12 posts categorized "Productivity"

Making Time to Design


When talking with designers about what they enjoy most about their job, the actual task of designing the work is usually what they focus on as the highlight of each and every day—as long as they like the problem they've been tasked with solving. But most big projects today are complex enough that the percent of time spent actually designing them can be less than 30%. The rest can fall under the domain of project management: talking with clients, scheduling and planning, resource management, accounting, and if you're lucky, a little foosball.

"Oh, if only I could spend more time designing and less time doing [insert name of mundane task that doesn't seem to be design related at all]," is a constant refrain. But I'd like to ask that you refrain from saying it—at least out loud—because it's those mundane tasks that make the design work possible.

Project management is what keeps projects successful and profitable. For the sanity of both your co-workers and your clients, it can never be sacrificed. Once you do sacrifice it, you'll find that you're working two jobs—that of a designer, and that of a project manager. (And resenting the perceived overtime.) Your clients will expect this service from you. Your business will demand it.

The trick is to structure your time so that you're a designer less of the time—meaning fewer than 8 hours a day—and earmarking protected chunks of your workday that are dedicated to design, while others are for everything but design. This means check your email in the morning, respond to it, then shut it off for a set period of time. (At least two hours.) I like to get lost in the flow of doing the work, so I actually have to set myself a timer, whether in Outlook or on my phone, to force me out of delighting in the creative process and taking care of more mundane (but equally important) tasks. When those tasks are accommodated, I can then get back to work. I recently heard Scott Belsky echo this sentiment in a talk about making ideas happen, and it's an important habit to cultivate.

To protect this new behavior, be clear in your rules of engagement with clients that your response times will be 4 hours or less, so you can balance design with work time. Also, adjust your utilization so that it's clear that you don't need to be billing 85% to 90% of your time solely to design services. If you split the appropriate percentages of your time and effort between design and managing a project, you'll be able to bill all of your project time, even while taking care of what may seem like mere clerical tasks.

I'm just describing an ideal process here, however—to invest that extra little bit of quality to the design work, I do find myself verging out of the 8-hour workday. This is partly why I've been blogging a bit less. But when doing so, I'm aware of what's design and what's making the design possible.

The Proper Place for Procrastination


I've been putting off writing about procrastination for some time now. I thought I knew what I wanted to say, but now that the subject has rattled around my brain for so many days, I'm not quite so sure.

This is the curse of being an iterative design thinker—the longer you mull over solutions for a big problem, the more options you end up considering for the result. Possibilities shift and morph in your mind like taffy. Arguments and counter-arguments scrape and spark, misaligned gears in a house-sized machine that keeps chugging along no matter how hard you try to feed it another subject... unless you're dealing with a well-defined problem. Solutions can appear fully formed, like magic. These "rabbit out of the hat" moments seem like the norm in our community, but we are rarely clocked upside the head with a stellar idea, ten feet tall and luminous, just like the sign letting travelers know that you have arrived in Las Vegas.

Gigantic problems must be chipped away, slowly but surely, until the solution emerges from paring away excess. Opportunities come out of nowhere, but the ideas in our mind must be given form before they can be regarded as proper. Otherwise, we're just thinking some more.

Continue reading "The Proper Place for Procrastination" »

Timeboxing for Creative Professionals

Creative ideation

Being creative is a mind game.

No matter how much time you have for ideation, you can always come up with a good idea. It just takes extra time and energy to identify which of those ideas is the best one to pursue, then iterate on it to achieve some polish. This can be accomplished through the use of timeboxing. This is a technique that is regularly used in agile software development, but is also quite adaptable and useful for any creative professional to improve their speed to an idea.

Timeboxing is also excellent for defeating procrastinators. Most designers—myself included—ruminate subconsciously on a possible solution for days on end. This is a luxury of time that isn't feasible if you're working regularly to tight deadlines. And besides, most designers have trouble meeting their deadlines no matter how far off they twinkle in the distance.

So, what is timeboxing? And how can you use it on your next project?

Continue reading "Timeboxing for Creative Professionals" »

Spotted on the Web: Hitchcock for iPhone

Hitchcock for iPhone

Hitchcock is a storyboarding application for iPhone and iPod touch. From photographs in your iPhoto library or on-the-go location shots taken with your phone's built-in camera, you can quickly built a multi-frame storyboard, animate it with voice over and pan-and-scan effects, then output the resulting frames to an annotated PDF for client review.

