Category Archives: Inspiration

I want to tell my story. It’s about how, up until 2 years ago, I never felt productive in my work. It went something like this: It’s a Friday or Saturday night and I have some free time to work on personal or freelance projects and I wouldn’t know what to start on. Or I would work on something but never feel like I was working on the right thing at the right time. One reason was that I had an endless mental list of projects, both personal and freelance, that I wanted or needed to complete. It ranged from wanting to redesign my personal portfolio website, shooting more photos, learning new photo editing techniques, completing one of many current freelance website projects, and so on.

The source of negative feelings about your work is related to agreements that you made with yourself and have broken. They are symptoms of disintegrated self-trust.

—David Allen, Getting Things Done

For the first 4 years of my freelance business, I always had at least 3-4 current freelance projects going on at one time. That didn’t include personal hobbies, a full-time job, and a significant other. I was spread so thin, that I was going insane. Oh yeah – and I was a devout fan and follower of Gary Vaynerchuk who encourages and perpetuates the idea of working your ass off for some greater payoff.

Being a fan of business and self-improvement books (did I mention Gary Vaynerchuk?), I came across the book, Getting Things Done, by David Allen. When I read books, I read them with notebook in hand and I take diligent notes. I want the book I’m reading to change me for the better. I’m not one to read books without it resulting in a big change.

Getting Things Done lays out a set of principles and ideas for being more productive. My current take-aways are:

  • My brain is for thinking not remembering.
  • Always keep my head empty by notating everything on my calendar or lists. This is really hard to do, but well worth working toward. This ties in with point one above.
  • Maintain a to-do list system that can be accessed anywhere. I use Wunderlist. See screenshot. Here are some to-do lists that I use:
    • New year’s resolution list with reminders set – and review them weekly during the weekly review. I personally set quarterly goals, rather than annual goals – so I can asses and re-adjust every 3 months, rather than every 12 months.
    • ‘Grocery list’ shared with spouse – we both add items to it as we think about them, and can use it while we are in the store to check items off the list
    • ‘Next month budget’ shared with spouse – we both add budget items we will need to buy during the next month, so we don’t forget anything when we do the budget.
    • ‘Add to Quickbooks’ – a list where I notate the income and expenses I need to add to Quickbooks, so I don’t forget anything.
    • A list for each project with tasks for that project.
    • ‘Waiting’ – a list where I place items that are waiting for someone else to do something. I set reminders on these for the day and time when I need to check-in on those items.
    • Wunderlist allows using hashtags and viewing lists of items marked with each hashtag. I sometimes will mark list items as #home, #work, or #anywhere – This way I can see a list of things I can only do at work or home. I’ve not found this technique very useful – but keep trying it just to see if I’m missing something.
  • I need to know the next specific action for every current project.
  • I should do a weekly review, where I review my upcoming calendar, current projects, and all lists to ensure everything is up to date and that I know the next action for every project. This is a good time to ensure I’ve emptied my head of everything that should be put on my calendar or lists.
  • Set do-dates (when I will do the task, not when it’s due) – I think I learned this one from the podcast, Homework – but it ties in well. Almost all tasks on my lists have reminders for days and times when I should work on them. This takes a lot of stress out of the picture and keeps me realistic about my workload.
  • If there are regular tasks I often forget about, I set a regular reminder. My favorites are my reminders to take trash and recycling to the road – and which weeks recycling needs to go out. Too much time is wasted remembering things that can be automated.

This list take-aways is a wildly truncated and paraphrased version of what the book teaches. If it is interesting to you, I recommend reading the book, and not just taking my word for it.

How it’s going

In mid-2014, I started following these principles consistently. After a few months, I felt a load of stress being lifted from my shoulders. I began feeling productive. I would sometimes simply remove tasks or projects from my lists and decide not do them, because I was deciding to say, “no”, so I could say “yes” to something better (a stress-free life).

