55 Time-Saving, Productive Workflow Tips for Designers

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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!

OmniFocus 2 for Mac
OmniFocus 2 for Mac.

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.
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.
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
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. 
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 through Envato Studio, such as: converting a raster logo to vectorremoving a background from a product photo, orphoto retouching and color correction. Browse through their numerous graphic design services, to discover design tasks that you'd rather hire someone to do, allowing you to focus your limited time on the design work you feel is important.
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. Here are a few coding services to get started with at Envato Studio, such as: migrating a WordPress websitefixing small WordPress and PHP issuescross browser testing and fixing, and PSD to responsive HTML5+CSS3. Browse through more website and programming services as well.
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.
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): ClearTeuxDeuxWunderlistThings, and OmniFocus.

Harvest entry
Harvest entry.

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 routinefamous creative routines, and more classic creative routines. Notice how unique your daily work routine can be, as long as it's consistent.
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.
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.
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.
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. 
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.
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. Learn more about leveraging time tracking to improve your design efficiency.

Podio project item
Podio project item.

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. 
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. 
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.
Make use of creative service providers on Envato Studio to fill any holes in your design team. Take a look at services like logo design and brandingsocial media graphics,information graphics, or packaged video services. Bring on a professional to handle coding for WordPressweb programmingmobile and app scripting, or Ecommerce & CMS Development. These services can be used for any stage of your design project pipeline, allowing you to customize what you do yourself and what you bring on a professional service provider to fulfill. 
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. 
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. 
There are some great tools for doing this, such as DesignSignoffPixelapse andLayerVault. 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.
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: TrelloBasecamp,DayliteStreamtimeAsana, and Podio.

Zapier Trigger
Zapier trigger.

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.
In additional to your portfolio on your own domain, publish multiple folios with every major service online, such as at DribbbleBehanceKrop, 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 FormstackWufoo, orGravity Forms. Keep regular contact with clients through a newsletter powered byMailChimpAWeberEmma, or Constant Contact
Store your client details in an easy to reference contact or client relationship manager, such as HighriseInsightly, or Podio. Send proposal and contracts with apps like Quote RollerBidsketch, or Motiv. Track client invoices and keep track of accounts withFreshBooksXero, or QuickBooks
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.
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. 
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 andIFTTT 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.

Envato Studio PSD to Wordpress site
Envato Studio PSD to WordPress site.

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. 
Envato Market is the place to get professional WordPress templates, in any theme style you can imagine. Across Envato Market you can purchase affordable code and graphic assets to build client projects. The service providers on Envato Studio are familiar with these themes and components, many being very active in Envato Market, so these are the very experts you can tap into to customize these components and click them together for your clients.
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. Through Envato Studio, click together logo design, with branding documentation, as well as business cardsprofessional icon sets, and stationery design services, allowing you to offer a complete range of branding services. There are multiple styles to consider, from clean and simple tocomplex illustrative
Take advantage of Envato Studio service providers to convert your client's design landing pagespremium home page web design, or professional full multi-page PSD website design. Then have these designs fully coded with services like PSD to responsive HTML5 or coded website customizations
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. Envato Studio service providers offer high quality, affordable services, but not bottom of the barrel pricing.
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, which you can find quickly through Envato Studio. And this way you can build a relationship with them; they can become a fixture of what you offer through your design business.

Photoshop Action
Photoshop action.

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. 
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 GraphicRiver to purchase an assortment of graphic templates as client needs arise, such as print templatespresentation templates, or brochure templates.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Google Intranet Site Template
Google Intranet site template.

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
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. 
Google Apps for Work is a good choice for an easy to make 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.
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. If you make use of service providers at Envato Studio, document what services you use and how they fit into your workflow.

Coachme App
Coach.me App.

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. 
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.
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.
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.
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, formerly of Go Media, discussing the coaching he does there. 
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.
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.
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 StridesGoalsOnTrack, and Lifetick. Or hack together a custom habit tracking system from your favorite task manager, such as Nozbe, as productivity expert Michael Hyatt does.
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.
What strategies have you used to optimize and hustle strategically? What lasting changes have made a big, productive impact on your design work? How have you saved time and paved the way for growth? Share your stories with fellow designers in the comments below.
Graphic Credit: Stopwatch designed by Ilsur Aptukov from the Noun Project.

Quick Tip: Working With Adobe Illustrator Vectors in InDesign

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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Adobe InDesign is a fantastic layout design program, but it isn't usually the software of choice for editing images. Instead, Illustrator and Photoshop have traditionally been the best programs for editing vector and raster images, before saving and then placing them in InDesign.
In this quick tip tutorial we'll take a look at an alternative method of working with images in InDesign, by pasting vector graphics directly into your documents. This gives you more flexibility and control over editing simple graphics while you work in InDesign, allowing you to switch up colors and stroke effects with ease.
We'll weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of the technique, so you can start to play around with images in your InDesign layouts with confidence.
So when is it a good idea to paste graphics directly into your InDesign artwork?
In this example, I want to prepare a book cover layout which is covered in cute, collage-like clouds (learn how to create the book cover from scratch using this tutorial). 

