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Self-portrait, digital (2020)

How I (barely) feel productive during a pandemic

“The worst type of advice is parenting advice. So here’s mine.”

Last week, I attempted to dadsplain why I needed the computer to write an email and that my son could watch Blippi on the iPad. We got nowhere. There was crying, yelling, and name-calling — my two-year-old was pretty upset too. Through some shrewd negotiation tactics involving Goldfish crackers, I finally got back to work.

Sharing my workday with my family during this pandemic has been tough. In the beginning, I thought we’d all (eventually) get the hang of it. Half a year later, nothing feels further from the truth. Just when I think I’ve cracked how to parent and work at the same time, it all falls apart. The only consistency is inconsistency. Every day, I can bank on becoming distracted as soon as I get into a good productive rhythm, no matter how often I announce my plans, schedule my screen time or triple-check my 4-month-old’s diaper. …


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I read 19 books in 2019. Okay, technically I listened to 17 books and read two on my phone. I don’t remember the last time I actually picked up a physical book — am I pronouncing that right? BUH-kuh?

I finally finished a few design-specific resources that had been left on my virtual shelf way too long (Design Is a Job by Mike Monteiro and Run Studio Run by Eli Altman, among others), but for the most part I spent a lot of time learning about soft skills, leadership and prioritization. In retrospect, it’s a no-brainer that these topics aid in professional development, but for years I shied away from books that didn’t exclusively have words like “Designer” or “Creative” in the subtitle — as if anything else didn’t apply to me or something. …


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Portfolios with the most consistency always stand out to me, so it makes sense that my favorite artists to work with are consistent. My least favorite… don’t know what they are.

I’m always looking for new vendors. I probably spend 2–3 hours a week scoping out new profiles on Dribbble or bookmarking portfolios I want to revisit. I’m subscribed to a Slack channel called #fire, where friends share new work from talented designers I’ve never heard of. My desktop houses a growing list of artists that I want to work with, along with notes about (what I perceive to be) their strengths. And I’m not the only one; several designers on staff do this, some *cough* more meticulous than others. …


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I love getting mail. Always have. As a child, checking the mailbox wasn’t a chore, but a privilege. Like most kids, receiving mail usually meant birthday cards or pen pal letters. I guess I’ve just carried that optimism into adulthood. Amazon Prime is my pen pal, now.

Every once in a while, designers send me mail at work. As you can imagine, I get pretty excited. Physical promotional kits are far from a sure thing, but it gives designers a definite edge. I recognize the time and effort it takes to build a solid mailer, so (if the perfect opportunity presents itself) I try my best to pay that back by giving jobs to the guys and girls that send them in.

Obviously, not everyone that sends in mail is guaranteed a paid gig, nor is it expected for vendors to build physical marketing materials; however, designers are 100% more likely to get noticed if they place themselves directly in an art director’s field of vision. It’s easy to miss someone while I’m surfing the web, but they’re impossible to avoid when taking up space on my desk. …


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I put together a collection of thoughts on things designers could do better to look out for one another — mostly prompted by Twitter interactions last week…

Share job opportunities

In rare (or common, you successful turds) instances where you’re unable to take on work, it’s helpful to recommend others for the job. Whether you can’t commit because of previous obligations or that someone else would simply do a superior job, pointing a client towards a friend or colleague is always a great practice. These types of scenarios always have a way of coming full-circle and it’s not uncommon to have that same contact refer you in the future. My good friend, Ben Stafford, on recommending others:

I could view all good things that come my way as something to hoard and keep to myself so that no one else can benefit, or I could view all good things as blessings that are not mine to claim. If I take the latter approach, I will hold all things with open hands, being more willing to share any attained knowledge that helps make my work better, promote the people who inspire me and share their work with others and pass along any unclaimed opportunities — whether that is a job or something that would allow another designer to excel and grow in ways they would otherwise miss. …


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I’m terrible at turning down projects. I think that’s because my favorite phase of any assignment is the initial contact (when it’s okay to let my imagination get away from me a little bit).

Whether it’s an email from a potential client or an editor stopping by my desk, I get excited about the idea of making something new. Usually, I start brainstorming in the middle of that first conversation and get too distracted to work on anything else. Any current assignments usually lose my attention — I’ll spend two, three, even four hours off-schedule and end up taking lunch at my desk or staying at work way too late. So, how does an in-house designer manage to stay on task?

