15 ways to design better and faster

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Have you ever had the perfect experience, start to finish, during a design project?

Probably not, but certainly you’ve had projects that felt right and others that went nowhere — like that 125th revision to a business card design.

Here is a list of 15 things you might find helpful when coping with a complex project-based business, such as design.

Finding inspiration

Start projects with Google

Great ideas are never born in a vacuum. In other words, unless you look at what people did in the past, it’s hard to do something better in the future.

Before Internet, smart designers solved this problem with design “look-books”. These were essentially large catalogues containing hundreds of design pieces gathered around the world, usually classified by type of work (brochure, poster, interactive, etc.).

Thanks to Google, doing design research has never been easier in the history of human kind.

Today, designers use Google. It’s faster, cheaper and works like a charm.

For example, if you’re working on a “save the date” card, search for “inspiring save the date designs”.  If you’re designing a logo with an animal, search for “cute animal logos”.  If you need black and white icon designs, search for the term.

Look at what others did before you and you’ll know what to do next.

Open a Dribble account

If you want to keep yourself immersed in a talent of exceptional, mind blowing design work, you need a Dribble account.

Believe me – the stuff you’ll see on this social network is simply mind blowing. If that isn’t sweet enough, you can even download the color palette of any design you like.

Just don’t tell your clients you did.

Follow the right people

Some designers and companies are like news reporters for graphic design or they produce newsworthy stuff themselves.

To stay on top of events and get a never ending source of inspiration, you should follow people who are defining and changing the design landscape today.

Take a look at this list of 154 great designers created by UK designer David Airey.

Feed your mind with new ideas

Quick question – do you always read the same blogs, watch the same types of movies and eat the same type of foods?

If you’re like most people, or like me, the answer is yes.  We pick things according to our likes and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But, if you want to make progress and create breakthrough ideas, you need to deliberately jump out of your comfort zone and feed your mind with new information. Read something you otherwise wouldn’t. Do something you normally avoid. Watch a horror movie if you’re usually into comedies.

Our minds work with what they’ve seen – if you keep feeding them the same information, they churn out the same ideas over and over.

Working smarter

Use good layout books

Amazon has a large collection of layout-related books. 

Good design is about good layout. No matter how much time you invest into typography, photography and color, you can forget about moving forward if your layout looks bad.

This is precisely the reason most designers spend a lot of time deliberating layout decisions. Should this go to left or right? Should it be aligned or centered? Top or bottom? Questions like this can take up to 30% of your design time.

Luckily, some people decided to write down what works and what doesn’t, so you don’t have to bother too much. Here’s what I recommend:

 Sketch first, design second

A design process for an iPhone app. Yes, it begins on paper.

This is so important and so overlooked among designers that it actually hurts.

I keep saying this over and over: a hand with a pencil is hundred times faster than a hand with a mouse.  If you’re starting your design projects inside Photoshop or Illustrator, you’ve already lost hours of work.

Explore your ideas and layout options using pen and paper, no matter your drawing skills. Once you’re pretty sure where you want to go, move over to your preferred design software.

You’ll finish projects in half the time, guaranteed.

Decide on design style upfront

Both of these websites are portfolios but they’re clearly differ in style. Deda is type-based, while Nemeth Interactive focuses on photographic visuals.

Broadly speaking, every design piece falls into one of these style categories:

  • Photography-based
  • Illustration-based
  • Type-based

Photography-based designs are predominantly desired and most clients love them. The design is driven by good photography choices, accompanied with a great layout.

Illustration-based designs are similar but instead of photography, you use illustration. This requires good drawing skills and a client with a flair for illustration.

Type-based designs rely on great use of typography to provide the necessary visual interest.

Look at your project (and client) and decide what approach would be the best. You’ll work a lot faster once you know what to focus on.

Get a faster, better computer

For your own sake, I hope your tools are up-to-date.

This is so obvious that many designers fail to think about it every once in a while.

There’s nothing more frustrating than waiting for Photoshop to respond while working on a high-resolution image with many layers. I believe you have your own stories in this department.

A fast computer, larger screen and lots of memory DO make you a better designer, regardless of your talent. Your time, sanity and work satisfaction are equally important as the ideas in your head and skills in your hands.

Never be afraid to pay for your tools. At the end of the day, they pay for your bills.

