Explainer Guest Post

Faster, Designer! Bill! Bill!

Curio’s Creative Director shares some thoughts and advice for streamlining the design process when time is at a premium

Graphic designers are not supposed to work fast.

The mantra in our industry is “you can have great design, or you can have fast design, but you can’t have both.” Fair: Designers make thousands of little decisions for every composition, and they should ideally be afforded the time they need to think all those decisions through.

Unfortunately, time is a hot commodity, and when you run a business (graphic design or otherwise), you have planes to catch and bills to pay, so it’s crucial to learn how to manage your time effectively. 

Amanda Schutz has been a designer for 25 years (and owner of Curio Studio for 20 years). Over that time, she’s pushed herself to find ways to shave time off her design process without ever sacrificing quality and creativity. We cornered her during a rare break in productivity to ask her how she does it. 

two images: Amanda sketching concepts at her basement studio (L); Sketchbook opened to random page, featuring concepts for "Drawn Apart" project (R)
Left: The elusive illustrator, captured mid-hunker in her natural environs.
Right: One of Amanda’s several dozen sketchbooks, filled mostly with concepts that didn’t quite make the cut.

What are the enemies of productivity for a designer?

Everything is competing for our attention now, and time-sucks are everywhere. You need to turn off your distractions. People (like me) are addicted to our devices and we can’t sit and do sustained focused work. At the same time, the opportunities to use the internet for education and inspiration are immense, so we’ve got to be discreet about how we portion out our screen time and activities.

For instance, when I’m thumbnailing, I set a time limit for myself, and I don’t spend a lot of time doing variations on the same idea. When I was a young designer, I would get hung up on one idea and do 1000 variations of that same idea, just forever pushing around pixels. That kind of process is a slow drip when what you need is a torrential brainstorm. 

Do an idea and leave it. Do another idea and leave it. Do it again and again until you get a nice well of materials. Then take a break, come back, and toss the shitty ones. Don’t waste time polishing one idea when you could be exploring many.

Some designers can struggle breaking out of their preferred style. How do you keep from retreading ideas or getting stuck using one particular look? 

I try to use different looks. If I’m drawing a sun, I’ll try it in a few different styles: Ornate, reductive, hand-drawn, clean. But once I’ve done those, I move on. I don’t draw pages and pages of different suns. I never spend more than an hour sitting and sketching.

“Do a few, and move on” is gonna be the motto on my family crest someday.

Above: Early illustration sketches for Startup Edmonton. I have no idea what the weird 3D “L” shape is behind that one dude’s head. I imagine someday it will drive art history students NUTS.

Another significant time investment for designers is the feedback/revisions cycle. How can you keep this stage from sprawling out of control? 

The thing that’s made the most difference for me over the years is to present better ideas and compositions in the early stages of a project… and that is almost entirely a matter of years of deliberate practice. I bet there’s not a designer alive who doesn’t get a little better every day they put in the work!

Besides just putting in the time, it makes a huge difference to build rapport with a client. You want to present as a professional and as an expert so the client knows they’re in good hands. Listen closely to the client, take notes, and review them often. When discussing your decisions and choices, cite the client’s words back to them. 

And, if a client insists on including something in the design that you just know does not work, you gotta take the time to show them WHY it doesn’t work and to provide an alternative that WOULD work. This of course requires more time and effort, but it’s essential to building trust, which is fundamental to every client partnership.

Do you find it valuable to spend more time reading the creative brief and laying the groundwork, or do you prefer to just dive in?

I could recommend either: If you think you have a dynamite idea from the jump, run with it!

I tend to spend a LOT of time thinking about the design before I start. If I have two weeks before I need to sit down and begin a project, I will think about that project 1000 times in those two weeks. I’m not going in cold. 

More to that point: I think designers need to build activities into their schedule that allow for thinky-times. Get up from your chair. Take a walk or ride your bike. Wash the dishes. Clean your office. While you’re doing that, let your ideas rattle around in your head like a rock-tumbler—you’ll almost always end up with a more polished concept!