book cover final

I've created a simple cloud outline in Illustrator using the Arc Tool (found under theLine Segment Tool drop-down menu, in the Tools panel).
I then went to Object > Path > Join to create an enclosed shape. 

cloud vector shape

The shape has a black stroke and no fill. It's important when you copy and paste vector graphics that they have either a Fill or Stroke Color, as InDesign will otherwise not be able to paste the vector. You'll get this message instead:

import failed message

As a final step I selected the cloud shape, complete with its black stroke, and went toEdit > Copy.
I then returned to InDesign and went to Edit > Paste. The cloud vector was dropped onto the page without a problem. 

pasted vector

I can now apply formatting to the vector, adjusting the Stroke Color to [None] and setting the Fill Color to [Paper]. I'm also able to apply effects to the graphic, in the same way I would apply effects to shapes or frames created in InDesign. Here I navigated to Object > Effects > Drop Shadow to add a slight shadow behind the cloud. 

vector with effects applied

I could also add gradients, satin effects, bevel or emboss, etc., if I wanted to—all the different options which are accessible from the Effects window (Object > Effects).
I can also copy and paste the vector several times, and resize, rotate or flip it, easily and quickly.

several clouds with effects applied

It's also really useful to have pasted vectors as you're preparing different drafts or playing around with different color schemes for your InDesign layouts. If a client says they would prefer a pink background with a black cloud, I can switch up the colors in no time to let them see the result instantly, without needing to hop back and forth between Illustrator and InDesign, resaving different versions of the image file as I go.

switching up color

It can be really useful to know that you can paste vectors into InDesign—after all, it's quick, easy, and gives you direct control over image editing in InDesign.
But it isn't always appropriate or even possible to paste graphics into your InDesign documents. Some notes of caution...
Graphics which have effects applied to them (e.g. gradients or transparencies), or have any excessive detail or texture, may cause problems when you try to paste them into InDesign.
Take this example. This is a group of characters typed up in REIS and then outlined inIllustrator

original text
outlined characters

When I copy the graphic, and head over to InDesign to Edit > Paste, the vector is pasted in without a problem, but the speed at which InDesign operates immediately begins to slow down dramatically. 

pasted into InDesign

Sure, I can edit the Fill and Stroke Color of the graphics from the controls panel at the top of the screen (or from the Swatches panel [Window > Color > Swatches]), but it's going to take a while to do, and building up the rest of the layout is going to be hair-tearingly slow!
In another example, I tried to paste an even more complex vector graphic into the InDesign layout, but I got this message, saying that the program would simply embed the image instead, meaning that the editing power you were hoping for becomes redundant. 

warning message

There are ways of getting round this issue, if you still want to be able to edit more complex vectors directly in InDesign. Firstly, you can set the Display Performance toFast Display, which can help to speed up the program and reduce any time delays as you navigate or apply formatting. Of course, this means you are less able to view the accurate result of any formatting changes you might make to the graphic, other than sizing or rotation, such as color or effects. 

display performance mode

You can also paste your vector graphics onto a separate layer and switch off the visibility of the layer as and when needed, which can improve the speed at which InDesign operates.

layers panel

You can also check that your Preferences are optimised to ensure that the graphic you are pasting preserves any original detail (such as a gradient effect). 
In Illustrator, go to Illustrator > Preferences > File Handling & Clipboard to edit your preferences for copying and pasting images. Ensure that the option for AICB (no transparency support) is checked and check the box next to Preserve Appearance and Overprints. Click OK when you're done.

illustrator preferences

Back in InDesign, navigate up to InDesign > Preferences > Clipboard Handlingand ensure that the option at the top of the Preferences window, Prefer PDF When Pasting, is not checked. Click OK.

InDesign preferences

Linked images, not embedded or pasted, take up much less space, and are more efficient for your workflow as a result. 
Placing (File > Place) and linking images in InDesign creates a connection between the placeholder image on the page and its file location on your computer. This is good practice, particularly if your document is going to be image-heavy. You can view the InDesign document on High Quality Display (View > Display Performance) and see your document in high-resolution without sacrificing speed or performance, if your images are linked, not embedded.
This also means you can create multiple copies of the linked image in InDesign without a problem, and you can also easily relink or relocate multiple instances of the same image by simply hopping over to the Links panel (Window > Links) and clicking theRelink... chain icon.

links panel with missing links
corrected links

When you're ready to export your InDesign work for print or digital, InDesign brings back the original graphics that are linked to in the document, setting the final exported file with the resolution quality of the original images.
Pasting vector graphics straight into your InDesign layouts can be a huge timesaver, and is particularly useful when you're still in the experimental, draft stages of a design, where you want to be switching up colors and effects constantly without the hassle of having to resave and relink freshly edited Illustrator images all the time.
You can see how editing the formatting of a graphic will change the look of your designs in real time, which promotes a speedy, dynamic workflow.
However, there are some pitfalls to be wary of. Complex Illustrator vectors can lose detail (such as gradients or transparencies) when pasted, slow down InDesign to a painful extent, or even refuse to be pasted at all. 
The basic rule is: If you have a simple vector shape, with no effects applied to it, you'll be good to go ahead with copying and pasting across; but exercise caution if you have a more complex vector design.

 

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