10 tips for efficient design

Paul Boag

Being a good designer is not always enough to survive hard economic times. You need to be efficient too.

I don’t want this to be another ‘recession’ post. Sure, being more efficient in the way we work as web designers, makes us more competitive and keeps us employed. However, that is not the only reason we should endeavour to ‘work smarter’.

Working as efficiently as possible brings other benefits too…

  • More time – The faster you can turn around work, the more time you have for personal projects, family and friends. I don’t know about you but this is a major motivator for me.
  • Better promotion prospects – It takes more than good design skills to be promoted. You need to demonstrate that you are proactive and efficient in the way you work. Management will value you more if you generate a higher return.
  • Increased profit – If you are a freelancer it is all about maximising profit. The smarter you work, the more money you earn. It’s that simple.

So how can you be more efficient and begin to work smarter? Here are 10 tips that will get you started.

1. Use snippets

Coda Clips Palette

Let’s start with the obvious technical stuff. First make sure you have a library of code snippets that can be easily reused. These could include Eric Meyers CSS Reset or your own code for dealing with common HTML content such as news listings or pagination.

These libraries of snippets provide two benefits. First, they save a lot of typing. However more importantly, they ensure consistency across projects. Because you are using the same code for each project, all of the IDs, classes and structure remain consistent. This will save a lot of time when trying to remember why you built something in a certain way or how it works.

2. Use a Javascript library

In a similar vein to snippets I would highly recommend you adopt a Javascript library. Personally, I am a huge fan of jQuery because it is designed for those familiar with CSS. It is also amazingly easy to learn and very lightweight.

Using a library like jQuery has proved a massive time saver for me. It has allowed me to avoid endlessly battling with browser inconsistencies (at least in Javascript!) and avoid reinventing the wheel.

jQuery Homepage

jQuery (like most Javascript libraries) also supports a large number of plug-ins produced by third parties. These too can be a massive time saver. However, a word of warning – be careful using a plug-in you do not fully understand. The quality of plug-ins varies massively and if you discover a problem with one, you can waste many hours trying to fix it, if you do not understand how it works.

3. Configure your tools properly

Often in our haste to ‘get on with a project’ we fail to take the time to prepare properly. One example is in how our software is configured. We settle for working with tools ‘out of the box’ when some minor modifications could improve our efficiency.

Photoshop is a good example of this. It has all kinds of configuration options from keyboard shortcuts to palette layout. Take a few moments to set these up for your workflow, and you could save hours of unnecessary clicking over the long run.

Photoshop Palettes

Look at whatever tools you use to build websites and consider how their interface can be tweaked to your needs.

4. Have one system for tasks

For fear of reinforcing a stereotype, designers tend not to be the most organised people. Not only do we need to organise the structure of our software tools, we also need to do the same for our projects.

Fortunately, not all of us have to manage entire projects. However, we do all have tasks that need completing. How we organise those tasks can dramatically affect our efficiency.

A common mistake with task management is to have tasks spread across multiple places. Some tasks exist as emails, some in a todo list, still more in a notebook or on your mobile phone. The result is that things get overlooked.

In order to efficiently manage your tasks they need to be gathered into a single central location. For me that is a task organiser called Omnifocus, which syncs between my desktop and iPhone.

Omnifocus Screenshot

Tasks are still collected using multiple methods. However, once a day I transfer them to Omnifocus. If I attend a meeting and take physical notes that include tasks, I put the notebook into my in-tray until I can add the tasks to Omnifocus. If I receive an email with a task, I drag that email into Omnifocus. Ultimately everything ends up in Omnifocus.

By being this regimented about the way I organise tasks, I ensure nothing ever gets missed. I also avoid wasting time trying to track down the details of a task I have lost.

5. Embrace and manage admin

Inbox Zero - The original 43 folders series

Part of the problem we face is that answering email and organising tasks feels like a waste of time. Its not ‘proper work’. This is especially true when the pressure is on and deadlines are tight. We arrive at work in the morning and launch into our projects without checking our task list. The result is that we prioritise the wrong work and miss deadlines.

I begin each day by doing two things. I answer and file all my emails (I always achieve inbox zero). I then review all of my tasks and identify the ones that I wish to complete that day.

However, I don’t stop there. I have designated admin time. Once I am done my morning review I close my tasks and email until lunchtime. I focus solely on work and avoid admin entirely. This prevents email and other admin from interrupting the flow of my production work. It keeps me focused.

