Posted 01.12.2015

Designing before the Design Phase

When I was in college, I was told that one of the most healthy disciplines I could pick up was to sketch everything, first. Pen and paper are your friend. My professors would make us turn in our preliminary sketches to try to enforce this mentality. Even though, no one is forcing me to do that now, it’s still a good habit that I continue to practice.


Visual Research

When I start each project, I start with visual research. I know this sounds like a fluff term, but it’s probably one of the most defining steps in the process. If I’m working on a piece for middle aged women, I’ll might pick up Real Simple, O, Vogue, and Martha Stewart magazines. These are things that these women are paying attention to. Each of these magazines have spent millions of dollars in research to determine trends. Why not take cues from them in determining what’s popular?

Visual research doesn’t have to be all about the audience, though, it can also be about content. For example, if I’m working on a site that’s copy heavy, I might look at other sites ( and USAToday) that face the same “problem” and take notes on how they solve it. How many columns did they use? Do they show the full article? excerpts? or headlines?

I’ll take all the images that I find and post them on my wall in my office. This helps me think in a particular stylistic direction, as well as, make connections based on what I’ve seen.

Mood board of Inspiration

A secret about creativity:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

“Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have."

Steve Jobs

It’s true. I take screenshots all the time. I’ll take pictures on my phone when I’m out and about. I keep everything in my Evernote account. (I wrote a post about it, too.)

Evernote Screenshot

Create a Moodboard

With a few of my clients, I’ve started making mood boards. It’s essentially what I’ve done for myself in the visual research phase, so it’s just a matter of sharing what I’ve found with the client. I’ve found that a lot of times the design vocabulary I use is different than theirs. So, if we have actually images we can point to, it guarantees that we’re both talking about the same thing. By getting their feedback early on, it let’s me know if I'm moving in the right direction. Do they like large, bold typography? large header images? muted color palette?


I submitted a mood board to a client a couple of months ago and they came back and said, “This looks great, but it’s not at all what we want.” I said, “Perfect! The mood board did exactly what it was supposed to. It prevented me from spending a bunch of time designing something that you didn’t want.” From there, the mood board was able to launc us into a healthy conversation about what they really did want.

Sketching Everything

I design everything in my moleskine first. I’ll write down all the elements that we already agreed need to be on a particular page. I’ll write down on all the main navigation items. I’ll sketch different layout ideas, getting everything out of my head and onto paper. I’ll draw design elements: chevrons, rules, squares. I’ll make notes about how things will work responsively or if I want a section to animate in. I’ll write out the good and the bad. –Even if I know an idea is bad ahead of time, I’ll still write it down just to get it out of my head. Then, mentally, I can move on to other, better ideas. I can process a concept so much faster on paper than I can on the computer.

Moleskine Sketches

Moleskine Sketches

All this happens before a pixel is created in Photoshop or a single line of code is written.

What are some things that you do to prepare or inform your designs?

Posted 01.04.2013

The Creative Habit

I’ve been reading a lot lately about other creatives and their process. It’s “funny”, typically, everything they say resonates. My process usually mirrors theirs, I’ve just never put words to it.

The Creative HabitThe Creative Habit was written by Twyla Tharp. She’s a famous choreographer in New York and has worked on a stupid number of shows and even won a couple of Tony’s (no big :-) ). Even though what I do, is far removed from dance, our processes are still very similar. She spends a whole chapter talking about scratching.

You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won? That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging through everything to find something. It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, and some sort of traction to keep moving forward and onward….Scratching can look like borrowing or appropriating, but it’s an essential part of creativity.

She goes on to quote a Harvard psychologist who claims there are four ways ideas can be acted upon.

First, you must generate the idea, usually from memory or experience or activity. Then, you have to retain it–that is hold it steady in your mind and keep it from disappearing. Then, you have to inspect it–study it and make inferences about it. Finally, you have to be able to transform it–alter it in some way to suit your higher purposes.

I do this. I scratch through the internet, looking through dozens of RSS feeds in Google Reader. I scratch through Dribbble, Twitter, and Flickr looking for something, anything. Then, when I find something, I retain it, by putting it in Evernote. I’ve told you before, I have over 15,000 notes in Evernote. This is why. I also carry around a moleskine. They might be meaningless to one person, but they hold priceless gems to me.

Everytime I get ready to start a project, I go back through my Evernote account, inspecting. At this point, I’ll usually make a mood board for my clients, pulling ideas that are relevant to their project. When I get ready to push pixels, I begin to transform those ideas into something that is (hopefully) new and unique.

Twyla Tharp was right. Creativity is a habit. I have to constantly be collecting…err… scratching, so that when the moment comes when I have to produce, I have something to pull from.

Posted 11.14.2012

10 Sites I Use to Stay Organized

There are several sites that I use consistently in order to stay organized. Some of these sites will seem obvious, but a proper web app has built in flexibility, meaning HOW I use them may be different.

But first, let me explain why I use these sites and not their competitors:

  • Easability – The site has to make it easy for me to use. In some cases, less is more.
  • Syncing – A lot of a site that will sync with my iPhone and iPad. I can no longer be limited to my desktop/laptop. I need to be able to access current information wherever.
  • Getting information in AND out – I have to be able to get information in and out, whenever I want, however I want.