Plan for distractions

I’ve learned that it’s best to cushion my daily calendar with at least one full hour of free time in the middle of my workday, just in case something unplanned comes across my desk. The mid-day break frees me up enough to handle random requests from coworkers or pursue work-related side projects. On the best days, meetings get canceled or end early and I can sneak in even more free time or, if I’m feeling responsible, an extra 15–30 minutes to play catch up on any task(s) I’m putting off. …


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Choose your own adventure!

Path #1: Yes

You choose to learn code and focus on html/css. Eventually you learn javascript. After building a few dozen client websites, you create an app that catches the attention of a game studio and you accept a job in-house. Following several successful years designing and developing games, you leave the company to go out on your own. You advocate for other designers to learn code as well — after all, learning has never been easier. You retire younger than anticipated and spend your golden years speaking at conferences around the world. You are happy.

Path #2: No

You reject learning code and focus on honing your design skills — illustration, branding, interface and experience. Soon after your first editorial illustration is published, clients begin contacting you on a regular basis — each one larger than before. You successfully rebrand a well-known organization and become well-respected in design circles. The freelance life suits you; less-than-desirable tasks are outsourced and you’re able to pick what you work on every single day. Never without your sketchbook, you draw to your heart’s delight and teach online classes into retirement. …


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If your client doesn’t understand why you need a bigger budget, it’s up to you to educate them.

A tweet showed up in my timeline right before posting this article, and I think it’s a much better intro than I had written:

Solid advice from Bryan Buchanan (if you have time, the whole thread is great)

Sometimes, budgets are negotiable. I always encourage my freelance pals to ask for more money if they feel underpaid, but not without explaining why. Given the quick turnaround, I was wondering if we could increase the budget by $300? $2000 for five illustrations is less than I normally charge; can we make it $2500? These requests are reasonable and won’t scare off serious clients (a personal rule of thumb: as long as the discrepancy is less than $1000, I feel comfortable with a one-sentence explanation in my counter-proposal); however, it’s important to remember that art directors usually have little-to-no control over their budget, so you may have to educate them on why you’re worth the pay bump. …


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Occasionally, design is sacrificed for the sake of content. Altering an editorial illustration sucks, but I think designers should stop being so protective of their “art.”

Content > illustration

Editorial illustration is one of my favorite forms of client work. It’s fun and challenging, not to mention great exposure. But all too often illustrators treat editorial assignments like personal projects. They argue that any changes made to their design alter its integrity, and the audience won’t appreciate the overall piece as much. The hard truth is that editorial illustration elevates content, but is not content in and of itself.

It takes a while to trust an art director and it’s totally normal to struggle with directions like, “thicker lines” or “fewer colors” or “combine these two concepts into one,” but the bottom line is that ADs (generally) always know what they’re talking about. Sometimes it’s not a matter of what looks best, but what fits the client’s needs. Does the illustration work on a phone screen, as well as a magazine page? Do the artist’s colors match the overall theme of this issue? Is the art distracting from the story? These are the types of questions art directors have to ask before, during and after the design has been commissioned. …


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Taking someone else’s design and passing it off as your own is the quickest way to lose a paid gig. If all signs point to a designer plagiarizing — no matter how talented or well-known he or she appears — I make a note not to hire that person, ever. I do this for two reasons:

  1. I don’t want to work with a thief. Without even knowing it, you’ve ruined any possibility of us ever collaborating. Copying is lazy and unprofessional; I’ve already learned all I need to know about your work ethic.
  2. I don’t want to be responsible for the legal ramifications or social backlash when it inevitably comes out that you’re a thief. The design community is notoriously full of whistle-blowers; respect your peers enough to know you’ll get caught.

Two types of thieves

I’m not afraid of mistakenly working with a known plagiarizer — those people are usually easy to spot — but occasionally, I’ll come across a portfolio that’s more deceptive. At first, it shows lots of promise, and I’ll consider hiring its owner for an editorial project. Then, almost suddenly, I’ll recognize a design that looks too… familiar. A few minutes later, I’m scrolling through Dribbble or Instagram, trying to remember where I’ve seen this before. …

About

Titus Smith

Content Design at the world-wide leader .

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