Want to save time on your design work? Yes! Great, then let's dig in.
This article is overflowing with time-saving tips that will not only have you working more proficiently, but get you punching above your weight. Learn how to crank up your output, while avoiding burnout and income plateaus, all by working just a little bit smarter as a designer.
Get a productive primer on task, time, and project management techniques. Learn how to put web services and graphic software to work for you. Turn your work patterns into a system that produces more, faster. And discover habit-building techniques to put these rapid-fire, quick tips to action in your day-to-day work as a designer.
Jump into these 55 productive tips to hustle more strategically, get more done, more consistently, focus better on the design work you so enjoy doing, and start cooking up some high-energy growth. Let’s get to it!
Get Started With Task Management
1. Filter your projects down into actionable tasks.
It’s difficult to sit down and say that you’re going to design an entire website, from branding through to coding. Even a small website is a complex project, with multiple tasks to complete. Get into the habit of breaking down large projects into incremental tasks, then scheduling those components to work on. Any big project can be broken down into a series of milestones and individual tasks.
2. Apply one-touch task management.
Get familiar with the basics of the popular productivity system Getting Things Done. In GTD you’ll learn the touch it once principle, which recommends that you process and assign tasks as they come in. So, when you read an email, either act on it immediately (if it takes two minutes or less), or add that task to your task management system and assign a time to take action on it. Don’t just read it and then leave it to start over with later. If a simple graphic request comes in, do it right away. Otherwise, add the task to your schedule.
3. Focus on your most important design tasks (MITs).
Identify and prioritize your most important tasks for the day. Keep it to a limited number of tasks to work on, such as three. Also, try to tackle them as early in the day as possible. This gives your day purpose. These might be components of a big client design project or that hand lettering side project that you’ve been meaning to dust off. The big rocks only move if you pick them up every day. Learn more about what an MIT is and how MITs relate to your goals.
4. Tackle your difficult tasks first thing.
This is known as eating the frog—yes, that metaphor makes it easy to remember. It’s all too easy to start work with your email, get distracted on incoming requests, and not make headway on your most important graphic design projects. This is especially true of those important tasks that you just don’t want to do and are procrastinating on. Start your day with a big win, dig in, and get that tough task accomplished first thing.
5. Outsource simple graphic tasks or those you just don’t like.
There’s no greater drain on your productivity than doing work you don’t enjoy, or that places a drag on your more important design work. You can outsource graphic design tasks that are time-consuming and repetitive.
6. Hire code service providers to solve technical headaches.
As a designer, you’re more inclined to enjoy focusing on the visual side of your client projects. If that’s the case, then take a look at hiring service providers to fulfill coding tasks. You can provide the big picture planning, art direction and customer support, and dig into the design work you love doing, while hiring experts to take care of coding problems.
7. Take your big list of tasks and bundle the related ones.
Task bundling leads to greater efficiency, especially with the less critical tasks or repetitive tasks that can otherwise be distracting to your workflow. Instead of leaving social media open all day, jump in for just 20 minutes and post across all channels at once, then close it down. If you need to do recruiting tasks, such as checking job boards, or emailing potential clients, tackle those tasks together. This will free up the rest of your time to concentrate on your more important design work—distraction free.
8. Use the right task management software for you.
There are so many task management software options today—hundreds to choose from. There’s no greater time-sink than shifting between task software, but using any decent task app will improve your efficiency. Do some basic research, then choose one and stick with it for a while. Here are a few to consider, listed from simple to complex (and I’ve used all of these): Clear, TeuxDeux, Things, and OmniFocus.
Better Manage Your Time
9. Develop a daily routine that works for you.
Chaos may sound creative, but it isn’t conducive to cranking out a number of design projects on a daily basis—and it’s far from reliable. Your creative work routine gives you a foundation for getting things done, not just when you feel like it, but every day. For some inspiration, take a look at: Benjamin Franklin’s routine and other famous creative routines. Notice how unique your daily work routine can be, as long as it’s consistent.
10. Apply time boxing techniques to get things done.
Time boxing is the action of fixing a time period to work on a task, group of tasks, or a project. Whether you opt for working in increments of 25 minutes, as with the Pomodoro technique, or prefer to work in larger chunks of time (such as two hour increments), time boxing will have you breaking down your open-ended design projects into manageable work sessions. Learn more about time boxing and why it’s so effective.
11. Maximize your high-energy time.
Every creative is different. You may prefer to work late, crafting visuals well into the night, but many of us experience our most clarity shortly after waking up. Take note of your circadian rhythm, so you can schedule your most challenging tasks when you are at your peak. Schedule your low energy tasks for times of the day when your energy is typically lower. Learn more about assigning energy levels as contexts to your tasks.
