Productivity Apps for Creatives

In order to keep me on task (and sane) during the workday, I use a lot of different productivity enhancing apps and techniques. And I’m not the only one. The following are a few of my most frequently relied on techniques and technologies. I hope they help streamline your day and this post isn’t just another thing tempting you to procrastinate!

Close your eyes. Imagine your office is the set of Downton Abbey. You are Lord Grantham and you have numerous things to do during the course of your leisurely busy day. Good thing you have Mr. Carson to assist you by fetching whatever your heart may fancy. Now open your eyes. The ever-helpful Mr. Carson has been replaced with a handy little app named Alfred. If you understand the concept of a butler, you understand the benefit of an app like Alfred. It takes a little time to set him up and teach him, but the investment is well worth it. With a couple short custom key commands, he will take you directly to that project file you’re currently working on, open InDesign, bring you to the development site with the impossibly complex URL.

It happens to the best of us. You are mid-thought, on the cusp of solving a particularly challenging problem and a new e-mail catches your eye. It contains a link. If there is one thing the internet has taught us, it’s that you will be rewarded for clicking the link. Ooh, exciting. Within seconds you are viewing a new Fast Company article with a catchy title and pretty infographics. Before Pocket, I would have read the entire article immediately, lest I lose track of it and be left out of every inside tweet derived from it for the rest of the day. For shame! In the midst of staying on top of this ever important article I have now lost my train of thought and have to start my brainstorm all over again. Not good for productivity. Do yourself a favor. Next time you come across an interesting article online, pocket it, and read it later when you can devote your full attention to it. In my case, I try to clear out my “pockets” over a glass of Scotch before I go to sleep at night. I highly recommend it.

Pomodoro Technique
When I am feeling particularly susceptible to distraction, I rely on Pomodoro to keep me focused. The technique is simple: work for 25 minutes, record any interruptions, break for 5 minutes. The genius in this is acknowledging distractions and jotting them down before refocusing on the task at hand. By doing this, you learn what derails you during the day and can modify your behavior and schedule to avoid those things.

Cloud, Dropbox &
It goes without saying that collaboration is the key to success in a small office like ours. If we can’t easily share files back and forth, we are basically paralyzed. And just as not all content is the same, it often isn’t shared the same way either. There’s no one-size-fits-all app for content sharing, but I use these three the most. I depend on Cloud to give colleagues and clients alike access to screenshots and flat comps. Dropbox works well for folders with multiple files. And I recommend to clients when they don’t want to set up a Dropbox account but need to send a large file or two.

Whether your company is big or small, a start-up or celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, I’m going to guess it’s no Downton Abbey. Without a Mr. Carson to help you manage distractions and fetch and deliver documents—or make you cocktails—you might need a few techniques and apps to help streamline your day. Now you know what I put in my cocktail. What’s in yours?

This post was originally posted on the CHIEF blog.

We all start somewhere

I was a student not that long ago and can remember quite clearly the unsettling feeling that comes with a looming graduation date and a cloudy understanding of what the future will bring. And yes, there is also the excitement of knowing something new is about to begin, but when I talk to students, the former emotion always seems to resonate more. Seriously, with the exception of those who already have jobs lined up, how many near-graduation college students do you know that don’t have “STRESSED OUT” written across their foreheads?

We recently had a group of students from the DC area visit the CHIEF office through the Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington. They had quite a few questions about how to make their portfolios stand out so they could snag that first out-of-college job. Since I deal with stress by making lists (to-do lists, to-buy lists, etc.), I decided to offer my help to stressed out soon-to-be-professional designers by making a list of the top three things I look for when reviewing portfolios.

No. 3: I Look for Personal Work

When reviewing a portfolio, I like to see work you have done outside of the classroom. It can be work for a club or organization, or even the wedding invitations you created for your friend’s sister’s best friend. Non-school work shows me that design isn’t just a box you checked on a list of majors, and that you didn’t sign up for it because you saw the release saying graphic design jobs are growing faster than the national average (30% faster). Independent projects also highlight what you can do on your own, without an instructor advising, or limiting, you. These efforts give me a peek at your personality, and if I’m considering working with you for the next one, five, or ten years, I want to know who you are.

No. 2: I Look for Students Who Take Ownership of Projects and Have a Wow Factor

When explaining a project to me, please don’t ever say, “my professor told me to do x, y and z.” Even if your instructor did give you a significant amount of guidance, take ownership of what you created and focus on the things you personally did to make a design different from your classmates’. Even better, take that logo you made for Branding 101 and create a package for the imaginary product you had in mind. Make a website for it. Design some shirts, stickers, whatever would help sell the item in the real world. Hell, turn it into a real product, fund it on kickstarter and then get me to invest in it.

No. 1: I Don’t Look at the Portfolio

Okay, so this is sort of a trick. But what’s not in your portfolio is just as important, if not more, than what is in it. I listen to how you talk about your work. I Google you to see what you’re interested in outside of design. (I know, it sounds creepy, but trust me, it happens. At one of my past jobs, someone told me they knew they wanted to hire me because they liked the music I listened to on If you were referred to me by someone, I ask for feedback about you.

Many of the young designers I meet are referred to me by friends and colleagues. So do yourself a favor and start building a network early on in school. Read a particularly interesting essay by a designer you admire? Reach out. For the most part, the designers I know are friendly and always up for another cup of coffee. (We’re also a bit of a narcissistic bunch and generally excited about the opportunity to talk about ourselves.) If you really make a connection with someone, go out on a limb and propose a mentor relationship and monthly get-togethers. Do this often! Keep meeting people and learning from them. Next thing you know, you’ll have an entire network helping you get that first job, and it won’t be such a daunting prospect.

To all you young designers out there, I can’t wait to be inspired by the work you’re doing (and to fund your next kickstarter campaign). And if you’re still freaked out about finding a job, just make a list of steps you can take to get a little closer to that goal. It worked for me!


Classic LRC–Application to Firebelly University 2011

Last Day of School

Wow. What a whirlwind!

Nine months ago I started my first day at Firebelly University with what seemed like the beyond crazy dream of starting a design studio that served a higher purpose than just selling products. I wanted to work with organizations I believed in, I wanted to create campaigns that moved people, I wanted to make a positive impact on the world – and I wanted me, & my colleagues, to be paid for their work. A novel idea, I know.

The concept really did seem distant and foggy though that first week. Hell, it was foggy for the first 8 months! However, after lots of workshopping, I have learned that it is possible to run a design studio with a conscious. And not only is it possible, I’ve learned how to do it. Correction, I haven’t learned how to do it, I am doing it.

Firebelly U has given me the opportunity to pitch my business to some of the most successful social entrepreneurs and creatives in the Chicagoland area and beyond. Their advice and anecdotes have been completely invaluable.

SO much so, that last March Made By We started working with their first client – the Ohio Innocence Project out of Cinicinnati OH. We were a perfect partnership because they were doing all sorts of amazing work, but having trouble sharing the impact they were making in their community outside of their organization.

We worked together to create an inforgraphic that was so successful it brought one of the inmates to tears, and a member of the legal team offered me their first born child & swore to tattoo my name across their chest. For the record, much as we like babies and tattoos, Made By We prefers payment in the form of cash or check, thanks!

Since then, we have started working with five other non-profits and social enterprises – and our community of collaborators is ever growing. The ‘We’ of ‘Made By We’ does not only refer to the collaborative approach we take with our clients, but also to the fact that MBW is made up of many collaborators and creatives.

Depending on the style and scale of a project we expand our creative team for a custom fit. Offering pay to in-house designers,  freelancers, young designers & others who may not get the experience to work with the social sector otherwise. We’re growing fast, too, so make sure to let me know if you’d like to collaborate!

In a way, I can’t believe Firebelly U is over. That might have to do with the fact that I’ve still been in the office every day for the last two weeks. It has been a tremendous experience and I will never be able to fully express my gratitude to Dawn & Deborah for taking a chance on me. The wildcard. And to all the people who have been supporting us along the way, I have no idea how I’ll have repay you all for your inspiration, motivation, kind words and generosity. I probably wouldn’t even have a roof over my head, let along be starting a business, without all your help. You know who you are & I love you all!

Enough with the mushy — I am beyond excited that I am now able to focus all my attention on Made By We help it grow into the company I could only dream of nine months ago. Things are kicking off slowing by surely and I can’t wait to see how we grow. If you’re interested in working with us, or collaborating internally, reach out to me here or tweet at us here!

Tomorrow Labs: A Collaboration with Partners In Health

Working with the Partners in Health (PIH) team was incredible – so many bright minds and passionate individuals all in the same room. Our process began where any adventure should – trying to truly understand where they were as an organization at that moment in time. Who were they trying to reach? What obstacles stood in their way? How could they better fulfill their mission? We asked question after question and listened for the entire first day – quite a data load!

