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Streamlining the Design Workflow

April 06, 2008
by Matt Braun

One of the key goals of any professional designer is to create a streamlined workflow, typically by using keyboard shortcuts in their design apps, clearly defining the creation process from concept to final product, and having libraries of reusable (yet customizable) layout elements and code. With deadlines approaching and change orders coming in, it’s vital to have a solid system in place for producing.

Be careful how that’s read – designers have a need, by their very nature, to be creative, but the misnomer is that creative-types shun rigid processes because “working loose” helps them to be more creative. Having a measure of structure in certain aspects of a design workflow can allow for the fluidity required to produce creative work.
It all boils down to balance.

These tips for streamlining workflow are geared more towards interactive designers, but could be adapted to commercial art, 3D animation, game design, ActionScript coding, and many other job titles in the creative field.

Make sure your workspace is conducive to doing work.

A large black L-shaped desk, matching filing cabinet and shelves from (gasp) Big Lots, along with a comfortable chair, cost me far less than any of my computers or software packages (Get More. For More. Creative Suite.), but has paid for itself many times over by allowing me to spread out when I need to. Sometimes I’ll have a few reference books nearby, and because of the large working area, I can keep them close enough to be handy, but out of the way enough to not be distracting.

Eliminate as many distractions as possible.

As I write this, I’m currently listening to iTunes and have a couple instant messaging clients open, so I may need to take some of my own advice. Designers (and programmers, too, lest they feel excluded) often do their best work late, late at night, because that’s when the world is least distracting. However, most of us have to do our work during the day, because that’s when the rest of the world expects it. Setting aside a few hours each day to turn off iChat, Google Talk, and Twitter clients, and close down Mail or Outlook can help to kick start productivity. Let your co-workers or family know that for a certain window you’ll be incommunicado. During that timeframe, work! Get things done. No, don’t fire up EVE Online or FreeCell. Work. A few hours of hyper-concentrated work can beat a full day of quasi-work every time.

Develop reusable assets.

When I first started my career in interactive design, I loathed the idea of templates and stock art. I figured, hey, I can produce those things, so I should do so – every…single…time. The truth is, sometimes there isn’t budget or hours available to create assets from scratch, and the best use of the client’s money and your time is finding ways to incorporate existing solutions that help you to focus on getting the client’s brand’s message across cost-effectively. We may not all readily agree or admit it, but communicating that which the customer wants to say to their audience is the primary goal of a (commercial) designer. I’ve developed a vast library of reusable ActionScript classes and components, layout assets for Fireworks, JavaScript plugins for jQuery, and modules for ExpressionEngine to help in streamlining my production process. Since most clients want things done yesterday, being able to turn things around fast is critical to my customer relationships.

Hand-in-hand with reusable assets is using the right software for a given task. Before being introduced to the proper way to use Fireworks (then MX) I did all my website layouts using Illustrator, with further refinements in Photoshop. But Fireworks combines vector and raster methodologies, meaning that unless I have serious image editing to do in Photoshop, I really only need to have one program open for wireframe roughing, planning content flow, creating image slices, and all but the most involved photo retouching. Complex gradients, patterns, and shape editing are a breeze in Fireworks, and I believe that no matter how fast a web designer is at the Illustrator-Photoshop-Shuffle, using a single program designed to efficiently do both is an order of magnitude faster.

My hope is that some of these tips prompted you to come up with your own ways to improve and streamline your workflow. Remember: The sooner you get your work done, the sooner you can go outside and play.

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