Continue reading "Spotted on the Web: Hitchcock for iPhone" »

Do or Die? Six Secrets for Managing Deadlines

Do or Die

The art director shut the door quietly behind me, waving me into a seat. Out the windows of his office, I could see snarls of traffic waiting at a traffic light. Rain sluiced off our building in rhythmic waves. The gray weather outside lulled me into a sense of serenity. I liked my new job and the people that worked there. This was my first big agency job, and so far everyone I'd met had been quite helpful. I didn't know what this meeting was about, but I assumed it regarded a new, exciting client engagement that I would soon tackle.

The first thing out of my boss's mouth?

"The most important rule here is that you don't miss a deadline."

Continue reading "Do or Die? Six Secrets for Managing Deadlines" »

Stop Trying Ritual


  1. Notice you're being too critical of your design on the screen
  2. Move away from your computer and find a nice quiet space
  3. Take out your notebook and draw the first thing you remember this morning after the alarm went off
  4. Write five words that your drawing reminds you about
  5. Draw a fancy chart highlighting the relationships between those five words
  6. Pour yourself the last dregs of coffee and take a slow sip
  7. Focus on your breath
  8. Take the book nearest to you, go to page 34, and copy down the 3rd sentence in the second paragraph next to (or within) the chart
  9. Go back to the computer, print the most recent version of your design, and place your sketchbook next to it
  10. Take at least one element from your notebook and place it into your design

Design and Self-Sacrifice

Designer Status Chart

You're staring at your previously sharp pencil, now worn to a nub.

It's 2 AM, and after 34 hours of non-stop work, the comps are finally coming together... just as you're starting to fall to pieces. Just another few hours and you'll be able to send off the PDF. If only I could put down my head and just rest my eyes -- no! The home page interface design needs just a little more refinement...

How did you get in this mess? You were only given two days to complete a week of work. The demands seemed unreasonable from the start, but you know your boundaries.

Plus, no one knows this client better than you -- it makes perfect sense that you'd be the one to lead the charge. After all, no one else could pull off this kind of design work in the same time frame. The other designers at work wouldn't be willing to make this kind of sacrifice, and they're damn busy anyways. My boss will thank me for the effort, the client will be thrilled, and after pulling an all-nighter and a half I'll just spend the next few days in a daze, catching up on my sleep...

In your mind, it seems like you've overcome great adversity to deliver some compelling design work.

But on the outside, this is what your significant others and colleagues see: You're sluggish. Plugging away at a plodding pace. Undernourished. Burnt out. Half-dead.

Yes, you look like shit. The client's going to be happy, but you're the one that's going to pay for it in the end.

Continue reading "Design and Self-Sacrifice" »

Spotted in Japan: D-Bros 2009 Creator's Diary

Creators Diary 450px
Creators Diary 450px
Creators Diary Cover

While I was in Japan, I purchased two of these personal diaries at an art museum in Kyoto. The 2009 Creator's Diary -- created by D-Bros, the product design arm of the marketing and advertising firm Draft -- allows creatives to keep up with their day-to-day activities on the top half, while tracking projects from week to week on the bottom half. I especially love how the binding allows you to continue projects without having to "turn a page" or recopy anything -- just keep folding it out!

The photographs here are from the Japanese design boutique Kok-Design. The diary is approximately $29 USD.

The 97% Rule

97 Percent Rule

When I was a designer, as opposed to a design manager that also happens to design things, I would always chuckle inwardly -- in a kindhearted manner -- when my creative director, art director, account manager, copywriter, or CEO would tell me to give 110% on every project.

You'll never hear those words out of my mouth. The concept of giving 110% is misguided, and not just for the illogic of exactly where that extra 10% comes from. (Your sanity?)

It's hard to do your work profitably unless you plan for giving 100%. So I say, limit yourself to 97%. The last 3% isn't the meat and potatoes of the work. It's polish. And it's usually where the profit gets burned up on your job.

Giving of your personal time in a self-sacrificial desire to meet a corporate goal is 110%. But in those circumstances, time is the only thing you have to sacrifice. Time is the easiest commodity to give away, but many agency professionals forget it's also the most valuable. It's much harder to keep things at 97%.

