On Being a Productive Designer

April 25, 2016

 

The maxim goes that there’s never enough time to do great design. At least, that’s how it feels when we’re working as product designers.

 

In the early days of our design careers, we struggled to master our craft, both in understanding our ever-changing digital mediums and in the day-to-day collaborations with engineers. Now as leaders of product teams, we’re bouncing constantly between product strategy, process improvement, and the micro-details that consistently lead to shipping great products. Time is our most treasured resource, and yet our awareness of how we use it — the actual quality of how it is spent — can be ignored in the daily roller-coaster ride of modern business.

 

So we asked a group of design leaders who participated in John Maeda’s KPCB Dim Sums gatherings what are some of the unique habits that make designers successful. This is what we learned.

 

As in other aspects of our lives, there are the inevitable roadblocks such as lack of focus, procrastination, or even falling in love with the process itself that can keep us from moving forward with our work as designers. Fortunately for us, there are a lot of real world techniques and practices that can keep us on track. Important ones like what (and what not) to prioritize, turning off distractions, chunking tasks into smaller components, and scheduling non-meeting time for ourselves are visible solutions for carving out more creative time in our days.

 

There are the inevitable roadblocks such as lack of focus, 
procrastination, or even falling in love with the process itself that can keep us from moving forward.

 

But for a lot of us neck-deep in today’s design zeitgeist, being creative is a round-the-clock endeavor. We have to keep producing high-quality creative, and must find a way, our way, to keep doing so. Peter Cho, Vice President of Design at Inkling talked about perfection, and how it is the enemy of the good. “Getting into a cadence of rapid deployment and iteration on the products really helps enbolden people to get stuff out there sooner so we can see what works and what doesn’t.”

 

Some good habits are not immediately self-evident either. Even so, by learning and using them, these routines can greatly help us build the muscle-memory to be effective time managers. For instance, by learning to (literally) navigate through our days from time to time without depending on digital devices helps us sharpen on our innate creativity and problem solving abilities. The distance from Point A to Point B can be deduced with more accuracy if our own sensory skills are highly refined by “going analog.” We may find out that it isn’t a straight line after all.

 

Time management must include consideration for others' time as well as our own.

 

Even cultural considerations play into how we manage our time. In the United States, being late to a meeting can be considered a credibility killer: it can appear self-centered and manipulative to waste people’s time. In other cultures, there may be no explicit starting point for when we meet with others, and the notion of a fixed deadline can be figuratively foreign. As Erika Hall, Co-Founder of Mule Design brings up, a great way to bridge the gap is building an “Ask” rather than a “Guess” culture in our work environments. All cultures value being valued as individuals. Time management must include consideration for others’ time as well as our own.

 

A lot of talk centers around the digital tools out there to help us in the crusade to organize our time. Capturing what needs to be done and fleshing out specifics can definitely be supported by digital tools. Even so many of these things can be done on paper, and many of these systems have started on paper. (Getting Things DoneBehance Action Method). Timeboxing when we have a task to complete (the Pomodoro Method) is also a great way to sharpen our focus and give anxiety a playpen.

 

New tools that find gaps in our schedules and slot in habits we desire are also paramount, including things like time for personal reflection and meditation (Timeful). Bob Baxley, Head of Product Design and Research AtPinterest, likes time-management tools not only for the obvious, but also for the ability to “self-correct and adjust my behavior back to what I know are my personal priorities and preferred way of being in the world.”

 

Digital tools can do just about everything, it seems, even help us get more centered.

 

When it all comes down to it though, the F-bomb “No” is the
cornerstone of time management.

 

When it all comes down to it though, the F-bomb “No” is the cornerstone of time management. As designers, we’re likely very well-versed in reading how people feel through their micro expressions, body language, tone of voice, eye contact, among other aspects of physical demeanor. A lot of us designerly types are people-pleasers, and to use the running gag from Mike Judge’s HBO show Silicon Valley, “want to make the world a better place.” Part of this means running ourselves into burnout territory, a kind of creative purgatory.

 

Designers have to work extra hard with “No.” Our minds can go wild shuffling schedules around the moment the question for more of our time forms a sentence.

So when it comes to others pursuing more of our our time, one simple question can suffice: will saying “no” help keep us sane? When asking this question expect brutal self-honesty: can I do this thing here that’s asked of me? Because if our overzealousness predictably underwhelms, then no one will gain. And when guilt naturally comes skulking around the corner, we just tell it to go away. We certainly don’t have time for that.

 

We are indefatigable workers and care deeply about what we do. We also believe that people who depend on us to create useful and beautiful design will come to respect us even more when we’re honest about our own limitations and availability.

Even when we feel like we’re barraged with work and deadlines, we’re the ones ultimately in control of how we use our time.

 

Now let’s go make the most of it.

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