12. Find your focus and flow.
Focus on one task at a time, unplugging all distractions, such as email and Twitter. Avoid surfing the web and put your phone into silent mode during a work session. Be mindful of what you’re working on, and work slowly and conscientiously at first, as this will open you up to getting into a groove on a project. It’s hard at first, but the more often you get into flow with your design work, the easier it is to do again—and again. Learn how to find your focus and get into the zone.
13. Take care with meetings and other time killers.
Meetings can be helpful, especially when it’s a complex issue that needs talking out. It’s all too easy to get sucked into unproductive meetings though. Avoid meetings that are unnecessary. Also, protect the high energy times in your schedule, as meetings don’t require the same level of creativity as designing. Take care against similar time killers. Grabbing a cup of coffee can turn into a conversation, can turn into an hour of your most productive time spent talking about some political issue, rather than cranking out the design work you needed to get done today.
14. Add software efficiencies and custom automation to your workflow.
Start making use of software that can automate actions you commonly do or make tasks quicker and easier to complete. TextExpander is useful for saving lots of typing time. Also, if you're on a Mac, then start using Alfred to work more efficiently. There are a number of apps you can use to make your workflow more efficient and automated. Take a look at optimizing your workflow with custom setups with these types of apps. Learn more about automation on your Mac. Also, maybe even learn a little bit of coding to customize your automation further.
15. Run time experiments and track your time.
You can use a spreadsheet to manually track how long your design tasks take, or use a time tracking app like Toggl or Harvest, or even record how long tasks take you in a written journal. You can track your time for client projects, in order to feed into accurate billing, but that same type of tracking can be used to improve your output. Once you know how long a task takes you on average, experiment and see if you can improve those times—continually look for ways to improve.
Step Up Your Project Management
16. Tackle larger design projects like an agency.
If you work at a design agency, then you know how powerful it is to have a full team to step up and work on big client projects. You also know how important it is to have a single vision coming from your art director and to have one person in charge of project management. Freelance designers can level up with a similar approach and start taking on larger design projects. Moving towards an art direction and project management role means learning how to lead a team. It can be a difficult move, but will allow for scaling what you can offer your clients well beyond just the time you can personally work on their design projects.
17. Assemble your design team.
You may have some design friends who specialize in skills that differ from yours. If not, start making some. These are the type of connections that work really well for collaborating on larger design projects. Keep an eye out at conferences and in design forums. Grab contact details and keep in touch. Use popular design sites to reach out and discuss client project opportunities. Dribbble Pro, for example, allows you to send direct messages to fellow designers about potential work projects and opens up greater search options.
18. Set your projects up with pipelines.
Sure, adaptability is key if you’re tackling a new project that you’ve never worked on before. But if you’re consistently building websites for similar clients, or offer another regular design service on an ongoing basis, then break your design projects down into milestones. This will allow you to schedule multiple complex projects and deliver on them reliably—giving you consistency to scale.
19. Outsource components of large-scale client design projects.
Make use of creative service providers to fill any holes in your design team.
20. Scope your projects well from the get-go and avoid "scope creep”.
Contracts don’t sound sexy compared to cranking out a lovingly flat design. But they set the tone and scope of each project in a professional manner. On any large project, clients will inevitably ask for more features, or email you at 1am with their next big idea to add to their project. With a clear scope established, you’re in a great position to rework deadlines, and increase the project budget, with each additional design request your headache of a client makes.
21. Keep on top of communication with your clients.
Opt for short, to-the-point, consistent updates with your clients. Sure this takes time, but it will save so much more time in the long run by avoiding misunderstandings that can derail a large design project.
22. Get client sign-off on designs throughout the project.
There are some great tools for doing this, such as LayerVault. These types of tools are also built to collaborate with your design team, present design options and the ideas behind your work, and handle version control.
23. Settle on project management software that works for you and your team.
There are a lot of options to consider for project management software, such as: how the app feels, costs, features, client support, complexity, cloud integration, and more. Here are a few popular options to consider, from simple to complex: Trello, Basecamp, Streamtime, Asana, and Podio.
Put the Internet to Work for You
24. Use affordable cloud-based services for your design business.
For virtually any aspect of your business, there is a SAAS app that will help streamline your workflow. It can take some time to set up these components, but once done, you can work a whole lot faster.
25. Set up your lead generation machine online.
In additional to your portfolio on your own domain, publish multiple folios with every major service online, such as at Dribbble, Behance, Krop, and Coroflot, as well as niche folio sites like LogoPond. Set up client landing pages with tools like Leadpages, Instapage, or Unbounce. Collect client information with Formstack, Wufoo, or Gravity Forms. Keep regular contact with clients through a newsletter powered by Mailchimp, AWeber, Emma, or Constant Contact.
