How To Steal Like A Designer

As someone who works in an advertising/marketing agency, my days consists of designing and directing the art, reviewing others work, attending or leading meetings, doing a fair amount of reading and research, having numerous ad hoc conversations about multiple projects, and trying to at least, immerse myself in tutorials, techniques and whatever new software Adobe is pushing next. And then there’s admin.

Ask any professional person – but for this blog’s purpose, a designer – and they will confirm that time is the number one villain. The great anti-hero. There is never enough of it. It is always fleeting. Always being squeezed. Everything is important, and every campaign or task seems to need an equally large measure invested into it and when you have two little ones at home as well (as incredible as it is to be a parent) your days tend to be manic, and the weeks very full.

Time and how to utilise it, is of utmost importance.   Fortunately, I have seen how designers can actually benefit from ‘stealing’ back time. ‘Stealing’ ideas. ‘Stealing’ resources. Disclaimer: I’m referring to being clever and crafty and downright purposeful as a designer, rather than misleading anyone into the condoning of plagiarism or theft. Nor am I speaking about cutting corners in the quality of ones work.

In fact, just the opposite. Please, read on.

Sprint like Usain How I approach a day now is very different to how it was managed a few years back. I see a day in do-able sprints, not a daunting marathon. Small bite-sized pockets of time. Be it 45 minutes or an hour.

Two at the most. Whereby I try and cram as much as I possibly can into it. Five or six of these in a single day is incredibly productive. Unless there is a super-urgent crunch task, I always start by ticking off the quickest and easiest jobs first.

Progress feels great! On the reverse, I’ve seen how starring at a screen for hours on end actually causes a dramatic dip in quality and focus. Regular stand-ups, walks, coffee breaks, and random conversations around the office produces better work. Even if the actual output in terms of hours is less. It’s also amazing what one can produce after hours, over a still quiet evening at home. Be like Usian. Dominate the 100m and 200m. Longer distances are for the birds.

Done is better than perfect I used to feel a lot of pressure in delivering work of the utmost quality. Of course I still care a great deal. But it now comes with far less pressure and nit-picking. We know that being pressurised “into delivering award-winning content” often leads to off-brief, counter-productive work anyway.

With so many tasks and to-dos hammering for attention, one also has to quickly take stock of getting a job done on time and on budget. And then moving on to the next one. There is a phrase designers like to use when coming to the end of a piece of work, and that is “ship it”. Wrap it up. Get it done. Send it off. Within a digital agency context, we have to be so nimble and so reactive that we simply don’t have the luxury to deep-dive on every single project.

Pick your battles: What is first priority? When does client need to review? Will this extra revert (meaning more time as well) improve or detract from the current concept? It is always better to have a done 7/10 project, than an incomplete 10/10.

Relax, original ideas do not exist Of course I don’t really mean this. Well, not entirely. Clever, unique and completely stand-out ideas are very, very rare. The key however, is rather in how one approaches the particular idea or concept. How one tackles an idea tactically or how one executes a piece of conceptual work. Like themes interwoven in stories, be it books or on the big screen, none of the following are novel: love, discovery, jealousy, heartbreak, fear, loss, power, redemption, family, hope, and freedom.

But how these are foretold, and how we are lead to buy into the characters – when done well – can feel very fresh and even completely original. It’s much the same with advertising. How we push campaigns depends more on the ‘storytelling’ aspect than the product itself. Fiber is after all, just fiber. Washing power does what it does. And coffee will always be yummy, brown and strongly aligned to that morning wake-me-up drink. The key is how we “dress it”.

Tap into the reservoir There are a ton of useful and relevant resources online. As a young professional, I hand-drew or manually vectorised every icon or character – for each project. I spent hours adjusting lighting or channel settings on my (looking back) not so realistic branding mock-ups. And none of my websites could be based off of a template. Designers are purists, surely? No doubt the Internet was a lot more rubbish ten years ago, but today one can’t have any excuses. Resources – many of which are free – not only radically improves a designer’s work visually, but also dramatically speeds up one’s workflow.

Presentations are instrumental in convincing the client when creative is costly and it isn’t even ‘live’ yet. Be selective. Adjust layers, filters and swap out colours, making the chosen resource more your own. Don’t be lazy. But by all means use stock image libraries. Use vector libraries. Scour design inspiration platforms. I regularly watch a particular YouTube channel that pushes out 60-second tutorials. Everyone has one minute.   That’s it.

Work sprints in short-bursts. Head-down. Quality vs quantity. Finish that thing. Get it done. Perfection is something that will drain you and cause an unhealthily pressure that is impossible to sustain. Explore the execution or storytelling angle of an idea or theme, rather than some illusive “golden idea” at the end of a rainbow.

And lastly, tap into the goodness that is out there on the World Wide Web. Speeding up your work flow by being clever, rather than lazy, will not only lead to a more productive day but also help you become a more effective designer. Now go and steal some time back!

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