Day two brought more insights and personal stories. Cori Shepherd Stern, a film producer and agent for social change, was a vocal member of our team and had some incredible stories to share. She has been documenting PIH’s work in Rwanda and though some of her stories were heartbreaking, all of them were inspirational and filled with hope. We spent a long time understanding how these personal connections and relationships fit into the PIH model, sketching out systems and working to make their process visual. For the second part of the day we broke into smaller teams and did ‘yes,and’ style brainstorms, which introduced lots of new ideas into the group. Needless to say, we ended the day with LOTS of ideas! Mercifully, one concept stood out from the rest, and by nightfall we had agreed on a direction to pursue.

After a good night’s sleep,  we began to poke holes in our “solution” and really find the problem points. Addressing these concerns was painful and exhausting (everyone just wanted the answer to be perfect and move on) but we kept at it and came up with a stronger solution for it. We probably made the most tangible progress this day, which really helped to keep people’s spirits up. As amazing as our time spent brainstorming in the rooms was, I really appreciated the opportunity to check in with some of the other teams at meal times and learn about their days, too. By day three I already felt like I was surrounded by my best friends… I guess working day and night to solve common problems will do that!

We started out day four by completely modifying our solution, as is want to happen in these sorts of brainstorming sessions! Katie, Maggie and I cobbled together a presentation with direction from the PIH team, and managed not to be the last team out of the office, despite the last minute changes in approach. We really considered how our solution would live in the real world – would the rest of the PIH organization support it? Was it a sustainable solution with a chance at longevity? How much would it cost to implement and does PIH have the personnel to maintain it? All these creeping thoughts influenced us to continually modify and tweek our solution, and I think we really could have used another week (or two) to really think through all these issues. As much as we wanted to deliver  an airtight solution in one-week, that was not in the cards.

The last day was presentations and I was so proud of all the teams. Design thinking can be a very uncomfortable experience, and all five organizations clearly participated in this process to the fullest and explored new ideas without hesitation or fear. The ideas generated were inspiring, and most important, implementable.

I am so excited to see each of these organizations continue to tweak and modify the ideas generated at this workshop, and hopefully implement these solutions in the near future. Working with the PIH team was incredible, and I know they will continue transforming the global health landscape for the better way into the future.

Firebelly U: Brand Presentations

The brand tank presentation was a lot of fun. I felt like I had a much better idea of what I wanted to say and that made it a lot easier to present. In fact, maybe too easy, since my entire presentation was basically one run-on sentence. I will definitely remember to take a few deep breaths before (and during) my next presentation.

The most important thing I learned:  Iapparentlytalkwithnopunctuationdoyoufeellikeyouarefallingoffofacliff?

As always, the feedback was really helpful. It was nice to get some branding feedback; despite the fact that we are all designers, the designs of our actual businesses came secondary to our business plans and objectives. But the brand really is an important part of the business and I was happy to hear their feedback. I am excited to see how Made By We grows over time and changes. Based on just the last few weeks I imagine there are still some growing pains to come… but it’s worth it!

Thanks so much to everyone on the brand panel, I had an amazing time!


A visit to Post Family

If there is one thing I have learned at Firebelly U, it is the importance of community. Spending time with Sam Rosen only further exemplifies the benefits of having good people around you. Though he is a serial entrepreneur and always embarking on a new, inspiring project, the consistent element in all his projects is the strong and supportive community he is surrounded by. There is no shortage of interesting things to talk about when it comes to Sam, he is the founder of One Design Company, runs Chicago’s coworking space the COOP, built the coworking management tool Desktime and is a founding member of Post Family, among countless other things. Of all these though, the thing I am most inspired and impressed by is his involvement in Post Family (and so, as the author of this post, I am making the executive decision to talk mostly about that).
Each time I visit the Post Family space, it is arranged differently. Which is really impressive because the tables look quite heavy. But the “family” is always up to something new and the space needs to reflect that. And really, Post Family was established to be a catch all and adaptable creative space, so it fits. Here’s how it came to be: In 2007 Sam, along with Rod Hunting, Chad Kouri, David Sieren, Davey Sommers, Alex Fuller, and Scott Thomas established Post Family so they could work on whatever projects they wanted. Letterpress, screen printing, digital, music, woodcutting, whatever. The goal wasn’t to make money, or to get famous. The goal was to pursue projects and ideas that interested them, and do it with interesting, talented people. Though some of them hardly knew each other when they started the collective, it is obvious they have become as tight-knit a group as their name suggests.
I think the idea of creating a space where anything goes with a group of friends is really attractive to creatives right now. There are coworking spaces popping up everywhere (did I mention Sam runs the COOP?), and creatives are setting out on their own left and right (like the Firebelly U Fellows, for example). The thing that most coworking spaces don’t have though, that Post Family does, is the element of community. Each of the members of Post Family genuinely care for each other and are invested in each other. The phrase “success breeds success” comes to mind when looking at all the things they have accomplished both together and individually.
Everything about Post Family is seeped in community. And for that reason, I not-so-secretly wish they were taking applications for their family (Looking for a little sister, Post Family?!) In all seriousness, though, having a group of friends, family or coworkers that support you makes a huge difference. Whether you establish your own collective, like Sam did, or just have a group of quality friends you can turn to, make sure you nurture those relationships. It’s the people that make this place worth living in.
Okay, so I warned you, this post was really about Post Family. But, Sam does a lot of really amazing things. And you should take it upon yourself to learn more about him & the projects he is working on at his personal websitePost FamilyOne Design Company, and the Coop. Also be sure to check out Desktime and come to their upcoming show, Manual Labor.