26. Take care of critical, client-related business in the cloud.
Store your client details in an easy to reference contact or client relationship manager, such as Insightly or Podio. Send proposal and contracts with apps like Bidsketch or Motiv. Track client invoices and keep track of accounts with FreshBooks, Xero, or QuickBooks.
27. Share files quickly with your team and clients.
Use popular services like Dropbox or Google Drive to share files in the cloud. Explore more cloud-based file sharing tools. Also, look at quick ways to send files to your clients, with tools like WeTransfer or DropSend.
28. Use social media time saving tools without overdoing it.
Use tools like Buffer for quick posting or Hootsuite for managing your social channels. There are so many social media channels and tools available. It’s best to take a minimum approach here, and only put as much time into social media as you see a return with. Experiment with one social channel, one tool, and one strategy at a time, and stick with what works for your needs.
29. Snap software together online into automated workflows across apps.
Instead of looking for one software solution that does everything (i.e. the holy grail), you can instead use each app online for what it’s great at, then put it together with other awesome apps to form online workflows. Take a look at apps like Zapier and IFTTT to get started with snapping these Lego pieces together. You can use these to build custom components for your design business workflow or offer unique services to your clients.
Leverage Web Services to Scale
30. Click services together into full-path fulfillment options.
Much like the SAAS software mentioned in the previous section above, you can click coding and design services together like Lego pieces as well—building full-path solutions you can offer your design clients.
31. Start with templates and assets, then hire providers to customize them.
Envato Elements is the place to get professional WordPress templates, in any theme style you can imagine. Across Envato Market you can purchase affordable templates and graphic assets to build client projects.
32. Offer a full branding package solution.
If branding isn’t your speciality, or if you’re just too busy with other design work, then you can still offer these services to your clients.
33. Offer integrated online marketing graphic packages.
Put together complete social media design packages for your clients.
34. Offer full WordPress websites with programming service support.
35. Offer website design with coding service workflows.
36. Pay a pro price for an expert service.
Sure, five dollars for a logo is cheap, but if it’s off the mark, then you’ll need to have it redone by a professional—wasting your very valuable time. If you’re in a tight spot, need assistance, and want to take a chance on a hobbyist, then go for it. Keep in mind though that you often get what you pay for.
37. Choose service providers that are quick and easy to use.
Do you really have time to wade through and give feedback on 99 or more designs? Or how about spending time crafting a brief, posting a job on a freelance marketplace, and reviewing a slew of incoming pitches? Instead, it’s quicker to work with just one, high-quality, reliable designer. And this way you can build a relationship with them; they can become a fixture of what you offer through your design business.
Use Graphic Software Shortcuts
38. Set up your software workspace optimally.
Get familiar with the options for customizing your Photoshop workspace to your liking. Learn how to setup Illustrator's workspace and other app workspaces. Customize the workspace setups for the variety of design work you do. For example, you may need different tools for working with typography in Illustrator versus the setup for the vector illustration work you do.
39. Create reusable templates for your recurring projects.
Setting up graphic templates for your projects is a great time saver. They allow you to use the same document again and again to kickstart similar projects. Here’s how to create a book template in InDesign to get started with creating your own. Or you can jump over to Envato Elements to purchase an assortment of graphic templates as client needs arise, such as print templates, presentation templates, or brochure templates.
40. Create a library of files for your most used graphic resources.
Keep your most used icons on one artboard or all your textures in one file you can access quickly from PS or AI. If you work with a team, then keep it accessible through Dropbox. Use a consistent, logical naming convention for your files as well. This way, when you need a graphic you often go to, you know where to find it.
41. Get familiar with keyboard shortcuts, and create your own, in all your most used graphic applications.
Memorize useful keyboard shortcuts in Photoshop and other graphic apps you use on a regular basis. Also, create your own shortcuts for anything you do on a regular basis, which has you clicking through panels or sifting through menus. Here’s how to create custom keyboard shortcuts in Illustrator, including how to apply additional workspace customizations.
42. Create and put actions to work for you.
Create Photoshop actions for common tasks you perform often. Actions can be recorded and then played back, saving you time on repetitive graphic tasks. Actions are simple to get started with, but there is so much you can learn to do with them. For more on actions, jump into our course on how to set up actions in Photoshop to showcase your projects.
43. Enhance your use of actions with batch processing.
Take Photoshop actions further with batch processing. You can learn how to process hundreds of files. Quickly change file types, resize multiple files, apply compression, and more with this automation tool.
Systemize Design Business Procedures
44. Create standard operating procedures for your design and business work.
All the services and online tools mentioned in the article can be turned into workflows. It’s helpful, especially as your team grows, or your design business explodes, to document your procedures. These are guidelines and instructions on how your business operates. They are the groundwork for a productive, reliable business. They help position you to outsource or hire staff to complete tasks you’re currently doing yourself. Learn more about how to document procedures and systematize your design business.