Get Pocket

Instapaper / Pocket

I started off using Read it Later (now Pocket and within the past year have switched over to Instapaper. They’re both similar services and so it really comes down to personal preference.

I use Instapaper to flag any longer form article that I run across and don’t have to time to read it in that moment. I have Instapaper on my iPhone and iPad so it makes syncing easy. I can catch up on my reading practically anywhere.

There are a few settings that I really enjoy about Instapaper:

  • All my bookmarks are automatically sent to my Pinboard account. There have been a few times where I’m looking for a post, can’t remember where I’ve sent it, and I know for sure it will show up in Pinboard.
  • Instapaper will compile a document to send to my Kindle each Friday with articles that saved for later. — Again, any format, any way I want it.

The Google Line-Up

I’m all about some Google Services and it really does go back to the 3 items I mentioned above. Google is easy to use. I can get it to sync easily with all my devices and even access the information on someone else’s computer. I can share, import, and export easily.

Google Calendar

Google Calendar

All of my calendaring is managed through Google Calendars. I can access it online at work and then have my iPhone and iPad automatically sync so that any updates are automatically pushed to the other devices.

I have a calendar set up for each area of my life, which doesn’t necessarily make sharing calendars easy, but it does mean that everything is color coordinated!

I try and put everything date related on my calendar, including due dates and tasks. Some days, I’ll even schedule everything out for the day, so that every minute is accounted for, just to make sure everything gets done.

Google Drive

Google Drive

More and more, I try and keep all my documents in Google Drive. Three reasons:

  1. Ease of use. It’s easier for me to open a new tab in my web browser than it is for me to launch Numbers.
  2. Sharing. I can share any document. For example, my husband and I share a document with our monthly budget. Or, I’ve shared business ideas with potential partners. Or, site documentation with freelance clients. It’s so much better than emailing an Excel document back and forth and trying to keep up with which version is the most recent.
  3. Syncing. I can easily pull up any document on my iPhone or iPad when I’m on the go.

I even write all my blog posts in Google Docs. I have a “Drafts” folder and a “Published” folder. Each week, I’ll plan out what I want to blog about. I’ll put the post title on my Google Calendar. Then, I can actually, attach the Google Doc to that particular event in my calendar!

Attachments in Google Calendar

Jenny Blank actually got me thinking in this direction. She’s a former Google employee and now manages the blog Life After College. She has her whole in Google and does a great job of sharing some of her Google Doc templates and methods for staying organized.



I have several different email addresses, but they all forward to one Gmail account. I try and tag everything and aim for Inbox Zero. The three most important tags I have are @Action, @FollowUp, @NonImmediate, and @Read. I’m a fan of GTD and so (on a good week), when I’m doing my weekly review, I got through those boxes to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

A huge help, though, has been Boomerang. My favorite feature is Send Later, but it will also remind me if I need to follow up with someone or if I want to get it out of my Inbox, but come back and remind me later.

Google Reader

Google Reader

I keep track of all my blog feeds through Google Reader. That doesn’t mean I necessarily always use Google Reader for reading, there are other applications, like Reeder (for Mac, iPad, and iPhone), that I use. But, everything is at least synced through Google Reader.



I use Evernote to store all images of things I like. It’s basically my personal Pinterest. I double up, saving things in Evernote and Pinterest because Evernote saves my information locally. I feel like it’s “mine” versus sending it to a 3rd party online.

Also, Evernote has image text recognition. Meaning, I don’t necessarily have to tag an image as “gorilla.” But, if it has the word “gorilla” on there, Evernote will read that text and still return that image as a result. = Much more versatile. Again, it’s all about being able to save data and get it back out whenever and wherever I need it.

I’ll also save snippets of code in Evernote or ways I troubleshot a programming issue I was having. This makes it easy when I encounter the issue again and can’t remember how I solved it.

It takes Evernote a while to load up, particularly on my iPhone and iPad, but then again, I have almost 15,000 notes (not exaggerating).



This is one of my favorites. Dropbox has a folder that sits on my computer. Anything I place inside, automatically syncs with my iPhone and iPad. I love it, not only for getting files on the go, but it makes it easy to share files and collaborate with others. Additionally, I have several services that backup and sync via Dropbox.



I use Pinboard for all my bookmarks. I used Delicious back in the day (and in a lot of ways liked it better), but when it got bought out by Yahoo, I switched to Pinboard and haven’t looked back. I save everything…well…almost everything. I’ll save links to Photoshop brushes and Mac Applications and things I find online that I eventually want to share on my blog.



I use Hootsuite to manage my Twitter account. I schedule most of my Tweets, that way I can set them up once to send throughout the day. I also like Hootsuite’s layout, where I have several different columns of information. — my feed, direct messages, @replies, favorite tweets, pending tweets, designers I follow, you get the idea.

Actually, almost all the links and design resources I find come from my Twitter list of designers.


This site is easy to forget about, simply because I set it up once and it runs magic in the background. But, the beauty of this site is that it has most of these sites I’ve listed, working together.

IFTTT stands for If This, Then This. Basically, it sets up conditionals, or recipes, for various sites and will automatically run a set of actions, if triggered. For example, every time I take a picture on Instagram, that picture is automatically downloaded and backed up to my Dropbox folder. Cool, right?! Or here’s another: if I star something in my Google Reader, then, it will automatically create a bookmark in Pinboard/. Plus, the site has plenty of predefined recipes that you can use, if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas.