Self-portrait, digital (2020)

Designing From Home

How I (barely) feel productive during a pandemic

Titus Smith
The Startup
Published in
12 min readAug 20, 2020


“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.

My only real source of professional accomplishment are the little wins I’ve started to add up each day. Tackling larger projects in bite-size chunks reminds me I’m making progress, even though I’m not at a dedicated workspace for 8ish hours of my day anymore. Feeling productive can be just as important as being productive some days, and lately I’ve been able to document a few of the smaller things that keep me moving (slowly, but surely).

Sketch fast

How come I can helplessly stare at a blank artboard for hours, but as soon as I know exactly what I want to draw there isn’t a pencil in sight? Inspiration doesn’t wait for you (more on that later), so you’ve gotta be prepared.

I never carried around a pocket notebook until I had kids. I guess I didn’t really know what urgency was before I became a parent. I remember scrambling for resources while spoon-feeding my first son. I’ll give you more applesauce in a minute. Daddy had an idea and now he has to go draw a skeleton wearing a football helmet. Please don’t cry. I can’t imagine how confusing that was for him.

If you don’t already, consider incorporating more sketches in your workflow. Carry some paper and a pencil around with you at all times.

Undoctored photo of my home office aka the dining nook #nofilter.

Being able to put thoughts on paper is a luxury I used to take for granted. I only ever sketched when I had a fully formed concept in mind, which now totally defeats the purpose of sketching at all. Even jotting down a few notes makes a huge difference when there’s not enough time to think three-dimensionally.

In addition to having pencil and paper at the ready, I recommend figuring out a system that involves using your cellular telephone (bonus points if that system only uses one hand). I don’t have a devoted “ideas” app, but I’ve heard great things about Evernote and Dropbox Paper. I’ve had some success using the Keep app from the Google Play store and (from my iPhone days) the Notes app from the Apple App store. Jotting down a couple words is better than pretending I’ll remember an idea longer than 30 seconds.

Voice recording also works great if you’re not willing to type or if you prefer speaking into a little box like you’re some kind of important genius doctor. I’m kidding, I do it too. Otter is my favorite app for dictation, although the built-in voice memo apps for Android and iPhone work just fine. Giving yourself half a minute of direction now will save you hours of frustration later.

Sketch loose

Telling designers to sketch is a little condescending. Allow me to take it a step further: Learn to sketch really loosely.

Maybe you’re the type of person that likes a sketch to be really buttoned up before you take it to the computer. I understand wanting to get things just right, but you’ll be far more productive if you learn to sketch a little more vaguely. Think of sketching as a type of shorthand. The goal when putting initial thoughts down on paper should be in preparation for more work. Loose sketching begets finer sketching, which leads to more refined sketching, and so on. Hey, this author sounds sketchy.

My biggest focuses in the early stages of a project are concept and composition. When I’m hiring an illustrator for the second, third or fortieth time, I always encourage them to keep things loose on the first pass. I know what the finished design should look like — their proof is in the portfolio — and I’ve trusted them enough to hire them again. If you’re sketching for a client, check with them on how tight they want the sketches to be. You might be surprised how much trust you’ve been granted (and how much time you can save).

Sure, if you have the luxury of a couple uninterrupted hours, far be it from me to derail you and your process. However, ideas don’t wait for you to be freed up. It’s crazy how many times I’ve been away from my desk, pushing the stroller, when inspiration strikes and I’ve gotta sacrifice a few seconds of peace and quiet for an idea I don’t wanna lose. It makes a huge difference when capturing said idea means jotting down a couple notes and a rough shape or two. Fleshing it out any more than that means less time with my family and I swear my two sons almost always seem to know when I’m not focused on them. It’s like they sense the competition — maybe I’m pushing the stroller with less gusto or something?