One agency that I worked at would dole out an 110% Award for those who had put the most effort into their job in that month, or demonstrated something that showed they went "above and beyond" the level of service anyone would care to expect. I recall being nominated for said award once because I put together a new business PowerPoint with voiceover over a very long weekend, capped by an overnight and an 8 AM team presentation. Bleary eyed, tired out, they patted me on the back and let me leave a little early so I could sleep it off, then be in bright and early the next morning for the pitch, Round 2. (Ding.)

The same agency noted above would assign us very short timeframes for projects in an attempt to keep the projects profitable. "Go ahead, take as long as you want! But the comps are due in three days." Really, if I gave 110% on this project, I'd need a cot in the corner, a personal chef and masseuse available at all hours, and a Schnapps IV drip. Neither of the three were ever forthcoming.

In those situations, we designers on the creative team banded together and hatched what I can call here, posthumously, the 97% Rule. The rule, put quite simply, was save the polish for the very last moment in the project and only allow yourself a narrow window in which to futz around/clarify any small layout problems. Otherwise you'd be there until 11 PM, kerning merrily away, every single night. That's not sustainable.

You'd think the work would suffer. But it didn't. What suffered was your pride, turning work in for multiple rounds of review without perfecting every last detail of every page. There's nothing that drives us designers more insane than turning something into our client's hands knowing that a few details still aren't right. And knowing that our clients won't know it. Sacrilege.

But when you think about it, giving up control of the microdetails until that last round frees your mind and elevates you to make sure the concept and layout are sound. The designers got strategic very quickly, and knew how to battle for the idea first, the layout second, and the micro-details last.

Thankfully, I've been able to shake this 97% habit at subsequent agencies, where the Ford Factory assembly-line model does not predominate. However, in estimating projects, I had to re-account for those extra hours past concept where we would get out the towels and start polishing the silver to a bright glowing sheen. But certain bread and butter projects just don't require 100%. There's no way anyone will ever know you gave 97%. (Except another designer. So don't put it in your book, okay?)

And the 97% rule doesn't hold up well when you're talking about truly artistic projects. A great idea executed well (at 97% percent) can be trumped by a great idea executed fantastically well, with care and attention to every aspect of its being, right down to how the jute strings are tied on the Japanese binding of the annual report that you had to letterpress-print using only wind power and ink derived from crushed Goji berries...

18 Minutes

Do Be

You can lose yourself in the process of creating something meaningful for your client, and in the process, literally lose yourself.

Most of my friends and colleagues know me as a fairly pragmatic character, but over the past year, I have been a somewhat fervent believer of "getting out of your own way" -- creating the space in our creative practice to allow the unconscious, the intutitive, and the poetic to be channeled into your work.

In a business that often bills on time spent ideating and then creating things from those ideas, there is always a strong urge to try and quantify every last dribble of work splashed on the page, marrying Ford-factory-like precision to the creative act to ensure maximum throughput on each finely tuned engine (read "designer"). This is the curse of every businessperson who weds themselves to creative industry. The cows are in the pasture, ruminating on grass. Holler at them all you want, but they won't make the milk any faster, growth hormones be damned.

This morning in yoga class, our instructor was focusing on the seventh chakra, the seat of all the other chakras in our body--where true consciousness and intuition illuminate the bodymind like the lumens projected on a television screen.

"It takes 18 minutes of sitting to reach a meditative state," she said at the start of class, and as we progressed through a set of asanas, we would pause to sit, breathe, and let that screen of the seventh chakra slowly clarify, pushing space aside to allow us to experience life as it is, unmediated.

After yoga class, I couldn't help but reflect on my own struggles with time and space in my daily work. Time was necessary to reach the most artful conclusion; space to explore the options before me and drive down the right path. Neither of these dimensions are linear. Neither tolerate mediation. It's very hard for most businesspeople to enforce space for play, and feel confident that the play will lead to something that can be quantified, then sold. Sheer unburdened creative thought, with no sense of utility or application, must be like arsenic to the accountant. Creativity is ambiguity, which is the enemy of economy.

I'd like to disabuse their objections, stow the calculators away, and put forth the following postulate -- that without unburdened play focused on the self, followed swiftly by focused attention on a design problem, clears space in the mind for your self to engage with the work at hand. I think it's one of the few ways to truly inspire the spirit of humanity that infuses design work for paid clients with that little hint of soul.

So next time you're in a situation where you're asked to exceed what you think you can accomplish as a creative, set a timer for 18 minutes and meditate on whatever comes to mind.