45. Use checklists to avoid mistakes and time-consuming failures.
Checklists are a special type of procedural document that are particularly helpful for standardizing workflows, and ensuring quality goals are met. Checklists help keep your design projects from crashing and burning like an ill-prepped B-17 Bomber, especially as you add more members to your team. Learn more about the power of checklists.
46. Set up an intranet to house your procedures.
Google Workspace is a good choice for an easy to make a design business intranet. You can start by documenting your procedures as Docs in Google Drive and then level up to using a Google site for housing those procedures. Learn more about setting up your intranet with Google Sites.
47. Document your procedures as you grow.
As you add more components to your design business, keep track of how you market, land sales, interact with your clients, fulfill services, and communicate. Give step by step instructions for how to complete tasks that are critical to your business operation.
Build Productive Habits
48. Approach making changes as a series of simple habits to form.
Making changes to your design business involves building positive habits. There is way too much in this article to try to change in a single day, week, or even a month. Improving your productivity involves implementing a series of permanent changes, one at a time.
49. Start by making tiny changes.
Actions take time to become habits. Start small, and repeat an action until it becomes routine. For example, if you want to work more quickly by using keyboard shortcuts, then add one keyboard shortcut to your workflow today. Then use it every day, for a week or two, until it becomes a go-to part of your workflow. Then add another keyboard shortcut until it’s a permanent habit. Instead of trying to change too much and getting overwhelmed, just make one tiny change after another.
50. Assign triggers to your new habits.
This can be as simple as scheduling an hour every Friday to document one of your workflows. Or limiting processing email to an alarm that goes off on your phone at 10am every morning. Firing up Photoshop can direct you to set up your ideal workspace for the project at hand, grab related templates you’ve created, and get started in much the same way on every project. Triggers are any event that you can assign an action to. They are really helpful for building habits.
51. Add those tiny habit changes together.
Habit stacking involves chunking habits together into routines. Your morning routine may start rather disorganized. But every little habit change to your routine you make will add up. You might start with grabbing a coffee, clearing your desk, and firing up your laptop every day. Then you add the new habit of writing down your day's MITs next, adding this important task to your morning work routine. Repeat that one action until it’s a standard action when you get to work. Then move on to adding the habit of focusing on your most important creative task next, creating a stacked routine triggered by the start of your workday. The more you repeat these types of actions daily, the more ingrained your routines will become.
52. Hire a coach, form a support group, or tap into a productive platform.
Look online, or in local meet-ups, for like-minded designers to share the journey of building productive habits with. Close groups are particularly helpful if you want creative accountability for your productivity goals. Learn more about starting a thriving mastermind group. Or join a community, find a mentor, or hire a coach. Coach.me is one such community to find a productivity coach on. Here is an interview with designer and illustrator Jeff Finley, discussing the coaching he does there.
53. Experiment with emotional hacks.
Working smart and structured is a robotic path to greater productivity, but we’re not robots—so that only goes so far. We’re emotional. Get a feel for what motivates you and add positive triggers to your daily routines. Whether it’s hopping from office to coffee shop between your work sessions, taking a moment to browse design galleries for inspiration, listening to energizing playlists to fire up your designs, or rewarding yourself with a creative task after tackling something difficult and business-y, look for ways to add energy to your workflow by tapping into your emotional triggers.
54. Appreciate every improvement you make and continue your path of productive growth.
It’s important to stay positive about the changes you’re making. Maybe make note of it once a week in your journal using Evernote or your favorite note-taking app. Celebrate with a sweet treat and coffee, or just take a couple of minutes to recognize your progress in a moment of mindfulness. Take this positive momentum and push on to the next change you plan to make a habit of.
55. Track your progress and continue to set new targets.
As you make note of your progress each week, take time to analyze the goals you've met, or make note of missteps and how you can improve them, and then set new habits to work on. You can also look at dedicated goal apps to help you with this tracking, such as Strides, GoalsOnTrack, and Lifetick. Or hack together a custom habit tracking system from your favorite task manager, such as Nozbe, as productivity expert Michael Hyatt does.
Take It One Step at a Time
There is a lot of ground covered in this post. It's a lot of work to build your own productivity system, start new habits, and apply time-saving shortcuts.
Get started by setting up a few tools and workflows, try things out, and find what works for you—even if it’s initially messy. Even if, at first, you don’t feel uber productive.
Try tackling just one small improvement at a time—each week. Build positive routines as you stack your habits. Track your results, keep experimenting, and your design business and career will slowly but steadily grow.
Your workflow will get quicker. You’ll start outputting more, as you scale, through the assistance of service providers, procedures, and your new appreciation for hustling strategically—allowing you to do more without requiring more of your time.