Where I fail

I’ve continued to follow these principles consistently for almost 2 years. The stress-free feeling is still there. I do notice that I could be even more stress-free if I was more consistent with the idea of emptying my head so I’m not having to remember things – and I can rely on my list and calendar system. Additionally, I often let my task reminders lapse and not get to my tasks on the day I’m reminded about them. This introduces stress back in to my life. I’ve often thought that for the work day, if I had reminders set for every few hours of projects or tasks I need to work on, I’d be much more productive – but I don’t think that this idea is for everyone nor a core principle of Getting Things Done.

If you have thoughts about Getting Things Done, or would like to share you personal productivity method, let me know in the comments!

It’s that time of year again: to see where I’ve been and where I’m going. This has become an annual tradition: 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. And now for 2014…


  • Completed a 365 day photo project – I set out to learn more about flash and lighting in photography. To do so, I challenged myself to make one photograph a day that utilized lighting.
  • Related to the first point, I grew my photography gear by purchasing a second speedlight, my first studio light (AlienBees B800) and many light modifiers (color gels, grids, mini-softbox, etc)
  • I learned a bit about pet photography. Wrangling a beagle and a cat, as well as lighting to get a good photo is an interesting challenge
  • Among the many things I learned to photograph this year is glass – Things like vases and glass bottles.
  • Discovered ‘free-lensing‘ – where you reverse your lens to capture macro photos. It’s amazing what daily curiosity and experimenting will produce!
  • Photographed smoke on colored backgrounds, in camera – when previously, I could only produce the same image with lots of Photoshop fakery.
  • Honed the ‘white background’ look. It helps when you have more than one light.
  • Did my first real photo shoot – a newborn/family shoot with friends. All my lighting experience definitely helped make me feel comfortable with using 1 and 2 lights.


  • Paid 2 large debts off while continuing to follow the Dave Ramsey, ‘Debt Snowball’ plan. Since January 2011, we’ve paid off approximately $80,000!
  • I read and applied the principles from the book, Getting Things Done  by David Allen. He puts forth a simple plan for day to day productivity – mostly centered around to-do lists and calendar usage – and a structure for regular review of your projects/lists/calendars. This is the first ‘productivity’ book I’ve read that has actually changed the way I get things done day to day.
  • Decided with my wife to have a baby (New Year’s Eve). She got pregnant 20 days later. Then we met Amelia Rose October 15th, 2014!
  • Continued projects on the house: New fencing, Baby room, installed hard wood stairs, renovated half of basement.
  • Launched a side project – – a project 2 years in the making. The website is the result of years of frustration surrounding the design industry and outsider perception of it.

Web Design

  • Continued to build websites using WordPress and features like custom fields/custom post types. This allows for very custom websites that are very easy to edit for the end client.
  • Continued my education of web technologies/software through

  • Completed projects in these areas: Websites, HTML emails, training, logos, photo licensing, photoshoots
  • Expanded my photography services – including a newborn photo shoot and licensing my Kirksville photos locally.
  • Made my business processes more efficient by utilizing lists, how-to’s and canned messages.
  • 28% increase in sales from 2013
  • Worked with 15 clients: 9 existing clients and 6 new clients
  • Completed my most extensive website project to-date: Also the one I’m most proud of since I started building websites in 2005 – That was the new website for Kirksville Tourism.

What I ‘shipped’ in 2014

Seth Godin talks a lot about ‘shipping’ (or launching/putting out into the public). He is a big proponent of, ‘ship early and ship often.’ Meaning – if you have a project that you’re waiting until it is ‘just right’ to launch – push through and launch (or ship) it now. In 2010, Seth Godin challenged his readers to think about what they ‘shipped’ the previous year. I think this is a great way to hold my own feet to the fire and assess what I launched/shipped in the last 12 months. Here is what I shipped in 2014:

  • Crushed 2 debts
  • Created 365 photos that utilized studio lighting/flash units.
  • Contributed 113 photos to iStockPhoto
  • Crafted and Launched 19 websites (12 with Creative Improv & 7 with my full-time job)
  • Launched a side project –
  • Crafted 2 HTML emails
  • Designed 1 logo

A few years ago, after one too many ‘things’ related to my work as a designer got under my skin and frustrated me, I resolved to find the common theme and discover how to overcome this frustration I was experiencing. The common theme was that people who aren’t designers don’t understand design, designers and the design industry. This makes sense, right? I don’t understand medicine, doctors, and the medical world. I don’t understand accounting, accountants and the financial industry. I could say the same for every other industry and career that isn’t mine. However, these frustrations were also coming from those in positions that should understand design, designers and the design industry, maybe even sometimes those with the title of designer. I would often hear statements regarding designers that range from discounting what designers do to just plain misconceptions about what we do. Many of the things I was hearing would be so opposite from my creative compass and guiding principles.

