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Accelerated Design: Streamline Your Workflow

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Two weeks ago, in Part One of this article were tips on how to assess a rush job and when it might be a good idea to turn one down. Some of this season's Layer Tennis contestants also shared thoughts about how they work under the strain of a tight deadline. In this half of the article are some tips for how to work quickly without completely abandoning your creative process.

Know how you work

"I can't remove steps out of my design process, but I can attempt to shorten them." Andrew Baumgartner

When you only have a short time to complete a task your tendency might be to try to do everything at once. This is like moving into a new house and trying to paint the walls, hang the art, and buy new furniture for the bathroom, kitchen, and bedrooms simultaneously. The better idea is to divide your one very large job into smaller ones and tackle one room at a time. In this way you can divide your process into parts, shortening, lengthening, or combining tasks in a way that makes sense for each project.

The four main pillars of the design process to look at are:

  1. Communication
  2. Research and concept
  3. Design execution
  4. Iteration and testing

Each of these pillars are necessary to create meaningful design. Under serious time constraints the trick is to try and adjust the steps to your needs without completely sidestepping any. While we look at each  to see what we can do to make them work harder for you, bear in mind David Stewart's fair warning: "It's always good to look at what you're doing and break it down and make it repeatable. However, if you focus too much on the process you can lose sight of the bigger picture."

1. Communication

Communicating with your client or team members can be one of the most frustrating parts of a rush job. Here are some ways to be proactive in your communication efforts:

  • Establish guidelines. If you have other projects, be upfront about your need for quick feedback. By saying this, or writing it even, from the get-go you are protecting yourself later if your client takes longer than planned to get back to you.
  • Stop waiting – hassle someone. Don't wait on things like content or assets to get started. Make up your own. You can determine a great deal of the design direction with only a vague idea of content.
  • Stay organized. Develop a folder structure for each project and make sure when you are sent assets or content you put them in the appropriate place right away. This avoids the nuisance of losing things and bothering someone unnecessarily by asking for content you didn't know you already had.
  • Avoid distractions. Tight timelines require intense focus. Clear out distractions or things that will limit your ability to work quickly. Whether this means turning off Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or your phone, do whatever it takes to get you into the flow.
  • Don't send detailed reports. If you must write down what you talked about, do it in bullet form. The best way to communicate quickly is either in person or by phone – don't spend a lot of time writing emails back and forth.

2. Research and concept

"What usually gets neglected is the research and conceptualization phase, which is a shame. Since time is short and having a great concept with nothing to show for it isn't an option, ideas usually get less attention and aren't developed as well as they should be." Micah Bauer

This is perhaps the toughest part of the process to cut back on because you cannot force a good idea to emerge quickly. As Robbie Kanner says about Layer Tennis, you "kind of have to roll with your first idea and hope it doesn't suck." It is the same with rush jobs when you have a truncated amount of time to develop an idea, but remember these words from Rich Arnold when considering trading a meaningful idea for pretty packaging: "It's important that things look good, but more important that you're communicating the right message."

Get inspired – don't steal. In a hurry it can be tempting to reuse designs from the slush pile or old concepts, but it's sometimes just as difficult to reshape them for your client's purposes than to come up with something brand new. David Stewart says that a good idea on the fly is inspired "more [by] living in the world and soaking up everything so you'll be ready to draw from [that knowledge] in the heat of battle."

If you see something on the web or in someone else's book that would work for you, remember that it is inspiration that is up for grabs, not output (the loss of your credibility due to copying someone's work is much harder to retrieve than making up for a slipped deadline). Return to the original source of that project's inspiration. Go back to the beginning and use that as your jumping off point. There are also plenty of other places from which to draw inspiration.

On recycling artwork or ideas. Besides the difficulty of rehashing old ideas, there are also the ethics. "Part of the reason someone would choose to go with a small shop or a freelance designer is the knowledge that they're getting something custom and appropriate for their purpose," wrote Greg Hubacek. Other designers had plenty to add:

  • "Every project and every client deserves a fresh start." Armin Vit
  • "I've always felt like reusing work is like cheating." Dustin Hostetler
  • "In situations where you feel like there's no way the deadline allows you to at least create something unique and appropriate for your client I'd suggest letting that job go." Rich Arnold

The unanimous sentiment among other designers and illustrators was to not sacrifice your larger morals for a quick idea.

Remember your audience. Don't forget who you are designing for. Focus on these objectives to help keep you on track.

  • Who is this project for?
  • What is the purpose of this project?
  • How will success be measured?