I know I’ve already harped on incorporating your phone in the note-taking process, but I also recommend finding an app that enables you to sketch. This is another reason why loose sketching is so important: there’s no way you’re going to be able to capture as many details as you like on your mobile screen. I’m sure there’s some great doodling apps out there, and I know this sounds super lo-fi (because it is, see below), but I like to take a quick Instagram story photo and then sketch on top of it with my finger. I’ll save that to my phone and remember to reference it whenever I actually have time to sit down in front of the computer.

You can see how I anticipated the general layout without needing all the details.

Buy books that inspire you

True story: After finishing Hand Hand Fingers Thumb for the 101st time I turned to my wife and asked, “Why don’t we have any good children’s books?” She rolled her eyes and answered, “Because we keep buying bad ones I guess.” Any other parents rely on their partners for these types of reality checks? I frequently forget that we’re in charge (not the kids). I remember thinking Oh yeah, I’m the one who picks these books out — not the baby. (Note: HHFT is still a fun read, but you feel this way about every book you read 100x.)

Buy and read books that inspire you. You’re the one who will be reading, at least until the child learns how to read. Or operate the remote.

If you get books that are enjoyable to look at, you’ll become a much more enthusiastic narrator. It’s so much more fun to read with your kids when you appreciate the message and/or illustrations (more bonus points if you know the author or illustrator).

I firmly believe that surrounding yourself with great work can make you a better designer/illustrator. It’s basic science! Don’t fact-check me. You might also be able to get away with deducting some books come tax time. Don’t check my facts on that either!

Here are some current favorites in our house:

  • I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
  • Teach Your Dragon About Diversity by Steve Herman
  • I’ll Teach My Dog a Lot of Words
    by Michael Frith
  • Vegetables In Underwear by Jared Chapman
  • Birthday Monsters! by Sandra Boynton
  • The Big Honey Hunt by Jan and Stan Berenstain

Manage what little time you have

I’m at a point in my career when I can anticipate how long a project is going to take me (to a reasonable degree of accuracy). It’s not an exact measurement, but nowadays I can consistently give clients and coworkers fair estimates that usually hit the mark within a day or two.

What’s been derailing my newfound project management skills is that I often give myself too much extra time to think.

Makes sense right? We’ve already established that time for concepting in a pandemic is practically non-existent. It took me a while to recognize this as a pattern in my workflow: several projects started feeling rushed in the final steps, after generally starting leisurely, fun and exciting. I wanted the entire project lifecycle to feel that way, so I decided to change things up on the front end.

When projects become burdensome it’s usually because I’ve been so wrapped up in the earlier phases of research and inspiration that I’ve pushed the responsibility of problem solving on to Future Titus. To be fair, moodboarding is one of the most fun and exciting phases of a project lifecycle. But now, rather than spending a week to kick around ideas, I give myself a day.

I know, I know: “every project is different.” One day for ideas seems pretty reckless, I’ll admit. However, when turnaround time is tight and you’ve got less than a week to make something that lasts a while, it’s a pretty generous offering. Lately my rule of thumb has been 1 day of brainstorming/concepting for every 4 days of designing, laying out or modifying (use whatever “ing” words you want here — the point is my best effort now requires a think:work ratio of 1:5 or Future Titus will be very disappointed).

The bigger takeaway here should be that it’s important to manage your time well. At least, better than you did in 2019. Ahh, remember how great that year was? Concerts, vacations, holidays — we were so young.

Be able to visualize ideas away from your desk

There’s a really great Ted Talk I reference a lot. It’s by Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) and I think every creative person should watch it. The short version is that creativity strikes randomly, and usually at the most inopportune moments. She suggests that people should both be open to those random moments and devoted to working in spite of them, or when creativity is most elusive — the latter of which, for me, generally happens between 9am and 5pm.

For when you get a second (after you’re done reading this, obviously)…

Inspiration hardly ever hits me when I’m at my desk. Sometimes I’ll have Pinterest open and an idea will present itself to me, but that’s not really inspiration. It’s much more akin to treasure hunting; I was looking for the idea and I found it, but with very little effort on my part. In that example, the most creative I’ll end up being is when I figure out a way to make the idea seem as if it’s my own, and not derivative.