Get enough rest

Ever heard the story about a lumberjack who did a poor job because he never had time to sharpen his axe? Well, it’s very similar to the story about a designer who produced crappy work because he never had time to sleep.

Freelancing can be a tough business, so make sure you get plenty of rest to sharpen your mind and your body.

Try not to work more than 8 hours a day and if that’s not possible, take short breaks and have a power nap after lunch. Closing your eyes for 15 minutes can really do wonders for your sense of clarity and focus.

Turn off your email, phone and other distractions

Designer Hunter Langston made this great illustration. He wasn’t too distracted while doing it.

Image: you’re working in Illustrator, trying to find the best color combination and layout for your new project. Just when you get into the groove and everything is falling into place, a phone rings. Boom! You’ll need another hour just to get back into that same state of mind.

Just like writing or painting, design is a task which requires your full attention. Any distraction will kill the moment and slow you down, compromising the quality of your work.

You don’t create big ideas by answering emails and phone calls.  Have at least 2-3 hours of interrupted design time every day and your speed and quality of work will greatly improve.

Don’t multitask

Multitasking is the mother of all distractions, yet we often fail to notice how badly it affects us.

While many people take pride in “being able” to multitask, I call them silly. Multitasking means you’re jumping around trying to do five things at once while in reality, nothing gets done to the best of your abilities and things take more time to get done.

You have one brain and one set of hands, so do one thing at a time.

Especially when it comes to graphic design.

Handling clients

Make sure clients are a good match

Let’s face it – some client-designer combinations simply don’t work, and this includes you.

Client qualification is about discovering whether a potential client is a good match for you. It’s about avoiding the embarrassing situation where you talk about the project for an hour only to discover the client cannot afford your rates (has happened to me more than once).

Qualification involves asking the client a simple set of questions such as:

  • Do you like what you see in my portfolio?
  • What’s your budget for this project? I usually charge between X and Y for this type of work.
  • How soon would you like to start? I’m currently working on X other projects so I could start in Y days/weeks.
  • Can you personally hire me or do you need to ask for someone else’s opinion first?
  • Are you ok with 50% down payment?

Feel free to add anything else you find important. If you like what you hear, you’ve got yourself a qualified client.

If not, move on. There’s plenty of other fish in the sea.

Find out what your clients want

There are two ways to find out what clients want – the hard way and the smart way.

  • Hard way – only using words. The client says he’s looking for an elegant website with a twist, you ask questions and get to work. You send in your proposal believing you nailed it, but that angry email reply says your idea of elegance isn’t going to cut it.
  • Smart way – using words and design examples. After discussing the project, go to Google. Find three to four examples of the style you believe your client is talking about then send them in for a review. After you get positive feedback, develop your proposal.

People have different ideas about what design styles look like. But nobody can argue when they design styles in pictures.

Give clients a choice

You should always create two or more design proposals and present them to clients.

This isn’t a matter of good service – it’s a great time saver for you.

Here’s the thing – if you create just one design proposal, you’re forcing your clients to say yes or no. If it’s a no, you have to start over.

If you give clients two or three options, even just variations of the same design, they’ll tell you which one they like the best. Instead of starting all over, you can pick up where you left off.

Make this your standard practice and you’ll be happy you did.

Handle complaints like a pro

Sooner or later, some of your clients will complain about your work, deadlines or other aspect of your service.

Here’s how to handle it: be honest and fair. Here’s how to do that in practice:

  • If a client is unhappy with your work, don’t get defensive. Try to find out what they don’t like and work on a different proposal.
  • If you’re late, apologize. If you’re really late, offer a discount.
  • If a client relationship gets really tough and unbearable, offer them an exit option – refer them to another designer and if they paid you in advance, give them 50% money back.

Handling complaints is usually simple, so when the time comes, remember this advice and don’t take it personally.

Conclusion

We all want to work smarter, better and have more time to sleep and play. However, the pressure of our daily lives doesn’t give us time to reflect on the way we do things and handle certain situations.

There are a lot of things you can do to improve your productivity such as knowing where to find inspiration, how to work more efficiently and how to handle client relationships.

What are your best practices while designing?

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Peter Vukovic is a seasoned designer & creative director with 10 years of experience in worldwide advertising agency. He is a proud member of the 99designs community. http://99designs.com/people/pvukovich