3. Design execution

The best way to quicken this part of your process is to have a toolbox of resources that prevents you from getting caught in time-sucks like downloading typefaces, wading through stock images, or testing each new layout idea. When asked whether they kept a stockpile of design concepts or assets for ready use in quick designs, nearly every designer admitted they never reused ideas but did keep some tools on hand.

  • "I do keep a library of handy design tools including fonts, photos, elements and textures that I find useful in my particular style or way of working." Matt Stevens
  • "I have design assets such as textures, photos and typefaces, but I don't have any ready-made designs ready to slightly modify for use. I'd say that more than anything, when backed into a time-crunch-corner we resort to our stockpile of designs in our heads." Aaron Scamihorn
  • "I do like to collect objects that make me laugh or smile and those come in handy sometimes." Kate Bingaman Burt
  • "I have specific colour palettes I work with but I don't have many 'stock' designs sitting around waiting to be used." Robbie Kanner
  • "I don't believe in keeping a stockpile of concepts, but I do feel like a designer should have an arsenal on hand." Mig Reyes
  • "I wouldn't call it a stockpile but I do have a cache of raw materials that can be used as groundwork and integrated in projects when time is tight ― ranging from type designs, Illustrations, design elements etc." Tom Muller

Besides keeping a collection of tools, there are a few other techniques to design faster.

Limit yourself. "Less colors. Less pages. Less fluff," says Mig Reyes. Use fewer colors, fewer fonts, fewer type styles, fewer design elements. This is a mantra of good, consistent design anyway but reminding yourself of this during short deadlines helps you finesse the big idea without getting distracted by the little things.

Lose the details. Forget about kerning: "When there is time, I'll kern kern kern. When there isn't I just hope the type designer did his or her job and did all the kerning pairs properly," says Armin Vit. Also forgettable, according to Emory Allen, are subtle textures: "Leaving out a few textures is not a big deal." Getting the overall picture right is more important that perfecting minutia. Eliminating fine details like pixel-perfect typography or subtle textures will save you time.

Create short, attainable deadlines for yourself. For example, In one hour, I'll have the header finished. In another hour, the body content. In another hour, the footer. Take steady breaks to evaluate what you've accomplished. You may not hit every target but you will be closer for having tried.

Become physically faster. Learn keyboard shortcuts for your programs and operating system.

Use a grid. There's no surer way to make your design structurally sound as well as look great than by using a grid. Sometimes a grid system can seem to limit your creativity, but this is exactly the kind of limitation you are looking for when you're on a tight deadline. The 960 grid is one that has both a solid format as well as flexible boundaries.

Stock imagery can be a time-consuming solution. It is one of design's paradoxes that creating artwork from thin air is actually faster than finding the correct stock solution. "Looking for suitable stock art can take as long as producing comparable art," says Micah Bauer. Radu Noper agrees, saying, "The client always loves when they see drawn letters and they actually think that took lots of time... Well, no, most of the time, they get it when they ask for stuff super fast." Searching through thousands of photographs plus the back-and-forth conversation that happens until you find the exact right image can take way more time than you bargained for.

Being resourceful is certainly integral to creating quick designs, and now is not exactly the time to reinvent the wheel or think of custom solutions for everything, but it is probably worth your time to twice before turning to stock as an option.

4. Iteration and testing

Iteration can mean the ability to come up with several ideas, try them out, and see what works best, but on tight deadlines this may not be possible. There is, however, still the opportunity to let the audience use or see the design as you progress. Don't be afraid to share unfinished work. Making revisions based on this kind of quick feedback will have a large return on very little effort.

Get feedback. When you are able to share client work publicly, share it on social sites like Forrst, Dribbble, Twitter or Tumblr to receive quick turnarounds. Social media users may not exactly be your target audience but these networks are excellent tools to ensure fresh eyes, eyes that will notice obvious mistakes you might otherwise gloss over.

Review your work before letting it go.Look for color mismatches, typos or layout inconsistencies. Sharing your work with someone else will help break the monotony of self-review. At most you should need fifteen minutes to half an hour to correct mistakes that betray a lack of attention to detail.

The big picture

"You try not to cut down on quality or process or anything, but eventually there's a deadline and you either meet it or you don't. You kind of have to just push things aside and do it," says Greg Hubacek. Mig Reyes, also stressing how important it is to finish a job, reminds us of an oft-repeated phrase, "Done is better than perfect."

Meeting your deadlines in a rush job is challenging but working through the process exposes some important questions about our roles as freelance designers: Is it more important to create good work or to get the job done? Can you realistically do both? These are questions you should answer based on your own priorities. Where do you stand? Feel free to share any rush job experiences in the comments.

Photo credit: Gamma-Ray Productions on Flickr

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