Never going away

After much reflection, I realized that this problem will not be going away as I move through my career and I need to find a way to deal with these ‘design myths’. Not being an angsty high school kid, I couldn’t revert to posting passive aggressive tweets and Facebook posts (although I might still do that on occasion). I also didn’t think contributing to something that calls itself ‘clients from hell’ was good enough. I needed a better solution to deal with these ‘design myths’. One that allowed me to fully explore my own principles and creative compass in regards to these design myths.

Two years in the making

Two years ago, I began writing about a few design myths and sketching some ideas for a website. I also started brainstorming a name for the website. I kept putting the project off because I was too busy with other projects and too scared to actually publish this thing and get it out there. Then over this last Christmas break, I created the website within a week – but still didn’t launch it. Until this week. The result is – A place where I can write about one design myth at a time and sort of debunk them – or at least provide some clear thoughts/opinions about why we should think about things differently. For me, the process of researching, critically thinking about and writing each essay helps to solidify my opinions and further hone my creative compass. Am I the only one who can’t clearly define their opinions/thoughts without first writing them out?


I’ve been using the #clientsfromhell hashtag when I tweet about This is mostly because the #clientsfromhell tweets are design myths in a way. The difference? Hopefully does a bit better than someone posting a snarky/passive aggressive post about how, ‘the client just doesn’t understand’. If they don’t understand, come alongside and educate them, but leave the snark at the door. That’s what tries to do.


“What people are afraid of isn’t failure. It’s blame. Criticism. We choose not to be remarkable because we’re worried about criticism. We hesitate to create innovative movies, launch new human resource initiatives, design a menu that makes diners take notice, or give an audacious sermon because we’re worried, deep down, that someone will hate it and call us on it.”

—Seth Godin, Tribes

I’ve got a project that I want to finish and launch, but I’ve stalled for almost a year now. Put it off for fear of criticism or that someone will hate it. It’s going to launch in the next three weeks. I just decided.


Over the month of October, I recapped all 12 conference talks in previous blog posts. Looking back through my notes from each speaker and blogging about my take-aways helped me really organize my thoughts and remember all the great things I learned.

The things I heard at the conference fall into one of three categories:

  1. “Amen!” I know that already and totally agree!
  2. “Huh?” I don’t know that, and I realize how much I still need to learn!
  3. “I’m feeling convicted!” I know that, but don’t want to put it into practice. Either because it’s hard or just not fun or glamorous.

Here is the ‘big idea’ and/or lesson I took away from each of the 12 talks:

10 Commandments of Web Design – Jeffrey Zeldman

  • Stop focusing on ‘techy’ details and make your websites fun and playful – through conversational content.
  • Test everything – using Adobe Creative Cloud Edge Tools and also test your deeply held assumptions.

All of my thoughts on this talk

Faster Design Decisions with Style Tiles – Samantha Warren

  • During the design process, ask ‘Why?” in response to what they tell you, in order to get to the root of their statements
  • Ask metaphor questions like, “If your brand were a ____, it would be a _________ and why?
  • Begin using style tiles in my own design process.

All of my thoughts on this talk

Content/Communication – Kristina Halvorson

The story informs the format – think content first. My interpretation – The content informs the design

    • Require bulk of content up front and understand all content before designing.

All of my thoughts on this talk

A write/read (mobile) web – Luke Wroblewski

“It takes big changes to go small” – Tim Cook, Apple CEO

  • This means the mobile experience should have a focused and clear flow.
  • Remove extraneous bits of design and content that deters users from main purpose and call to action.

