In my career at Treehouse, I regularly encounter web designers from all walks of life. They range from freelancing students to Fortune 500 design directors; brand new designers to grizzly veterans that got their start in lithographs. Much like you and I, they’re all human and they all make the same mistakes. Here are 5 common mistakes to avoid if you’re a designer or some other type of web professional.
1. Stop obsessing over text editors and CSS frameworks.
If you approached an all-star basketball player in the NBA and asked them why they’re so good, they probably wouldn’t talk about shoes and sports drinks. They would talk about things like practice and dedication. Mind over matter.
Almost daily, I see forum posts and emails from designers asking about tools. They usually ask some variation of the following two questions:
- Which text editor should I use?
- Which CSS framework is the best?
If you’re brand new to the scene, I can understand the confusion. Seasoned individuals have carried this obsession with them and perpetuated the uncertainty, to the point where a newbie might believe that a text editor is what separates great designers and everyone else.
Here’s how you pick the best text editor or the best CSS framework or the best whatever: You try some of them out and use the one that works best for you. That’s it! It’s really that simple. You don’t even really have to set aside time on your calendar or todo list to try some out. At the start of a new week, give a new text editor a whirl and by Tuesday afternoon you’ll probably know if it’s right for you or not.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s good be passionate and the tools you use are important, but only as a means to an end. In most cases, this intense passion is misplaced. You shouldn’t be worrying about which framework or text editor you’re using because it’s going to make you an awesome designer; because it’s not. You should be obsessing over these things because you’re so passionate about your work. And beyond that, once you do have a lay of the land (that you’ve surveyed on your own), you’ll find new and better things to obsessed about: Like whether or not your designs are communicating effectively. These are the things that will actually make you a good designer.
2. Don’t answer email in the morning.
Or at the very least, don’t try to answer it first thing in the morning. Get something done first.
When thinking about productivity, many people try to squash their human nature and force themselves to be todo-list automatons. The truth is, your energy levels vary throughout the day. The morning is a very precious part of your schedule, and you should try to be very protective of it. It’s your greatest opportunity to really move the needle on tasks that matter.
It can be very tempting to check your inbox and start taping responses to important messages. I’m probably more guilty of this than most. We do this because we easily confuse the sensation of being busy with productivity, but it’s important to realize that they’re not the same thing. Those emails probably aren’t as critical as actually designing something, writing some code, or doing whatever you’re supposed to be doing that week.
The worst part is, when you start answering emails in the morning, you start to get responses. And then you respond to those responses. And the cycle continues! Don’t pride yourself on your sub-millisecond email response time. Instead, accomplish something that actually matters and then look at your inbox.
3. Respect the elements and principles of art and design.
Over the years, I’ve come to know CSS in the same way that I’ve come to know caffeine: It’s an addictive drug that provides you with instant gratification. You can dash off a few lines of code and bam! You’ve changed colors, layout, fonts, and all types of things. You feel a great sense of order and mastery of all things visual. It’s sort of crazy how powerful it is – but, with great power comes great responsibility. Even the best designers have to avoid the temptation to dig into code immediately.
Similar to my earlier point about tools, it’s not CSS that makes awesome designers. Putting CSS in its place is kind of like responsibly using email or caffeine. It’s a means to an end – a tool to get something accomplished. Clients are not interested in beautifully crafted CSS and well organized folders. They pay designers to design. Profound, I know.
Next time you encounter a problem, avoid the temptation to solve it with code. It’s too easy to open up your project and start hacking away until you arrive at some sort of solution you haphazardly intuited in 10 seconds. Instead, take some time to really think about your goal.
Hypothetically, let’s say that a call-to-action button wasn’t visible enough on a page. You’ve been tasked with running A/B tests to figure out what design tweaks will make it stand out more. Now the question is, what will you test? The best clear-cutting design thinking doesn’t come from code. The problem at hand is best solved by thinking about things like color, line, shape, texture, composition, and so on. Your intuition might be to make the button bigger or more brightly colored, but perhaps another solution might be to make the button a slightly unusual asymmetrical shape. Spending 10 minutes to think about it could save you hours of code noodling.
4. Schedule meetings for the afternoon.
Remember my rant earlier about not answering emails in the morning? Well, I’m not done yet.
No matter who you are, you can’t always have complete control over your own schedule. However, as much as possible, you should avoid scheduling meetings in the morning. Mornings are a magical time in the day when a good night’s rest combines with a fresh cup of coffee. The best time to wireframe is when you’re wired.
Meetings, emails, and phone calls are a necessary fact of life. You can’t do everything alone, so it’s important that you communicate effectively and learn to work in a team. That said, don’t let them reduce your get-stuff-done time to 10 or 15 minute increments scattered throughout the day. There’s a pretty high cost to context switching between tasks, so stay focused and push discussions to the afternoon.
Another cool thing about doing high-value tasks in the morning is that you can then report back to people about them in the afternoon, talk about them, and then stage your next burst of hyper-activity for the following morning. Nothing is more valuable than your time, so be pragmatic and purposeful with it.
5. Do something else.
Being productive doesn’t mean working harder. It’s about working hard some of the time and obsessing over the right things. Anyone is susceptible to focusing very hard on the wrong thing and feeling good about it because they’re so driven and focused. It really is OK to take a break; in fact, it’s necessary.
At Treehouse, we have a 4-day work week. I’m going to be frank here and say that when I first joined the company several years ago, I thought this was some pie-in-the-sky productivity fluff that was just an elaborate excuse for laziness. Not the case at all. In fact, there are several benefits, but for the purposes of our discussion, there are two I’d like to highlight:
- When you give yourself less time to accomplish goals, you prioritize better.
- Time off gives you time to forget stuff. That’s right. Forget.
If something is super important, you’ll remember that it’s on your todo list and you’ll get it done automatically. For everything else, you’ll see an ancient todo item, a dusty email sitting in your inbox, or a calendar event that you forgot you said yes to, and suddenly you’ll realize: You forgot about these things because they probably never that worthwhile in the first place.
Make a conscious effort to do something else, even if you have to schedule it. Pick up a new hobby, exercise, watch a movie, take a nap, or just find a place to walk around and enjoy the outdoors. You need a time delta to clear your head and distill what really matters.