Doing Good with IDEO

I had so much fun visiting the IDEO Chicago offices! Lawrence, Annette, Sara and Mary, a HUGE thank you to all of you for spending part of your days with us! Before we sat down to talk shop with everyone, Lawrence gave us a tour of the office. Even the offices at IDEO reek of innovation (in a good way). There were giant chalkboard walls, open meeting spaces, dedicated workshop rooms and even a rooftop deck with a community garden. One of my favorite spaces though, was the prototyping area. Bandsaws, screens for printing, a laser cutter and tons of raw materials for workshopping filled these rooms to the brim. And almost all of it was covered in a thin layer of saw dust. Positively delightful! Access to a space like this would be a dream come true for any maker!

After the tour, the IDEO folks gave us a run down on some of the recent work they have completed and an introduction to their process. While I was a student at Miami, we workshopped with IDEO a few times, so the process was familiar. It was really interesting to hear about how they apply their process to various projects. We’d been chuckling over the site for months in the Firebelly U office, so we were really excited to see it included in their presentation.

What was most fascinating about was, again, their approach. Before the idea of a website or text message notification system or any of the hilarious (yet effective) videos were produced, they conducted interview after interview after interview. (They picked up some great stories along the way, too!) I think what makes work is that it wasn’t a predetermined form they were forcing content into, they intentionally selected the forms they did based on the research they gathered first. This is an approach we often try to use with our clients because, ultimately, it does yield a better product. However, most of our clients come to us with a set idea of an end product – website, business cards, new logo, etc. I guess figuring out how to show the importance of a format-agnostic approach to clients is part of what makes IDEO so successful.

While I am sure we will continue analyzing the IDEO secret sauce for months to come, we truly did have a fantastic time visiting their space and learned a lot. Thank you again to the entire IDEO office! Let me know when I can stop by and live work in the prototyping space!

More posts on the adventures we’ve had at Firebelly U are online here.

"For me, the enemy is structures. It’s systems [of thinking]." -Prexy Nesbitt

Reflection on Shark Tank

“Da-Dum… Da-Dum… Da-Dum Da-Dum Da-Dum!!!”

Just the phrase “shark tank” makes the Jaws theme pop into my head, which is not a comforting sound when you are pitching your business idea for the first time in front of a panel of esteemed judges and critics!

Before the holidays (Happy 2012, by the way!) the Fellows all had a week to prepare a presentation before a panel of unknown critics for a “shark tank” pitch. We had fifteen minutes to make our case and then some time for Q&A afterwards for feedback and comments. It was sort of like the American Idol of the business world and leading up to the event rumors of more than one Simon Cowell were circulating strongly!

However, despite the fear and nerves, and perhaps because of them, the “shark tank” pitch went by quickly (and relatively painlessly) and ended up being really beneficial.

Describing my (somewhat unconventional) collaborative design studio for-benefit business model in a concise and articulate manner was a challenge. I realize now how important it was that we had a concrete deadline for presenting this so early on. Even though I was uncertain of some aspects of my business model, I made decisions and stood by what I presented. No more wishy-washy maybes – this was it folks! It was a relief to have something definitive together, even though it was nowhere near perfect.

My business has evolved since this presentation, and some aspects and elements have changed or been removed completely, but it was helpful to try the different ideas on for size and see how they fit – and to see how people reacted. The “shark tank” panel zeroed in on things I had hardly even considered, or had taken for granted as “givens”. They challenged me to rethink some of my preconceived notions and tendencies. In the end, that is what will make my company stronger in the long run. So, while someone pushing you on something that is incredibly personal and precious to you may be slightly uncomfortable, it is worth it. Hands down.

So next time the “Da-Dum, Da-Dum” starts up again, I will probably be just as nervous, but I know it will be worth it.