During that period of time, you can't hunt through books for an inspiring design, or read your e-mail, or talk with a coworker as a quick break from the stress. Place a pencil in your hand, a sheet of paper on the desk, and turn off your mind.

You aren't being creative. You aren't working. You aren't solving a problem. You are definitely not distracting yourself from the work. You're letting you happen.

This window of being in the midst of doing, even when the stakes are so high that you're losing sleep, is where you can most strongly assert your humanity. Do not be sucked into the feeling of self-sacrifice that punts the life right out of meaningful creative labor. You must give yourself willingly -- but only after giving yourself space to be yourself.

Dirty Little Deadline Tricks

Morning Schedule

Here's some dirty tricks I've seen used to get solid work out of designers, and have been used on me in the past. But I don't recommend using them. You'll see why.

Go ahead, take as many hours as you want. Within a ridiculously tight timeframe.

I've worked at some agencies where you had free reign to bill as much time as you wanted to your live projects. The rub was that you only got a few days for what should take weeks. It's a dirty management trick: the shorter the project schedule, the more likely you'll take a profit on the project. So squeeze it out of the creative staff.

Hello, designer. Clear your deck so your design time doesn't get chipped away. Focus, focus, focus. We will keep you out of meetings, push off your other projects, and bring you food to eat. But you only get two days to do those three logos. With color studies. And recommendations for look and feel on two brochure concepts.

Sometimes designers forget, when you're juggling a ton of projects, that sweeping everything aside and focusing tightly on one single problem can exponentially improve your work, especially when you're working with a tight team that meets every hour or two to compare notes and inspire rapid progress.

I've seen great results come out of this approach. But also spectacular failures. And the failures would often happen when management got greedy and did this to the same designer over and over again, since they hadn't grumbled that it was unfair. They would also happen when staff got "nickeled and dimed" with small tasks from other live projects. Without enough clear space to focus, there really isn't enough time to succeed without dragging into evenings and weekends. And who wants that?

Every deadline is equally important. You can't miss any of them. Or else.

Some designers respond well to this lie. Others have it used on them so often that they start to see through it.

What's useful, when working through a project schedule, is knowing what deadlines are somewhat arbitrary and which are crucial to a project's success. Time can then be redistributed to ensure no one gets crushed.

What does a designer hate to hear? That they've lost time on their luxurious design schedule because of something they can't control. The client needs a few days to forge a new business strategy, but the publication date for the ad won't change. Your vendor needs two weeks to produce your beautiful design, and can't give you any wiggle room to assure quality. The testing plan for your Web site is forcing a few late nights, because your testing resources have a fixed schedule and if you miss your window, you'll lose days on your schedule.

Knowing when to negotiate is critical. This is a matter of quality of communication, and shared values across your company -- that you won't make a staff member or team fully pay for an internal mishap or a client's revised needs. Time is money, and this is where it can be appreciated.

Our internal project deadline is just as important as a client project. No leeway here.

Personal and internal project deadlines should always be somewhat flexible, within reason. Here's why.

There's a distinct path your design will take on a trip through your studio or agency, through their company and their partners and focus groups and testing. Sometimes your designs even make it out into the world. But the ones that really shine above all the others rarely appear without, say, a creative brief, some kind of rudimentary competitive analysis, research, and an understanding of the psychology of your audience.

The same thinking applies for internal work. Many designers and agencies think they can step around their client-facing processes to do a task because it's "for themselves." This is a fallacy. It will require just as much time, or even more, to negotiate a project through your own internal politics. This is the time that we usually sit around and wait for client feedback on our paid work. While we wait, they're working hard, reviewing the design and getting feedback from key stakeholders. In an internal project, we have to deal with that stakeholder feedback firsthand. This takes more time and energy.

There should definitely be strong general deadlines for internal work, especially when it results in something that needs to be delivered to an external vendor by a specific time. But there always needs to be more room to negotiate timing than a traditional client project.

That is, unless you only have two days to do those three logos. See above...

Secrets of UX Design Productivity from Google

Google UX

Last Thursday, I attended a free session organized by SIGCHI, Puget Sound region at Google Seattle HQ. Jake Knapp, a very well-spoken user interface designer, entertained a packed house with a speech on 17 tactics that he uses for creating strong UX work in "the flood" of projects that pour through his UX department from month to month.

Since Google is well-known for its sprint approach to application development -- working quickly in small agile teams, touching base often to assess progress, aiming for short-term goals instead of having a long-term target, changing course to aim for quick wins -- I was very interested to see what methods they used to keep their many trains on the rails.

Jake did not disappoint, and unpacked his toolkit to show how he managed his workflow. I can't fit his whole talk into a single post, so instead I'll share what seemed like the top four main topics and their highlights.

Have Strong Project Foundations

The UX team at Google is fairly small, so they need to choose what to focus on wisely. When they start new design projects, they ask the following questions:

How much does this project matter? Is there a value for the UX department to take it on if they're extremely busy with big projects?

What is the business impact? If it's an app like Gmail or Google's search home, improving the user experience could have a huge impact on Google's bottom line. Better focus some attention on it.

How much UX impact will it have? How complex is the system to represent? As an example, Jake showed a view of a sidebar menu from Google Talk versus a chart that needed to explain the whole process of going through a signup process with Blogger. A well-rendered chart could have a big impact on user experience for Blogger, so this is where they'd likely focus the most attention at first.

Is the whole team (a.k.a. internal clients) willing and ready to engage with the UX team in the right way? This question dovetailed right into Jake's next key point: when you're working with new clients, you need to know what their expectations for UX are, then aim for quick wins to establish trust with them and build up a strong relationship. This is consistent with what I hear from many designers that work in-house within a large corporation: behave like you've been hired as an outside designer, and approach each project with the same level of professionalism and client service.

Let the Code Be the Mockup

Since Google is in the process of getting great ideas produced quickly, Jake noted that they often whiteboard the implementation of an idea with the engineer, then let the engineer build it. Wherever possible, they reuse code and existing patterns from other applications, then iterate the user experience with actual working code to get to a result faster.

Often, this investment in application prototyping will pay off. Many of the Google engineers are strong designers as well and they bang out super-functional prototypes. This allows the UX design team to try it with users, find all the edge cases, then shipping it -- often saving a buck or two on engineering in the long run.

While I can't imagine taking this approach to a heavy Flash piece, it sure makes sense for the kinds of apps Google is looking to unleash on the world on a regular basis.

Be Smart About (Re)using Research

Within Google, researchers talk to each other all the time, ensuring that they don't duplicate each other's user studies. This research is then shared wholesale through the corporation.

When new research is required, Jake noted that they try to hit multiple projects simultaneously. Through field research, diary studies, and ethnography, they'll map out their personas and other necessary use cases. Then, as their project narrows into tangible prototypes, they'll enter into usability studies to confirm their research and ensure it's functioning well.

Research-based workshops were another interesting twist to their overall research methodology. In order to solve certain UX problems or brainstorm improvements, large teams will take part in an immersive research approach. The rough structure that Jake outlined was thus:

Research Immersion: 2-8 hours long, with 10-35 people

1. Show the group rough personas of the users they're looking to target.

2. Identify unmet user needs. As an open-ended exercise, everyone would write on Post-It notes their imagined needs. As a group, these needs were categorized into themes.

3. Brainstorm solutions. The overall group would brainstorm possible solutions to those top themes that seemed most relevant.

The work from the immersion session would then enter UX design. The most promising concepts would be mocked up and presented to an overall committee, which would critique the ideas. From these concepts, project managers would step in to help the UX team build a rough schedule and plan out next steps.

Designers Need to Create Memorable Presentations

Since much of what Jake presents is evidence-based, and much of his work is reviewed by a committee before it can be implemented, he's become expert in giving top-flight, simple creative presentations. His rules for getting a great presentation together were:

1. Have a singular goal for your presentation.

2. Start on paper, and see the big-picture story. His metaphor was, "Don't use a periscope to map the ocean."

3. Make horizontal and vertical storyboards. Jake showed a photograph of his presentation written out on Post-It Notes, from left to right. The "vertical" storyboard was a way to ensure that each Post-It, when pulled out of context, still made sense as its own contained message.

4. 3 words or less per slide. 'Nuff said.

5. Follow the 10/20/30 rule, per Guy Kawasaki. 10 slides. 20 minutes, even if you have an hour to present. 30 pt font for your text, though Jake advocated 32 pts or larger.

6. Be careful how you present mockups. Often, Jake would grayscale his tight designs, then slap on crappy graphics for the approval of the rough markups in PowerPoint to ensure that they were discussing the ideas behind the UX, not the design itself.

7. Drawings invite people to participate. Keeping the design work rough cues everyone to know it's a work in progress -- and treat it as such in discussions.