Creative Process Tools for the Busy Designer
Hick’s Law says that the time it takes for a person to make a decision is directly related to the number of choices the person has at their disposal. Today, digital designers have more choices for tools to speed up the design process than ever before. But how do you separate the wheat from the chaff when there’s barely time in the day to simply get the work done, let alone research the best way to do it?
Process and workflow (be it for agency or individual) both have a very personalized and unique dynamic. What is generally conceived as a “best case” process scenario rarely takes full form. This is due to unexpected client requests, asset delay, creative blocks, creative inspiration, or simply because what seemed perfect in concept ended up falling short in execution. But when process breaks down, the hours add up. This is when having a reliable set of tools for specific steps can really move you along, making sure you hit that crucial deadline.
Most of these solutions are geared towards web designers and creatives. While this list includes both free and premium options, and unfortunately none of them actually add hours to your day, they can all help make the hours you have more productive.
Content / Asset Gathering
Content and asset collection is consistently one of the most difficult steps to complete on schedule. The first problem is that there is often a “chicken or the egg” scenario, where the designer doesn’t know what to design without content, but the content creator doesn’t know what to provide without any sort of structure. In this case, a “more is more” approach often works: Collect any and all relevant material up front, so you can make decisions with real content, and streamline later down to what’s necessary. And after gathering the content, there is also the task of organizing and storing the content.
- Google Drive - Formerly Google Docs, Drive offers a robust web-based suite of applications that are geared towards collaboration. The word processor and spreadsheet apps are perfect for working with other team members on documenting your content collection plans and progress.
- Jumpchart - This tool allows for page-specific content gathering, but it also blends in some powerful project management features.
- GatherContent - Similar to Jumpchart but even more robust. This tool can even integrate your collected content into the ExpressionEngine CMS.
- Your Project Management Tool - Most project management tools have some sort of feature that can be purposed for asset collection. For example, in Basecamp, content can be collected in Writeboards and files in the Files tab. In activeCollab, use project Notebooks.
Creative blocks happen. Typically when a deadline is fast-approaching with limited recourse. Maintaining a healthy, up-to-date inspiration resource library is essential to pushing through a block and dreaming up the “next big thing.” Checking in with what’s new in the industry will keep your designs fresh, and keep your mind receptive to new ideas for your next project, wherever those ideas may come from.
- Blogs - Constantly being updated by a wide variety of writers, you can search for very specific situations and most likely come up with a good return. Some of my favorites:
- Portfolio Sites - What better place to find design inspiration from than other designers? Those putting their best work forward will have it on display in some of the most prominent portfolio sites. A few include:
- Website Award Sites - It’s been done, but it was loved. Seeing award-winning digital design is sure to spark a fresh thought. See the latest award-winners at:
Structure & Wireframing
Getting ideas onto paper (or pixels) can be either refreshing or frustrating, but frustration can be averted! When it comes to figuring out the structure of your website or project, you want to use tools that allow you to throw your ideas out there, and move things around while finding what will best meet your project goals.
- Sketching - Old-school doesn’t always mean out-dated. Often the quickest (and most energizing) way to get your thoughts out is through pencil and paper. Scribble, sketch, throw away, and repeat until you get something good.
- Balsamiq - A rapid prototyping tool you can either download or use via a web app, Balsamiq allows you to create sketch-style wireframes quickly with drag and drop components.
- Axure RP - A more refined and robust rapid prototyping tool, you can take your wireframe a bit farther with Axure. Masters, widgets, interactivity, and responsive layouts make this application a personal favorite.
If you’ve followed your process and you’ve reached the design stage, you should have everything you need to keep moving forward. Assets are available, so you can use real content in your designs; inspiration has directed you towards an aesthetic, and your structure and wireframe is just waiting for some visual appeal. Now you just need to layer it on (easier said than done).
- Adobe CC (Photshop / Illustrator) - The industry standard.
- Pixlr - Photoshop’s free, web-based little brother. It’s a good stand-in if there’s an emergency, but doesn’t have the fine-tuning available in Photoshop.
- Sketch - A combination vector graphics application, Sketch doesn’t try to imitate Adobe’s interface—it wants to improve it. A powerful and effective tool at a lower price point than Adobe products.
- GIMP - Freeware that provides a usable alternative to Photoshop.
Quality Assurance Testing
QA testing is one of the most critical steps in the design and development process. If there are errors or things don’t work correctly, at best case your client or your user may develop inefficient workarounds and have a general feeling of frustration, at worst they’ll think your product is broken, and your credibility will suffer. The time you spend double-checking your work will always be worth it.
- Google Drive - Spreadsheets can be manipulated to be powerful and collaborative cross-checking tools for QA, if you’re organized.
- BugHerd - Designer-focused online “bug tracker” that allows you (and client!) to go through a project and annotate areas that need attention, keeping feedback and actionable items in one place.
- Bugzilla - Open source project that includes time tracking, private commenting, reporting, and customs fields. Geared more towards software-development.
In the end, every designer needs to refine their process and gather an arsenal of tools that works best of them. Hopefully this list gave you a few new ideas and inspired you to evaluate and refine your own workflow. And if there are any awesome, time-saving, headache preventing tools that we missed let us know in the comments!