25 top life hacks for designers

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We all know what it means to hack a computer or website, and it's usually not a good thing. But a 'life hack' is something much more positive.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a strategy or technique adopted in order to manage one's time and daily activities in a more efficient way.” And let's be honest, that's something that most of us could probably benefit from. Who wants to work late, fretting over a design that doesn't quite work, when you could be out having fun? 

In this post, we've gathered together tried-and-tested life hacks from creative pros across the industry, to help you create better designs in less time. 

Some of them relate to tools for graphic designers, but many are about the way you work and manage your time: we've divided them up into four sections: day-to-day design work, pitching your projects, productivity, money matters, and our bonus quick-fire life hacks to make it easier to find the life hack you're looking for.

Day-to-day design work

Person using laptop keyboard and drawing tablet

Follow our expert's advice to improve your day-to-day design work

The problem with doing the same kind of work every day, even if you enjoy it, is that you tend to slip into familiar patterns and rely on tried-and-tested approaches. So every now and again, it's wise to question the way you do things, and ask whether you can improve your approach. Here are some suggestions that might boost both your workflow and the quality of the results.

01. Save your fonts

“When you back up work for long-term storage and archiving, save the fonts in there, too,” advises Patrick Foster, professor of design at Vancouver Island University. “You’ll almost never have the same font library in a year or whenever you need to revisit the work.”

02. Learn the file requirements

“After 20 years, I still have difficulty convincing people of this: every print process is different,” says the Canadian graphic designer and illustrator who goes by the name of Sketcher Doodle

“Large format, offset, silkscreen and digital printing all have different file requirements,” he says. “Follow the supplier’s specs: 300ppi/.125" bleed is not a catchall. Digital print/large format print are very new compared to offset lithography, and have very different requirements. A 20-foot billboard has very different resolution and bleed requirements than a business card. Raster four-colour Jpegs won't work for two-colour silkscreen. 

“Despite being provided instructions,” he adds, “I have seen numerous designers' files rejected because they are built to offset standards instead of product specific requirements. So my advice is: don't miss a deadline because you can't follow instructions.” 

03. Correct your crop marks

"Crop marks should start outside the bleed, never inside,” adds Sketcher Doodle. “Crop offset should always be set the same distance as the bleed. 

There is up to .125" of variance on the trim accuracy on prints cut on a guillotine, he explains. “They move under the pressure of the blade. The bottom sheet on a stack of prints can be up to .125" different from the first sheet on a stack. This is why crop marks must be outside the bleed. If they are in the bleed, they may show up in the final image after trimming. 

“This problem is compounded by the fact that Adobe has set the default crop setting in InDesign at less than .125", which makes no sense,” he continues. “This is an even greater problem when producing large-format graphics, such as canvas wraps, or vehicle graphics. A canvas wrap can be 2-3" thick and can require up to 4" bleed. Crop marks will be visible on the side of the canvas if they are left in the bleed.”

04. Guides aren’t everything

Do not rely solely on guides to align elements accurately,” says Sketcher Doodle. “X and Y coordinate fields are the most precise. You can also use math (+ - * /) in these fields to position objects precisely.”

As useful as snap to guides/snap to grid is, it is still dependent on your hand motion of clicking and dragging, he notes. “The slightest slip of the hand and you will have misaligned art. I've seen this mistake on two-sided prints not aligning from side to side, and exhibits where elements are supposed to line up on the edge of a panel. 

“Set the reference point to the side you are aligning,” he recommends, “and you can see in the X and Y fields the exact position on the page. If any of your elements has a different coordinate, simply enter the desired position in the field. If you need to move something precisely, don't use the cursor or click and drag. Go the the coordinate field and add or subtract the distance you need to move. Enter + or - after the current number in the field and add or subtract your desired distance.”

05. Use 1:10 for large graphics

"When building very large graphics, like a bus wrap, building banner, or billboard, the dimensions exceed the maximum allowed in most software,” says Sketch Doodle. “If you need to work at a reduced scale, use 1:10 because you simply have to move the decimal one position to calculate measurements and positions. Using a scale other that 1:10 makes your life unnecessarily difficult. Do you know what 372.625" is at 1:3 scale? Neither do I. But I know that it is 37.2625" at 1:10.”

