The Unsung Heroes of Your Creative Arsenal

Talent and creativity mean nothing if you can’t get the job done on time or at all. Without the proper amount of hard work, all your amazing ideas will remain merely ideas and amount to nothing more than wasted time.

We must acknowledge that at the very core of our work as creative professionals is “the work” itself: the tangible, deliverable manifestation of our ideas, creativity, talent, skills, education and experience.

That’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to do a job. I’m sure most of you know this already, and have already adapted methods and incorporated various tools into your workflow for staying on top of things so you can produce your best work.

This article will cover some of the often-overlooked, underappreciated tools of the trade that have helped us — and maybe you too — get our jobs done. This is just a fun little read about the things we here at Design Instruct all use to help support our creative endeavors.

Project Management Tools

We cannot stress this enough. There’s no point in having good ideas if you don’t know how to back it up with good work or if you can’t get the job done on time.

We learned one valuable lesson early on while working on Design Instruct: Have a schedule and stick to it. It’s that simple. Granted, it’s easier said than done, but if you (or your team) are serious about keeping on task, having some way to manage your workload is imperative.

For instance, we use Basecamp as our project management tool. Basecamp, and other web-based project management/collaboration tools, are great for getting organized, especially when projects get big and cumbersome.

We can control how detailed we want our tasks to be and everyone on the team can access Basecamp to add to it whenever they want. We can share ideas, post schedules, meeting agendas, to-dos, milestones and more in our web-based project management tool.

Whatever you choose to use for managing projects, the most important thing is that everyone should be comfortable using it so that there’s no reason not to use it. Getting organized is hard enough without having to add steep learning curves to it.


Email clients such as Gmail, Outlook, or the Mail application on Macs are very robust in terms of helping people stay organized and connected.

They have wonderful features that provide ways of documenting the progress of projects through emails. They also have calendars that can be synced to mobile devices as well as calendar-sharing options so that everyone knows what everyone else is doing.

Whiteboards and Drawing Surfaces

If a web-based collaboration tool such as Writeboard isn’t to your team’s liking, or if they end up slowing you down rather than enhancing your productivity, a trusty whiteboard and some markers will get the job done.

Just place it in a central space that everyone can see and make sure people use it. Sometimes the old-fashioned way is the best way for some. A physical whiteboard also gives you that tactile, human feel that can enhance creativity.

File Syncing Tools

This sort of technology wasn’t available en masse 5-10 years ago. But now that it’s easy to use and so convenient to set up, there’s no reason not to use it.

We’re very big fans of online file syncing tools. We all use Dropbox.

With this tool, we’re able to access files wherever we are, even if we’re not on our own network. It’s a very valuable thing to have, especially if you want to be mobile and agile.

Networked Computers and File Storage

Recently, we upgraded our routers and file storage system. We were surprised at how much easier it has become to centralize everyone’s work.

Our router now has the ability to be attached to any external USB hard drive — an unassumingly useful improvement. It was a cheap and pain-free upgrade (thanks to JC, our Director of Operations, who got us up and running in under an hour) relative to the productivity boost it has all given us (more reliable wireless connectivity, ability to share files in a network, external and redundant backups, etc.).

We can be working on five different things for one project, but if we know where everything needs to go, putting the materials together is such a breeze that we rarely ever need to think about it anymore.


This is possibly one of the most rewarding tools a designer or an artist can use. That’s why we always have a stack of notebooks laying around our work areas.

It serves many purposes. You can take down notes, sketch out ideas, write down a potential client’s number and pretend to write poetry on a park bench to impress the cute dog walker coming your way. Also, if you carry one of those small, black leather-bound notebooks in your back pocket, you’ll look like a super cool hipster!

In all seriousness, notebooks are indispensible to any creative.

You know how sometimes you’ll have a groundbreaking, earth-shattering monster of an idea while you’re waiting for the bus or sipping your morning coffee, and then minutes later, you’ll forget what it was because you let your mind wander a little bit?

With a notebook, you’ll never have that problem again. That is, of course, if you don’t forget to bring your notebook.

Pens and Pencils

I actually have a bit of a love affair with pens and pencils. I’ve spent entire weekends at supply shops obsessively testing out and searching for the best pen or pencil with the perfect grip and the perfect weight. They are the workhorses of my day as I write down new ideas for Design Instruct in my fancy notebooks or when my laptop battery dies and I want to keep writing wonderfully long-winded articles like this one for you guys.

I think this love affair started when I was a young, chubby, fat boy and I would unknowingly and unintentionally put other people’s pens and pencils in my pockets after using them.

While I’ve gotten past the whole pencil kleptomania thing, the habit of having a pen or pencil just stuck with me. Most normal days, I’ll have some type of writing instrument in my pocket or wedged on my ear.

A Timer

This might seem odd to some of you, but one especially important member of our team (who shall remain nameless) uses a timer when he’s working. He’ll set a certain amount of time he wants to work and he’ll continue working until the bell rings (he uses the Pomodoro Technique). No unnecessary bathroom breaks, water breaks, IMs, conversations, phone calls, emails or any type of distraction while the clock is ticking.

I know what you’re probably thinking because I thought the same thing when I learned about it: “Type-A nut job.”