Once you’ve got a good idea, how do you avoid blowing a lot of time on execution? 

First, play to your strengths: Make sure you follow the client brief, and don’t deviate too much. If you have a particular style you’re most comfortable working in, the actual design work is going to go a lot faster. 

For instance, I don’t do isometric illustrations. It’s not my strength. But I will pitch spontaneous motion ink drawings (which is more in my wheelhouse), if I think it’s appropriate to the client’s vision. 

When you’re doing client work, don’t try new styles or start things from scratch every time. Which is not to say that’s a bad thing! If you’ve go the time or inclination to try something different, go for it—but if there is a stringent budget, or tight timelines, or if you don’t have the energy, lean on your existing skills.  

Above: One of the big advantages of being an illustrator AND a designer is that you can thumbnail ideas quickly, pick the best concepts, and then refine, refine, refine. Incidentally, all Curio designers are also trained illustrators. Pretty neat, hey?

What about keyboard shortcuts? Yay or nay?  

There’s always new shortcuts to learn, and I use them when they’re taught to me, but that’s not where I shine. I personally find learning that stuff to be kind of tedious, and I’d rather learn by using. Learn, move on. Learn, move on.

How do you fight perfectionism?

 I load myself up with enough work that I never have the luxury of lingering. I keep tabs on how my priorities are borrowing time from other priorities. Owning a business makes you conscious of how precious time is. Wastes of time are wastes of money, and they steal time away from the other things I could be doing.

Also, I don’t know if I should admit this, but I don’t have the same standard of precision that other designers do. I’ll get my ideas down faster, but they might need more polish than for people who are inclined to more precise.

So, there’s efficiency in sloppiness?

In my opinion, a little bit of sloppiness is okay, because you can always refine your work later. Some other designers will bristle at that suggestion because they have different standards for their personal practices. But I think creative people can be crippled by their particularness. 

That neurosis may be important to them personally, but the extra effort is not necessarily going to be noticed by the client. 

I know of other creative business owners who have employees who spend hours refining concepts that may just get thrown in the garbage later. That’s a massive waste of budget hours, and it’s no way to make money. I get that you need things to be ‘just so,’ but come on!

The best advice I can give is: If you can swing it, get people into your life who can help you clean up your sloppy designs (Hi Graham!). I used to feel guilty about this, but there are more important things in this business to agonize about. Trust me. 

Above: A couple of sketch concepts Amanda developed for Edmonton’s annual Deep Freeze Festival. Can you spot the geometric moose and the cheeky fox?

If you’ve got a lot of concepts to choose from, how do you know which ones should be abandoned?

I share ideas with my team and then solicit their feedback. It’s valuable to hear from others why one concept is stronger than the other and why. Another reason you should surround yourself with people who have different tastes and aesthetics and approaches to work. If you don’t have a team at work, find other people in design communities you can share your work with. Check your ego at the door first. 

On the customer service side of things, clients can sometimes (understandably) get really invested in their own project. How do you keep clients from taking up a lot of your time?

Good communication is good customer service. Check in with your clients often. Let them know how much time budget is left for the project. Charge for your time spent in meetings, and be clear about that up-front.

Above: Yet more concepts for the Deep Freeze festival. That cheeky fox has enveloped an entire forest scape since last we saw him. You go, Cheeky Fox!

Any last advice?

I really work at becoming a faster decision-maker. Design is hundreds of little ideas piled on top of each other, and the quicker you can make each choice, the faster you get to the end. Also, don’t second-guess yourself. Find a decision that works, and then move on to the next one. 

Confidence helps. Remember that you’re an expert and you’ve been hired for your expertise. Trust your intuition. 

And last: Avoid boring, formulaic work. If you’ve got a steady gig, freelance or keep a creative hobby. Build those neural networks and work with your hands. Keep things different and keep things interesting. Creative work is the best kind of work, so nourish your talents constantly!   

This post was last updated on September 5, 2023 by Matt Steringa