06. Exploit The Noun Project

Selection of icons

The Icon Project is a free source of great icons

“I find that when you need to fit a lot of copy into a small space, it’s better if you can say it in fewer words, or no words at all,” says Jade Trott, art director at in-house specialists Oliver . “The best way to get a big message across clearly, so that it transcends language is to use a piece of graphic design. And there’s only one place in the world to find millions of amazing, royalty free graphic designs: The Noun Project. It has icons for everything; over a million of them, created by a global community.” 

Chloé Holden, designer at London-based global design agency Conran Design Group, is also a fan. “I wish I had known about The Noun Project sooner,” she says. “When you're pitching for work, you don't always have time to make perfect icons. But using The Noun Project means you can get the idea across for now; they have icons for everything. And then you can make a bespoke suite of icons for a client if you win the job.”

07. Check for accidental plagiarism

“I see a lot of work, especially in logos and branding, that is very derivative,” says John Atkin, head of PR for Serif, the makers of Affinity Designer. “When you’re young it’s tempting to think that you’ve come up with a brilliant idea for the very first time, and that’s great enthusiasm, but it’s very rarely the case. 

"A few minutes spent Googling the key elements of a design (‘camper van in front of mountains with sun’ or ‘skull with auto tools crossed underneath’ spring particularly to mind) can stop you wasting hours creating something for a client, only for them to come back and say ‘But it looks just like…’ – or worse, for you to get a client into trouble over IP theft.”

08. Symmetry vs bleed

“Avoid symmetry close to the bleed,” urges Johannes Obermayr, owner of Austrian design agency Artischock. “It probably won’t be symmetrical any more after cutting. 

”I had my fair share of misprints in the early years of my career,” he admits. “Some were caused by that symmetry vs bleed thing, and some were because of (my) bad colour management knowledge in 1997. Having to be precise when others are allowed to be imprecise – that's what the bleed is for, after all – is just not a good idea. 

“For example, if your design gets cut too much on the left by a millimetre, your design is cut too little on the right. Imagine a nice 3mm border around a sheet. It could end up with two on one side and four on the other. Bye bye, symmetry."

09. Colour management saves you money

“Did I mention having had my fair share of misprints?” says Obermayr. “I don't know if anyone had implemented good colour management in their work flow back in '97. I hadn't, and I hadn't seen it in specialised prepress companies then. You had to rely on very expensive equipment and experience of several people. It was a mess, especially when trying new stuff.

“Some printing companies still fail sometimes but who doesn't? With proper colour management in your workflow, you minimise failure and see what you will get while working. The colour management education work of cleverprinting.de (founded 2004) was a big step forward for many designers as it was for me. Sadly I don't know an English version of such a company.”

10. Boost creativity through bookmarking

If you want to boost your creativity and improve the quality of your design work, you need to read stuff you wouldn't normally be interested in, urges Christophe Brumby, creative strategist at Amplify. “Why? Because creativity is everywhere. It usually comes from applying something from a certain area into another area and bookmarking interesting links while adding relevant keywords that you can then easily research later in Chrome (cmd + D is my favourite shortcut) and saving key quotes in the Notes app – also including keywords that you can easily look up."

11. Immerse yourself in culture

Expanding your horizons isn't just about what you read, of course. “The smallest things can influence your ideas without you even realising," adds Beth Anderton-Allen, creative at Amplify. “So make sure you take time to go out and immerse yourself in culture.  Grabbing a copy of a listings magazine on the way into work, such as Time Out in London, is always great to see what's going on."

Pitching your projects

Pitch meeting in office

Pitching isn't every designer's favourite task, but there are ways to improve your chances of success

Most of us are happy enough sitting at our desks, working on crafting beautiful designs. But having to stand up and sell them, whether that's to clients, stakeholders, colleagues or your boss, can be less fun and much more stressful. Here are some tips to help you find pitching success.

12. Bring your own monitor

I take my massive Apple screen to pitches,” says Ben Long, creative director at Dare, an experience, design and engineering company based in London and Bristol. “You can never trust someone else’s IT, especially when their mini projector presents your hard work at a 45-degree angle, looking like it’s been wrung out after a dirty bath. I swear by my heavy-duty Apple monitor; it looks like I’ve stolen it on the way to the pitch, but if I stick it in the middle of the boardroom table, nobody’s looking anywhere but the screen.”

13. Create 15-second animations

“A short animation is a great way to get an idea across to a client and get them as excited as you are about it,” says Holden. “However, it only makes sense to do if you can do it in 15 seconds to create maximum impact. Animations help tell your story and bring your concepts and ideas to life. Not only will they help tell your story, they get your message noticed and remembered.”