All of my thoughts on this talk

The map & the territory – Ethan Marcotte

As a web designer, I need to craft mobile experiences that ensures  that people who might feel like second-rate citizens do not also have a second-rate web browsing experience on the only device they can access the web on: their mobile device.

All of my thoughts on this talk

The Mobile Content Mandate – Karen McGrane

Disruptive Innovation = a product/service that is inferior in many ways comes out but ends up creating a brand new market of customers for their ‘inferior’ product or service

  • The connection I made and the example I can’t stop thinking about: DIY website solutions like Google Sites, SquareSpace, etc vs hiring a web designer/developer

All of my thoughts on this talk

The Long Web – Jeremy Keith

Treat navigation as second. On mobile, you can decide to only place navigation at the bottom of your site. The nav icon can just be an anchor link (#nav) to the bottom of the website, where the navigation resides. Alternatively, the navigation icon could link out to a separate page that only has nav on it – has same experience for user, but different approach for designer/developer.

All of my thoughts on this talk

Putting UI’s in Motion – Val Head

My biggest take-away was that I haven’t been really taking advantage of CSS Animations.

All of my thoughts on this talk

Preprocessing is for Everybody – Chris Coyier

  • CSS is meant for computers to understand – so lets make it more productive to write it by preprocessing!
  • I need to begin looking into and trying out SASS and proprocessing

All of my thoughts on this talk

Beyond Play – Joshua Davis

  • When you engage in creative play, you discover the unknown.
    • For example, I recently learned that 3M has a ’15 percent program’ that allows their employees 15% of their time to research and investigate their own ideas. As a result, products like scotch tap and sticky notes were invented. More about this idea here.
  • If you never engage in creative play, you are only going to replicate others’ work, rather than truly innovating.

All of my thoughts on this talk

What Clients Don’t Know and Why It’s Your Fault – Mike Monteiro

  • We have to understand that most people won’t buy design in their life and so the lack of understanding toward our industry should be understandable.
  • Communicate with clients like doctors communicate with patients.

All of my thoughts on this talk

It’s a Great Time to be an Experience Designer – Jared Spool

  • Innovation is about combining existing inventions in a new way:
    • think Instagram, which combined taking photos with social networks
    • think Apple’s support “Genius Bar”, where they combining appointments with customer support

All of my thoughts on this talk

Hilton Lobby

At An Event Apart – Austin 2013, Jared Spool spoke about why it’s great time to be an experience designer. Here are my take-aways:

  • Design = The rendering of intent
  • Imitation is:
    • less expensive
    • less risky
    • where design is not valued
  • On the flip side, innovation is:
    • more expensive
    • more risky
    • where design is valued
  • Businesses win when it is intentionally innovative/designed. Great business models are intentionally designed.
  • Design is about the visual business
  • Innovation is not about invention, it’s about adding value
    • Design for experience – this way it can be mapped/measured/designed
  • Innovation is about combining existing inventions in a new way:
    • think Instagram, where they combined taking photos with a social network.
    • think Apple’s support, aka Genius Bar, where they combined appointments with customer support.
  • Experience design = rendering intent within the gaps
    • When designing an experience, be intentional in the areas where others get it wrong. Just like Apple did with adding appointments to customer support.
  • The best designers are:
    • good story tellers
    • good critiquers
    • good sketchers
    • good presenters
    • good facilitators
  • How to become a great designer (or as he calls it, “a design unicorn”)
    • train yourself
    • practice your new self
    • deconstruct as many designs as possible
    • seek out feedback (and listen)
    • teach others


Design is a Job

At An Event Apart – Austin 2013, Mike Monteiro spoke about how it’s often the designer who’s at fault when the client requests something that makes designers want to role their eyes. The whole talk was full of really awesome quotable bits of advice. So these take-aways are basically all of those quotables:

