10 tips for efficient design

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.

  • Great post, as always. Just a tip on the snippets suggestion – there is a great site called Snipplr – http://snipplr.com/.
    Aside from it’s overly web 2.0ish name, it’s a site for storing and sharing snippets with the community. It supports a large number of programming and markup languages. You can look up what others have posted, and ‘favorite’ them, so you have them to refer to later. Plus, if you’re a textmate user, there is a very handy plugin for accessing your snippets.

  • Wonderful tips…Thanks for sharing.Very useful for designers.

  • Kevin

    I total agree with #9, working on a project for too long kills creativity and make you more prone to mistakes. Was making a php gallery and ended up doing something twice I only needed to do once… wasted two hours that day :/

  • Thanks for the tips! Just a note: There are alternatives to JQuery that support CSS selectors. A good, light-weight one is midori: http://www.midorijs.com/

  • Paul, I was shocked to see that you are using only one monitor! Since this post is about efficiency I thought I would mention that research shows that using dual monitors increases productivity by (convincing number) percent.

  • I love the snippits that you have in the screencap. I use them for big stuff but never thought to make ones for basic tags. Duh.

  • Thank you for the great tips Paul. Another site for snippets would be http://snipt.net/

  • Great advice! So true about the multitasking. I can’t possibly be working with more than one thing at the same time.

  • Great entry. I love the first tip and pretty much all of them. I use the Coda Clips panel like it’s going out of style. Look at this thing, it’s ginormous! http://twitpic.com/1kjz1

  • Agreed!
    Really useful points, I totally get all of them.
    It has always been my view that too many people work much longer hours than needed as they are constantly getting distracted, work harder and faster is what I say.

  • A Friend

    Ironically I am reading your post and probably wasting my time, yet you most likely rely on the fact that we are all reading this post and wasting our time.
    So which is it? Should we waste our productivity by reading your article? Or should we follow your advice and not read your posts, listen to your podcasts, follow you on Twitter…..

  • Excellent article! Some great advice here, especially being honest about those ‘off’ days where your not very productive.
    Its OK to have those and not feel guilty, that’s something im sure lots of us feel when your your own boss.
    Just imagine those times when you were employed in a 9 to 5, were you really working productively every minute of the day every day? No way! ;-)
    I had a look at Omnifocus, is there an alternative program thats just as good for windows?
    also, I had two monitors up until recently and I can say that I really really need that dynamic back! it was so useful as I split up my admin on one and my creative stuff on the other.

  • Starred in reader, this is one of the most down to earth and realistic overview of productivity I’ve seen in a long time. Thanks for the birds eye view of your work cycle.
    now if only I could figure out how to maintain a single task list for my day job and freelance jobs. ha!

  • Rob

    Good tips, only thing I would disagree on would be that keeping a tidy desk isn’t for everyone. I actually don’t mind having a cluttered desk at all and even prefer it, it heightens my feeling of being in a working environment when I’ve got pencils, pens, sketches and inspiration right in front of my mouse and keyboard.

  • good tips especially the 6th one that distraction must die..according this me this is the most essential.

  • Great article. Thanks for sharing.
    I agree that it’s best to cut down on as many distractions as you can. Although, as you say, it’s difficult to avoid the Twitter monster for long ;)

  • Enjoyed reading this and you’ve set out some really useful tips.
    One thing I noticed recently when trying to increase my productivity was to hide the taskbar on my Windows machine so that there wasn’t a clock staring back at me all the time.
    For some reason, that led me to get a lot more done in my usual hours – guess I was a subconcious clock watcher!

  • Great post and has now inspired me to finally set up some form of structured task management at work… probably at home too. Been meaning to paint my daughters room for ages!

    • ‘It is incredibly easy to get burnt out as a web designer.’
    • ‘Don’t feel guilty about the days when you hardly do anything.’
      Two very good points. I suffered ‘burn out’ last week for the first time in my short career (of 5yrs) as a designer/freelancer. It made me very ill and it’s NOT somewhere I want to revisit EVER again. That’s why I think the second point is a good one.
      It’s easy to be made to feel guilty that you do nothing one day of the week, just because you don’t fall into the Mon-Fri, 9-5 of it all. It’s bollocks. As long as the bills are paid, clients are happy and you are happy there’s no reason why we should HAVE to work all the time.
      I’ve said I’d ideally like to work three in four weeks and have one week a month free to do whatever I like, but not be committed to a work schedule; time to generate ideas, think, draw, write, watch films and indulge in the arts – IT’S WHY I BECAME FREELANCE IN THE FIRST PLACE!
      One great tip from me (and one of my tutors in Uni): Have an inspiration folder. Store anything that inspires you inside it. Any photos you upload to Flick, for instance, tag with a word and every time you hit your inspiration folder load up your tagged Flickr search results, and fav’d photos too. Instant creative zone [there], and you needn’t flip out next time a project comes to a dead-end conceptually. Think of this folder as your armoury.
      Good post. Nothing I didn’t already know, but good post nevertheless!
      PS. Lovely site too! You can tell you’re an organised chap!
  • These are all great tips, but I think some of them vary on a personal basis. Like the ‘tidy environment’…this doesn’t seem to have an affect on me. I work as a full time designer, and do freelance – so my work varies from very clean, to cluttered land fill. My productivity doesn’t seem to change. Although, I can’t say I’ve actually tested this ;)

  • Ash

    An excellent piece. Keeping tidy and learning to rest are two of the most important ones that I need to follow through on.

  • Very solid post. Lots of good ideas that may seem obvious at first, but definitely need to be reiterated from time to time.
    Also: I’m also an Inbox Zero kind of person. Amazing how much stress and clutter that removes from your life!

  • excellent!!! I do agree with what you have mentioned here about twitter and all that instant messaging services. But at the same time we need a break.. :D

  • Spot on.. I need this post on my desktop so I can keep these habits up ;)

  • Hi,
    these are some great tips! But, needless to say, it’s not always to avoid those long hours, especially when the work load seems only to be getting greater. Other than that, using tools that are configured correctly and also making use of snippets are valuable tips and saves LOADS of time so that more can be done.
    Thanks for the post!

  • 9 was an eye-opener actually — probably explains why I just lose focus for a day or two b/c of putting in the long hours.

    great and very useful points! thanks!!

  • TonyMosley

    @A Friend “Ironically I am reading your post and probably wasting my time”
    surely research and self development is the most rewarding time use of all… I know (hope) as i just became self employed just because it gives me the scope to investigate new ways of working to find the one that suits me.

  • Thinking I was taking a break in reading your post I soon discovered I was wasting time. You bring up some very straight forward thoughts on what areas a person should be thinking while working and in my case doing homework.
    I sure hope that my buddies at http://www.designbuddy.net don’t waste as much time as I do. More importantly, I hope they can follow this plan as well.
    Thank you for sharing.

  • I would also be interested to hear of any windows based alternatives to Omnifocus – looks like a great tool.

  • I’m being refreshed by this post.  Great points to ponder into to work efficiently.

  • I’m being refreshed by this post.  Great points to ponder into to work efficiently.