Design FASTER: Seven tips to becoming a faster, more efficient graphic designer
How to Become a Faster Graphic Designer
I wanted to talk about a subject that is very important to being a successful designer – speed. I’m talking about how fast you can produce designs for your client, boss or even just for yourself.
Just why is it important to learn how to become a faster graphic Designer? And why does speed matter? Time is money. It’s a simple fact. Your boss or your client needs a result – a design. It’s your product. And if you can produce that design faster, it saves your boss and/or your client money. If you can be a faster designer, you’re going to be a more valued employee. And trust me, every boss and every client out there KNOWS who their fast designers are and who their slow designers are. I want to say that again because it’s important: YOUR BOSS KNOWS IF YOU’RE A FAST OR SLOW designer. And guess what – they love their fast designers and are frustrated with their slow designers.
If we compare designers creating designs to workers assembling widgets, if one worker can assemble two widgets in and hour, and another can assemble ten widgets in an hour, the one who produces more is more valuable to the company right? Of course. Now, imagine it’s the end of the year and the boss needs to decide who to give a raise to, and who to fire – do you think speed is a component of their decisions? It sure as shit is.
If you have any lingering doubts about how important speed is – just go work for yourself. A focal point of every sales conversation you have with potential clients is budget. And what does a budget mean? Money. And what does money mean? Time. Similarly, if you charge $500 to design a logo and you can design one a day – great, that’s $500. But design 10 logos a day and you’ll earn $5,000. Is the difference speed can make clear?
I think sometimes this can get a little muddy to a designer who is collecting a fixed salary. After all, the designer gets paid the same each payroll whether they produce a lot or a little. But guess what – it does make a difference to the owner of the company. If the company produces more and earns more – the owner gets to pay themselves and their staff more. Or, as is sometimes the case at our Cleveland Design Firm Go Media, if the designers don’t produce enough, the owners (that’s me) LOSE money. So trust me, while you may not be feeling the effects of working slow or fast, you will – eventually you will.
Is this clear? Work faster, make more money. Be more valuable, get raises and keep your job! Speed matters.
But what about design quality? I know what you’re thinking: “But Bill, what about Q-U-A-L-I-T-Y? Quality takes time, and don’t clients want quality?” Yes. Absolutely. Quality is also important. And yes, if you gave a designer two different time budgets, the design done with the longer time budget would most likely be of higher quality. The optimal designer is BOTH fast AND good. You should be working towards both. But remember that you’re not competing against yourself. In the grand pool of designer employees out there, you’re competing against other designers. And guess what – some are faster AND better than you. SO, if you’re going to be a valuable designer, you need to work on both.
For the sake of this article, I am going focus on the subject of speed.
So… how to become a faster graphic designer?
1. Know the difference between being an ‘artist’ and being a ‘commercial artist.” Look, I know that many of you take great pleasure in being ‘artists.’ I understand that your ‘happy place’ may be doing tons of research, then exploring many directions, and taking your time to create something amazing. That’s fine. That’s you approaching your work in a way that is most fulfilling to you. I do this too. When I’m drawing, I need long hours to create something great and I’m not satisfied when I make something that I think sucks. It’s ok for you to be an ‘artist’ and to work in this way. Just understand that your 9-5 job as a paid graphic designer is not your ‘art.’ You’re a professional worker with a skill that charges a certain amount per hour, and that your client has a budget! Getting the job done in a way that is efficient, and getting the job done in a way that is fulfilling may be two different things.
If you can find clients that don’t care how long it takes you and are willing to pay you to spend as much time as you want on your designs, well, congratulations to you. I hope you appreciate what a gift you’ve been given. In my experience, clients are hyper aware of their budgets and generally want everything as cheaply as possible. Design is a job. Sorry, this isn’t your free time. This isn’t your ‘art.’ You’re working. And sometimes (for most people all the time) work sucks. Designers need to remind themselves of this now and then. If you can recognize that your time ‘on the clock’ is work, and that you’re a professional doing a job and that it’s fundamentally different than your ‘art’, it’s an important shift in your perspective that you need to adopt. ‘Cranking out a design’ may not be fun because you’re being rushed, but that’s the job.
2. Design in your head first. As a salesperson for Go Media I am afforded a long ramp up phase prior to starting a design project. As part of the sales process, I typically have several meetings with clients, ask lots of questions about their business history, goals and ideas. It may take several weeks from the time I first meet a client until the time I sit down to design. Frequently, by the time I sit down to design – I already know exactly what I’m going to make. The image is clear in my mind. At that point all I need to do is assemble it. It’s more production than ideation. Having a clear vision of my design before I even start designing certainly makes me a much faster designer. How is it that I know exactly what I’m going to design? Obviously, because I’ve been thinking about it during the entire sales process.