  • Mike Monteiro wrote, Design is a Job, which I’ve read and highly recommend to any designer struggling with how to work successfully with clients.
  • We have to understand that most people won’t buy design in their life and so the lack of understanding toward our industry should be understandable.
  • Selling design is part of our job (don’t just email the mockup and hope for the best)
  • Don’t ever work for or with someone you don’t respect
  • Stop waiting for an invitation to do your job
  • Clients don’t know how to read your portfolio, the work doesn’t speak for itself.
    • You don’t sell the suit, you sell the service
  • A designer is the sum of their problem-solving and communication skills
  • Referrals are awesome – every job you do is a sales pitch for the next one.
  • A request for proposal (RFP) is a client saying “I’m scared”.
    • Ironically, the work in your portfolio that the clien likes is a result of a specific design process and research that involves more than just giving them a quote. That great work they like started with a relationship with those previous clients where you researched and talked through what they needed, not merely gave them a quote for work.
    • When asked to design something as part of the pitching/proposal process, the best answer is “I don’t know, but I have a process that will get to the solution”.
    • Show the client they are in good hands
  • Having an itemized list on invoice helps clients understand what they are paying for. It takes the mystery out of the client/designer relationship.
  • No one is born a good client… or a good designer
  • Communicate with clients like doctors communicate with patients.
  • The way to be a better designer is to help our clients be better clients.

Joshua Davis

At An Event Apart – Austin 2013, Joshua Davis shared his thoughts on why work and play should be the same, but for many, they are opposites. Here are my take-aways:

  • Joshua Davis is a generative artist who uses computer code to generate repetitive patterns and designs that are highly detailed and pretty amazing – See his work here. He designed the face of Watson, the robot who played on Jeopardy.
  • Many adults say that the opposite of work is play
  • Kids say that the opposite of work is: boring/hard/home/lazy. Probably because kids know their parents ‘go to work’ and when they aren’t at work, are probably at ‘home’, or are ‘lazy’, etc.
  • Joshua thinks that work and play are synonyms not antonyms.
  • When you engage in creative play, you discover the unknown.
    • For example, I recently learned that 3M has a ’15 percent program’ that allows their employees 15% of their time to research and investigate their own ideas. As a result, products like scotch tap and sticky notes were invented. More about this idea here.
  • If you never engage in creative play, you are only going to replicate others’ work, rather than truly innovating.
  • “The type of work you make is the work you will get hired to make” — Joshua Davis
  • “Someone will hire you to be you… and isn’t that great!?!?” — Joshua Davis
  • “Success means going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm  — Winston Churchill


Chris Coyier - An Event Apart Talk

At An Event Apart – Austin 2013, Chris Coyier shared his thoughts on CSS Preprocessing, specifically SASS. Here are my take-aways:

  • CSS as a language is not as ‘abstracted’ as it could be, and so preprocessing serves to solve this.
  • Preprocessing involves writing variables, mix-ins which are sets of variables, extends, and other short-hand ways to make writing CSS quicker. Rachel Nabors explains variables, extends and mix-ins here
    • also involves nesting css styles in a more logical way
  • Some additional software can help with writing CSS3 in SASS, such as Compass and AutoPrefixer (a postprocessor)
  • Ways to convince your team:
    • Preprocessing simplifies the process
    • Allows for consistency
    • Makes CSS prefixes a breeze
    • Makes your site faster
  • How to transition to SASS:
    • CSS files are technically valid SCSS files so you can start renaming files to .scss and import them into a global.css
    • Begin by replacing common colors with variables. Just like this.
    • Also begin by nesting a related thing. Just like this.
    • Learning the SASS syntax really takes about an hour
  • Final thought: CSS is meant for computers to understand – so lets make it more productive to write it by preprocessing!
    • Earlier this year, I signed up for Chris Coyier’s video-learning section of his website called, The Lodge. In it, he has a video series where he redesigns his blog, He uses SASS throughout and it was really eye-opening to see it in action throughout the full redesign process. Besides learning SASS techniques, I picked up 100+ new tricks/tips for writing html/css and how to approach website layout (especially how to troubleshoot issues). It’s great to see how another developer builds things and ‘compare notes’.

Minimalism is not a lack of something. It’s simply the perfect amount of something.

—Nicholas Burroughs