14. Just present one idea

“One thing that we as a studio have learnt over the years, sometimes the hard way, is to never present anything to a client that you are not in love with,” says Alun Shooter, creative partner at Cambridge-based creative agency The District. “The idea of presenting three concepts, or indeed any arbitrary number of concepts, is flawed. 

“If you put in that idea to 'satisfy' the client, the chances are it will do just that; 'satisfy' the client,” he continues. “Our view is that whilst satisfying the client with respect to timescales, budgets and general project management is important, an idea should do much more than satisfy. 

“It should challenge, excite, and certainly take the client to a place that they wouldn't naturally go themselves. Otherwise you are not adding value. Equally this idea is unlikely to be the one that captures the imagination of the studio, which in the development of an idea is as important as inspiring the client.”

15. Train in public speaking

Woman giving pitch in front of wall of post-it notes

Training in public speaking could have huge impact on the success of your pitches

“Enroll in Toastmasters,” says identity specialist Lisa Stewart. “Seriously. It builds your confidence when speaking to an audience of one or many.”

If the idea seems terrifying, don't worry: Stewart had the same reaction initially. “As an introvert who easily implodes in public, I was told, ‘TM is fun! They bring you to the front of the room and ask you questions. You're to speak off the cuff.’ But that was not my idea of fun. What I didn't realise is that they also provide you books with structured speeches and a host of other tiny tasks throughout the meeting hour. You get two books, you get coaching from anyone in the group, you get mentored, you get gentle evaluations on everything you do to show you how to improve.” 

And in the end, it was all very much worth it. “Speaking gives you confidence,” Stewart stresses. “This skill helps you give presentations to a client or a group of clients, helps you defend your work, and helps you find other speaking gigs to position yourself as an expert. Because ultimately, you want to grow your career and the way to accomplish this is through speaking.”

16. Learn how to justify your design decisions

When you sell your designs to a stakeholder, you can’t just say, “it looked cool,” “the story just makes sense this way,” or “these types of icons are really popular right now,” says Jesse Virgil, a graphic designer based in Indianapolis. “They’ll want you to provide an overview of your design process and may ask questions that require you to justify some, or most, of the decisions you made. You can do that by providing granular-level details based on objective data: for example, ‘I chose this colour scheme because they’re the primary colours in the company’s branding guidelines, and the accent colours are reserved for specific services and client industries that aren’t part of the presentation’s content.’

“As designers, we need to ground our decisions in design theory, best practices, and human psychology,” Virgil adds. “So spend time learning about these subjects, and design as much as possible. Start with books like Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug, and The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. Just like the learning how to use the pen tool in Illustrator CC or Sketch, it’s a skill that you develop over time with practice and commitment.

Productivity

Woman at desk

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17. Note ideas with the microphone button

Long recommends you make use of the microphone button next to your iPhone’s spacebar. “You speak the idea and it transcribes for you; a properly essential tool when you just need to get an idea down,” he says. “Yeah, you have to say ‘full stop’ when you want a full stop, but that doesn’t really matter. You get the pure, stream-of-consciousness idea on paper straight away. I was never good at punctuation anyway.”

18. Keep hold of thoughts with Dropbox Paper

Dropbox Paper is insanely good for an influx of thoughts and ideas for various uses; from project planning, transcribing interviews to recording insights,” enthuses Cellyn Tan, junior product designer at digital transformation consultancy Red Badger. “I started using the tool a few months ago after reading a Medium article on how designers and copywriters have used it to document their designs and iterations. 

‘It helps to organise my thoughts and kudos to its inline formatting tools. For example, checkboxes helped me loads in fleshing out tasks and to-dos. It embraces the use of emoji, not just for frivolous decorations but to call attention to specific sections, and extremely helpful in communicating statuses. 

“I use Paper to quickly get my head around meeting and workshop outcomes. It is effortless to create tables, drag visual artefacts into Paper and type away with a clean, simplified interface.”

19. Handle Post-its correctly

Animated GIF of person peeling off a Post-it horizontally

The correct way to remove Post-its

“Learning how to peel off a Post-it correctly is one of the most useful things a designer can master,” says Clementine Brown, product designer at Red Badger. “Many people peel them off in an upwards motion, causing the paper to curl and fall off the wall. Instead, you should peel them off horizontally, as in the gif [shown above]. Also, write your on post-its in Sharpie, so people can read your words from further away.”

