of your coursework this semester, you will be asked to setup a system that you can use to track the time you spend on each project.  You will also be asked to submit a bi-weekly invoice to me based on the time you spent, and the tasks accomplished.  

Your first task is to figure out how you want to approach keeping track of your time.  There are a lot of great timers, clocks, and counters available as apps for a smartphone or computer.  There are also apps that are designed specifically for managing project or client-based work.  Do a bit of research, try a few, and see which one suits your needs.  

You can also create a manual log of time using a spreadsheet, Word document, or other format.

Next, you’ll need to research solutions for managing your client billing.  There are a lot of free or very inexpensive online services that allow you to manage client info (name, address, etc), create regularly used tasks or services, and some even let you process payments through PayPal or other online systems.  Spend some time this week investigating the different options and pick one that you think will work for your budding design firm.

If you don’t want to use an online service or you want more control over the design, you can create invoices manually in a program like Adobe InDesign or Illustrator.

For this assignment, tell me:

  • How are you going to track your time?  Which application or method have you selected, and why?
  • How will you invoice your clients?  Which solution have you selected and why?

Assignment 3: Bi-weekly Project Log / Invoice

As a part of this course’s professional development component, this exercise will help you work through setting up and maintaining some sort of billing system that you can use with clients. It will also help you get in the habit of watching your time so that you can evaluate where you need to improve or work more quickly. Throughout the course of this semester, you will be asked to keep a log of all the time spent on your projects.

Pretend I’m your client…Every two weeks, you should submit an invoice to me for all the work you’ve done in this class during the previous two weeks, based on the number of hours you’ve logged.  It’s up to you how much you want to charge, but your rates should be competitive with other web designers.  Do a bit of research and see what the going rates are based on your expertise, skill sets, and market area.  You may also consider charging a different rate for design vs. programming, or advanced development work like PHP/MySQL.

Please submit a PDF. The document should contain:

  • Your personal/corporate branding
  • The dates indicating when services were rendered
  • Line items for each activity (e.g., design, development, advanced development, writing, research)
  • Quantity (i.e., hours worked)
  • Price per hour for each
  • Line Total
  • Invoice Total
  • Outstanding balance, if any
  • Payment terms (Net 30? 60? Due on receipt?)  What happens if I pay late?
  • Payment methods you’d like the client to use 

Invoices are due by Friday of the even-numbered weeks in the semester (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14)

Please Note: my accountant goes home early on Fridays, and he will not process any payments for invoices received after then.  If you want to get paid for the work, you need to submit the invoice before Friday at 4 pm. (In other words, I won’t accept late invoice submissions)

Assignment 4: Final Project Log / Invoice & Final Report

Final bi-weekly project log and invoice. 

You are also required to include a report of your time and income for the entire semester.

Make sure you separate out your time by projects, so you can see which ones were most lucrative… this is especially important for the final project, so you know if you came in close to your proposed budget.

Please add a paragraph or two of text analyzing your report:  Does anything jump out to you?  Did you get faster or more efficient over the semester?  Is there anything you’d change if you had to do this again?  How will this information help you as a professional?

Please submit a multi-page PDF.

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