6. Distractions must die


Of course it is not just email that distract us from work. There is instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook, RSS and… lets face it… the entire internet!

Don’t misunderstand me, some distraction is good. I have a very short attention span and so if I work on a single thing for more than about 30-40 minutes I start to ‘zone out’. However, there is a difference between ‘having a break from work’ and ‘getting distracted’.

Every 40 minutes or so I will take a 5 minute break and fire up Tweetdeck or Google reader. What I try to avoid is keeping these applications permanently open (although with twitter I have to confess I often fail).

By leaving an application open that can distract you with notifications (‘You have a new tweet’, ‘You have mail’, etc.), you risk it interrupting your flow of work. These constant micro-interruptions make it hard to ‘get into the zone’.

7. Keep a tidy environment

Distractions extend beyond your PC as well. Your work environment can also have an impact on efficiently.

If you work from home, endeavour to keep your personal and work life separate. Ensure you can close the door on the rest of the house and that the rest of the family know not to interrupt. Also if possible, try to keep your working area separate from the rest of the house. A garage or loft are ideal. I used to work in a small room directly between our lounge and kitchen. It was impossible to focus on anything with the constant noise from the two rooms.

My Desk

Pay attention to your desk as well. Keep it clean and uncluttered. This reduces distractions but also creates a better mental state conducive to work. Ensure your physical files and disks are easy to find. Knowing you took some notes that are in a notebook somewhere does not make them easy to find. This is especially true when your desk is three feet deep under paper work!

Personally I scan what notes and physical paper I can. What I have to keep in physical form, I file in a single filing cabinet organised alphabetically.

8. Avoid multi tasking

There is a myth that multi tasking makes you more efficient – it doesn’t! As designers we like to ‘flit’ from one thing to another. However, ultimately this is damaging to productivity. We need to learn to focus on a single task and follow it through to completion.

As I have already said, I find it hard to focus for any length of time. In order to help me focus I break my tasks down into smaller ones. That way I rarely have to do one thing for too long. Take this post for example. To write the whole thing from beginning to end would take a couple of hours. That is longer than I could focus for. So, in order to stop me getting distracted and jumping onto another task, I break it down. This post was made up of three tasks…

Task List: Create an outline, write initial draft, add imagery and edit

Once I complete one task, I switch to another project for a while. Once I have completed a task on that project I may switch back to this post.

Although this is a kind of multi-tasking, it is more structured and ensures I spend as long as my attention allows on each project. I do not simply drift between projects.

Depending on your character this might be too extremely. You may find it easy to concentrate for extended periods. However, if you struggle to concentrate, do not use multi-tasks as an excuse to be distracted.

9. Don’t do excessive hours

Another widely held myth of productivity is that the longer you work, the more you get done. After all, on face value this makes sense. However, I sincerely believe this is not true, especially if your job relies on you generating ideas and being creative.

Obviously we have to put the hours in, if we want to pay the bills. However, do not allow your boss or clients to force you into excessive hours. The occasional all-nighter is one thing, regular 12 hour days is another.

It is incredibly easy to get burnt out as a web designer. You are expected to continually be creative, as well as keeping up with one of the fasting moving sectors on the planet. Things are continually changing and evolving and it is a struggle to stay current.

Twitter post of somebody saying they are burnt out by work

Working long hours damages your capability to take on board new information and cripples creative thinking. Ensure you limit your hours and book regular holidays. Do not push yourself too hard or you will fail to deliver.

Finally, accept your natural cycle. When you are ‘in the zone’ work every hour God gives you. However, you must also accept that sometimes you need to just stop and rest. Don’t feel guilty about the days when you hardly do anything.

10. Communicate better

I would like to end this post with possibly the best efficiency tip of all – If you want to avoid wasting time, learn to communicate better.

So much of our time is wasted because of miscommunication and misunderstanding. How many times have you had to redo a design because you misunderstood the client or showed them work too late in the process.

Take the time to really engage with the client and understand their requirements. Make sure that you include them in the design process and show them work often and early.

Example Mood board

Finally, use tools such as gallery sites, mood boards and sketches to ensure everybody has the same understanding and is working towards the same goal.

By effectively communicating with clients, you can potentially save days on each project that would have been wasted on reworks and amendments.

If you recognise that the mobile web is important and you need help deciding on a strategy, then book a mobile consultancy clinic.

Book a consultancy clinic or contact Rob about a more in-depth review.