Take advantage of every second you have at your desk, uninterrupted. Those moments are few and far between, so it’s crucial to make them count — regardless of whether or not you feel creative.

I don’t know about you, but my perfect working environment has become increasingly fragile and difficult to arrange. Now, anytime I get peace and quiet (and a shower and some coffee and some breakfast and a charged laptop and an extra monitor…), I really buckle down. If you’re still finding trouble coordinating your workspace, I recommend reading (or listening to, who are we kidding?) Deep Work by Cal Newport (you can read a 2-minute review on my site).

At the same time, recognizing a good idea (no matter where you’re at) is just as important as working through a creative drought. Knowing how to take down a quick note or loosely block out a sketch will prove vital in these moments. Now more than ever, our hands are full and the volume is up too loud for us to remember something and pick it back up at our desks later. Our workspaces might as well be lava.

For practice, maybe try sketching something in your head while taking a walk with your family. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but it’s a pretty good exercise that’s revolutionized the way I work (and think). Or if you spend time exercising alone (congrats, by the way) consider turning off the music and creating an inner-dialogue with yourself about a design problem you want to talk through. Yep, another silly idea, but this one works too! If you recognize there’s a time and/or space shortage for you to work within, you really have nothing to lose. Maybe getting creative about how you can get creative will… make you… more… creative?

Cut yourself some slack

I’ve felt under-qualified writing this article. I started it before my second son was born, while working at a different job in a different house in a different state. It’s taken me almost five months to finish and I question whether or not it’s valuable to anyone but myself.

I don’t feel like a good dad. I hate working while my son is in the room with me. I don’t get much done and he usually ends up being rejected in one way or another. My strategy for watching our two boys is to put the newborn in a swing and the 2-year-old in front of the TV. Disney+ is a better parent than I am.

In speaking to other parents, I’ve realized this feeling isn’t exclusive to me or designers or anyone, really. And that has encouraged me to add this last section and finally hit publish.

A totally not-staged photo of our boys.

I don’t know who needs to read this right now but… this is a pandemic. It’s a (fingers and toes crossed) once-in-a-lifetime event and, in most ways, unprecedented. Unfortunately, some people are experiencing COVID-19 to a greater degree than myself, in that they’re physically, emotionally or financially wrecked. I think it’s important to acknowledge that if my greatest frustration on a regular basis is the inconvenience of sharing the computer with my 2-year-old… I’ve got it pretty great.

Something that’s helped me, as a creative person, is recognizing how difficult this situation is. I’m not producing my best work right now. Virtually it is becoming more and more difficult to replicate the conditions which I consider to be a my perfect (or even a passing) working environment. Most days I start late, work in random spurts and usually run out of energy around 3pm. It’s hard to focus and I can’t help but feel like the stuff I’m making isn’t as good as it could be.

But you know what? That’s okay.

I’ve accepted that 2020 won’t be the year of accomplishments I’d hoped. I also admit to working way less in a six-month period than I ever will again (before I retire). My work/life balance is more important than ever, right now. I believe the sooner we all acknowledge the pandemic has stifled our creativity and productivity, the earlier we’ll be able to bounce back.

Maybe you know someone who’s been sick and it’s given you some new perspective. Maybe you’ve had to pick up some responsibility at home while your significant other is on the front lines, helping sick people. Or maybe you’re working an extra hour every day because you feel the pressure of your regular job while simultaneously homeschooling your children.

Do yourself a favor and start cutting yourself some slack. Your kids, your partner, and your future self will appreciate you for it. Whether or not some of these tips make a difference in your day-to-day, writing about them has definitely helped me. Thanks for reading.

Together, we’ll get through this. We’ve got to.



Titus Smith
The Startup

Design Dad. Running things at The Hideout Design Company LLC. If I were a typeface it would be something heavyset.