15 Designers Reveal Secrets For Staying Productive

Strategies include everything from setting timers to taking nature walks to listening to black metal.

15 Designers Reveal Secrets For Staying Productive
[Gears: Evgeny Korshenkov via Shutterstock]

Since April, Samara, Russia-based designer Yevgeny Yermakov has been asking designers a series of five questions–about work habits, favorite books, career challenges, and creativity–and publishing their answers on his website. The project, “5 Questions for 100 Designers,” is growing into a trove of wisdom from the industry’s leading minds. Forty-four interviews are up so far, with designers from Jessica Hische to Debbie Millman to Michael Bierut.


One of Yermakov’s questions addresses that most elusive and sought-after of virtues: productivity. He asks, “Are there any rules or habits that help you do your job more efficiently?” The designers’ diverse strategies, which include everything from setting timers to taking nature walks to listening to black metal, show there’s no one formula for productivity–but keeping to-do lists might be the most popular practice. Here, we’ve collected 15 of these superhumanly prolific designers’ secrets for getting stuff done. Make sure to check out Yermakov’s site for more.

Debbie Millman: “1. LISTS! 2. A paper calendar I write on with pencil (only). 3. Finish what I start before starting something new.”

Image: Everett Collection via Shutterstock

Verena Michelitsch: “When I feel stuck with a design, I save versions and start from a fresh blank document instead of constantly seeing a graveyard of design options floating around on your artboards.”

Jessica Walsh: “The obvious answer is to-do lists and apps (Evernote, Clear, Sparrow, Text Expander, iCal). Most importantly though, I’d say to choose good clients and coworkers who are nice and open to interesting creative work. If you work with assholes / ego-maniacs / lazy people, no to-do list will help you work efficiently.”

Michael Bierut: “About 32 years ago I started carrying a small notebook with me and I’ve done it ever since. I jog three miles every morning and find that time useful for organizing the day in my head. Finally, I never go in to work on weekends.”


John Newman: “Use a timer. Set it hourly. Seriously.”

Santiago Carrasquilla: “I prefer to work 7 days a week an equal amount (weekends a bit less) rather than 5 crazy long days. I also know that more than 8 hours of in front of a screen per day will make me depressed.”

Jessica Svendsen: “Listening while I design–to music, lectures, white noise–maximizes my efficiency.”

Chuck Anderson: “If you work from home, make sure to get out of the house every single day. It’s really unhealthy to wake up and work in the same place you sleep and never leave. You’ve got to give yourself breaks, whether its to go for a walk, get some exercise, go out for lunch, coffee, or even just going out for dinner at night.”

Amanda Jane Jones: “I’ve learned over the years that I do my best work early in the morning. I’m usually up by 4:30. No one emails me at that time. Everything is quiet. It’s my favorite way to work. In addition, I always take a “nature break.” Sometimes it’s a walk around the neighborhood, on a busy day, it’s just a sit on my porch. I’ve learned that I’m most productive when I get fresh air.”

Coralie Bickford-Smith:
“Spending five minutes in the morning planning what I intend to get done each day and allocating a certain amount of time to each task.”

Image: Everett Collection via Shutterstock

Tobias van Schneider: “Even though I’m German, I’m actually pretty unorganized compared to others. I don’t keep to-do lists, I don’t have any notes and don’t use my calendar really. My habit is to just work & get things done. Getting things done is highly addictive, so I usually try to keep a good momentum as a constant habit in order to keep the energy flowing and do things right away instead of letting them wait for too long. There are no right or wrong habits/rules.”

Matteo Bologna: “Never complain that there is not enough time. Often a tight deadline and a good dose of adrenaline will make your design awesome.”

Alix Land: “As part of my work is typesetting, I have a list of things I check are correct throughout the document (typographer’s quotes, small caps, etc). Time management apps are extremely useful, 30/30 has helped me enormously with structuring my day. Lists, lists, lists!”

Jillian Adel: “I’ve learned that I have to fight for my time away from work. Taking care of the things in your life that matter, be it family, friends, exercise, meditation, things that make you happy, are vitally important to make your time with your work exponentially more lush. And no one will fight that battle for you. It’s your responsibility.”


Wade Jeffree: “What is happening sonically is important. I listen to music that has a lot of repetition, i.e. drone, doom and black metal and the many genres of techno. On the flip side I also love to listen to talks, interviews and podcasts–why not be learning whilst working?”

Go here to see all 44 full interviews in Yevgeny Yermakov’s “5 Questions for 100 Designers.”

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.