20. Break tasks down with Asana

“I started using Asana a couple of years ago and it’s become a really helpful tool for staying organised and on track with my work,” says Philip Demir, designer at app design company Potato. “It does so by breaking everything down into smaller, more manageable tasks that can be grouped into categories. 

“An example would be breaking an email campaign down into tasks based on my typical design workflow: concept sketching, digital rendering, amends, etc. Each can have due dates and priority tags set so I can stay on track with my progress. It’s changed the way I work for the better – I have a work (Potato) account, one for my freelancing, and even one for my personal admin.”

21. Productise your assets

"As I’ve been a design strategist for many years now, there are specific diagrams, flow charts and models that have become integral to my practice,” says experience design strategist Rochelle Dancel

“I used to waste a lot of time attempting to design something completely original for every document that added very little value,” she explains. “When I’ve worked in an agile team, I’ve found that my work against the ‘just enough just in time’ principle is greatly enhanced if you productise the assets that you constantly produce. 

“Now I have clean versions of specific assets I use all the time in a number of formats – Sketch, Keynote and Illustrator – with very basic styling, which makes it easier and faster when I can hand over work for someone else to style, leaving me free to concentrate on the content.”

Money matters

Close-up of bank note

Follow these tips to make sure you're reaping the full rewards of your design work

Much as we love our work and don't like to think about the financial side, we all need to pay the bills and keep the lights on. But keeping your bank manager happy needn't be such a chore. Here are some tips to help boost your finances.

22. Don’t do your own accounting

“If you are the creative type like me, there could be a little bit of chaos in you,” says Johannes Obermayr, owner of Austrian design agency Artischock.at. “Book keeping doesn't go well at all with even just a little chaos. In my first year, I just tried to do a part of it and my misunderstanding of the tax system led to more work for my tax advisor. Let him or her do his or her job; these guys are way more effective. If accounting would have been your thing, you would have become a tax consultant. Do what brings you joy.”

23. Raise your rates

“However much you charge, there will still be people that find your price quite affordable,” points out Obermayr. “That doesn't mean you should charge £1,000 per hour, but some people who start cheap and attract the attention of low budget customers get stuck with a ‘cheap’ reputation, which they can’t escape for fear of losing clients. I’d recommend instead that you calculate what your earnings should be and double or triple that to find your hourly fee. After all, you cannot sell all the hours you can bill for, because there are a lot of other administrative tasks you need to do beside the design work. 

“Charging a high rate means you can also afford to invest one or two extra hours in the design, so you can be satisfied and confident about the excellence of your creative outcome. Customers can sense that – which makes relationships much easier. Also don’t forget that one day an unexpected bill will land in your inbox; so make sure you have some of that money set aside.

24. You don't have to subscribe 

Affinity Publisher screengrab

Affinity now has an alternative to Adobe InDesign, in the form of Affinity Publisher

One more money tip from Obermayr… “Your work is still worth something a year or some after you've created it,” he points out. “You created this value. You should be able to access your own work at anytime unconditionally. If not, you have basically just rented your own work. 

“For this reason, I started the transition from Adobe to Affinity three years ago; now, the only Adobe CS6 Apps I still launch regularly are Acrobat for preflight and InDesign. And the Affinity Publisher  beta already has its place in my Mac’s task switcher and will replace InDesign early next year.”

25. Be your own client

“Treat your own business like you would a client's,” says Nottingham-based graphic designer Jenny Lamacraft. “Schedule and prioritise time for your own branding and marketing materials. Resist the temptation to keep putting the project back and set a firm deadline, otherwise you'll never do it – I've learnt from bitter experience! Obviously paying work has to come first, but I've found that applying this attitude does help.”

Bonus: quick-fire life hacks

Need more advice ? Here are some bonus, quick-fire tips from Bristol-based CRM agency, Armadillo ….

  • Mock up your ideas. No one is a mind reader (sadly), and some people will struggle to understand your idea without context.
  • Know what you do. As in, really know what you do. Master your craft and everything around it.
  • Get organised. Stay on top of deadlines, stay on top of admin, stay on top generally.
  • Teamwork makes the dreamwork. Ignoring the cliché, collaboration makes the best work. Make use of those around you and their skills and knowledge.
  • Be open to new ideas. Sometimes the best work comes from the most unexpected places.
  • Stay in the know. The latest trends, the newest technology, the successes and the failures – make sure you know what’s going on in your industry.
  • Get out of your own head. Look for inspiration in areas outside of your own field.
  • A cup of tea fixes everything.

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