While most designers aren’t out selling, they can also employ this technique – start thinking about your designs BEFORE you sit down to your computer. If you can get an early look at creative briefs on projects that are coming up READ THEM! Wrap your head around all the details of the project days or weeks in advance. Ideally, you will then use your down time to think about them. Start the design in your head. This may require a conscious effort on your part! That’s right – you may have to WORK. But hopefully, you love this shit, and it doesn’t feel like work. You naturally think about the design in advance because it makes you happy.
But here’s the good thing – even if you can’t find spare time after hours to think about your designs in advance, I believe that it helps anyway. The human brain is a mysterious and powerful thing. Your brain will be solving your design problems whether you realize it or not. Some subliminal consciousness is functioning, thinking, processing… …designing! It happens while you’re eating lunch, while you’re having drinks with friends, even while you’re sleeping. But the brain can’t solve problems while you sleep if it doesn’t even know the problem exists. So, step one is to start learning about your graphic design projects in advance – then make an effort to think about them during off hours.
3. Guard your time. In today’s day and age, there are a thousand distractions to steal your time. You’ve got a constant stream of emails, text messages, Facebook Updates, phone calls, co-workers coming up to chat with you, meetings, lunch breaks, and on and on. Fast designers learn how to protect their time. When was the last time you told a coworker: “Sorry, I don’t have time to chat right now. I have to get this project done.” If you can’t remember, you’re probably doing a bad job protecting your time. Turn off your e-mail. Turn off your phone. Pack your lunch instead of going out for lunch. Don’t check your social media feed. In my experience I can almost see the fast workers – their heads are down, I can see the look of concentration on their faces. I don’t see them in the kitchen chatting with fellow employees – they’re quiet, they’re focused.
There are tons of techniques out there to help you protect your time. Recently I’ve decided that I need to have ‘production days.’ On my ‘production days’ I’ve given myself a license to ignore my emails all day long. 99% of my emails can wait a day. If there is a real emergency someone will call me. The techniques are secondary. The important part is that you need to recognize that your time is wasting – every day. Sometimes other people are wasting your time, but more likely, you’re wasting time yourself. If you want to get more done each day, you’re going to have to make an effort to stop it.
And let me tell you – your boss will appreciate it! If I imagine that I was in a meeting with several staff members and one of them stood up and said to me: “Please excuse me Bill. I just realized that I have nothing to contribute to this meeting. I’m wasting my time. I would like to get back to my desk so I can get my design project done.” Can you imagine how I would react? I’d give that employee a gold star, smiley face and an A+. My perception of that employee would be forever altered. “Wow. Bob is SERIOUS about being productive. He’s a worker! I LOVE BOB!”
4. Consider your time budget before you start. Take a moment before you start any design project and familiarize yourself with your time budget. By stopping to consider how much time you have on a project, it will influence how you approach the project. You may have thoughts like: “Gosh, I would have really loved to design icons from scratch for this poster, but I can buy stock icons and save myself three hours. It’s not ideal, but it will get the job done faster!” And you can actually download stock icons and vectors from Go Media’s Arsenal.
5. Set a time budget. Don’t have a specific time budget? Make one. Challenge yourself with a goal. You might have a thought like: “Normally, it takes me three days to design a poster like this, but I’m going to only give myself one day!” I used to actually ‘speed design.’ I would create a race for myself. I’d set up a stopwatch on my desk, give myself an unreasonably short amount of time to get something done – like one hour, and I’d see how far I could get. There is a side benefit to this game – I frequently found that I designed BETTER! By forcing myself to work fast, I turned my brain off. I designed on instinct. I didn’t over think or over complicate things. I just went straight to the solution. And often in design, the simplest most obvious solution is also the best.
6. Know when ‘good enough’ is the right approach. Look, nobody likes to create mediocre designs. We all want to design stuff that’s so amazingly good that we become rich, famous and change the world. But sometimes ‘Great’ is less important than ‘fast’ (on budget). We have a saying at Go Media that I stole from a Labatt Blue commercial: “Crose Enough!” (Close enough.) In essence, everything isn’t going to be perfect. Sometimes ‘close enough’ (a mediocre design) is good enough.
7. Recognize when you’re ‘tinkering.’ This item is closely related to the previous point. I’ve known many designers that kill their time budgets because they ‘tinker.’ They’ll actually work at a nice speed, get the design 95% done, then spend just as much time getting the last 5% done as they did getting the first part done. There is often a perfectionistic streak in them that forces them to fiddle with their designs for hours – trying to make them more perfect. They nudge some copy to the right an eighth of an inch, they increase the contrast of their images by 3%, they adjust the kerning of every single word on the page, etc. Learn to recognize when you’re doing this – making relatively small changes to something that’s basically done. Stop. Let it go. You have other projects to work on!
Now, take a deep breath and get back to work (quickly now!) We know you have it in you.