However, the truth is, he’s acknowledged that he needs a time management tool and he’s using it to help himself work better. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.


Some people like to work in silence (again, he shall remain nameless). Some people like a little bit of noise to keep them focused. This one is more of a matter of preference. The key is to know if the music or entertainment is really a distraction or an aid to productivity.

If it’s a distraction, then don’t play any music even if you think your work will be more enjoyable. The only thing that matters is you get your work done.

Personally, music helps me sometimes. I work better and quicker when I have a rhythm or a melody in the background that I can ignore. My brother, on the other hand, can only work in complete silence with no opportunities for distraction.


Call us old fashioned, but we are very big fans of books here at Design Instruct. We love leaving the office to browse through the design and art sections of bookstores to see what’s new. We love the feeling of having a bound stack of pages (aka “a book'”) to flip through. We love having a proper physical manifestation of people’s creativity in our hands to help inspire our own.

The best thing about books — especially design and art books — is that they usually have very high production values and thus are very rewarding to look at and to read.

With the advent of e-books and other web-based mediums like Design Instruct in recent years, print has taken quite a hit and that’s why to us, having people’s work printed in a physical format is that much more satisfying. It inspires and motivates us to produce work that is just as print-worthy.


Probably one of the most important assets you can have at your disposal is to have another person to work with. You might consider yourself to be a lone wolf freelancer or you think other people might just get in the way of your genius you, but from our own experience working on Design Instruct, and as web developers and designers ourselves, we’ve realized that it’s always valuable to have someone look at your work or someone with whom you can sound off ideas to.

With someone else in the room, you’ll notice that you work faster and better. Maybe it’s because you want to show off your ideas or maybe because they have some great input as to how you can work better.

In any case, the important thing to know is that being in the presence of people does help you produce better work.

The interesting thing about creativity is that its value can really only be found within the context of human interaction. Creativity is an experience wholly unique to people.

On some level, I think most of us know that, and that’s why art and creativity is held in such high regard in most of the world’s cultures. It is special to us as a species, and the more we acknowledge that fact, the better we’ll be at producing great creative work.

The art we produce, the music we make, the books we write and the movies we watch — they all show us who we are as a society at any given point in time so that we may reflect upon it and produce more creative work.

Your Turn

What are your own “unsung heroes” in your creative endeavors? Let’s take the conversation to the comments below!

  • Great stuff. I do think the time thing is a bit too much. I love Basecamp it helps keeping my tasks organized and what not. The thing I cannot live without is music. Nothing like some great jams while you are in rhythm. Last but not least, I am taking some Ruby classes and they ALL made fun of me because I said I needed a good book for it. I know there are tons of sites with tutorials and tips, but I think books lay down the foundations and expand one’s knowledge even further.

    Cheers and great article.

  • Can’t agree more with the networked computers and music. I for one need a little noise going on, but everyone is different.

    I recently upgraded our routers and file storage systems and couldn’t be happier with the change.

  • Pie

    Nice list, the un-sung heroes finally getting the recognition they have been denied of for so long. Haha.
    For me personally I have a stack of playlist’s for different types of work.
    Often its ambience, glitch or film scores for illustrator and some heavy rock/metal for photoshop, to really get those textures grinding.

    Another of my un-sung heroes is food.
    I can’t work without a bowl of something to snack on while I work.
    Just to keep the hunger at bay allowing me to work ridiculous hours without ever needing to leave my chair for anything other than a pee break.

  • That’s an awesome idea re: different play lists!

    Definitely! Food is an “unsung hero”.

    For me — and this isn’t universal because some of us prefer to work without stimulants — I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without coffee or Red Bull (some days I have to drink both!)

  • Yes, different strokes for different folks. I’m easily distracted, so I can’t listen to music while I work; it’s difficult for me to keep my train of thought with music going on in the background (and I’ve tried all sorts of music: classical, chill music, etc.)

    When there’s a lot of background noise (dogs barking, birds chirping) I put on noise-cancelling headphones (without any music) to mute the distraction.

    The router upgrade improved our wireless connectivity noticeably, and the external storage option makes it so we can share files quickly and do external backups of our digital assets much more easily and without dedicated hardware just for backups. And all that for a little less than $150 and a little under an hour’s worth of installation. If it improves our productivity even a little bit, that price is more than negligible. It’s a simple upgrade that packs a punch, value-wise.

  • The timer thing is related to the Pomodoro Technique, which is a technique I use to enhance my focus and productivity. Because of the nature of my job — where there are a ton of distractions (emails, IM, Facebook, Twitter) but at the same time utmost focus/concentration is important to get the job done — it’s proven to be effective to me.

    I don’t use the technique in some activities, such as meetings and creative endeavors (e.g. designing a graphic, writing an editorial article, writing code, etc.)

    But this is a personal tool of mine, and it might not be for everyone.

  • woah really smart post, I’ve started using pomodairo timer and all i can say its the best timer for me, thanks I’ve been dying to find the perfect timer for me cause I sometimes work to much and don’t rest. Cheers!!!

  • Bev

    I’m the same way. Music is very distracting to me. Classical or new age is best if I do listen but sometimes a song will get stuck in my head and slows me down. I work best when I’m alone as even our cats can be distracting, wanting attention and getting in front of the monitor or on the keyboard. Sometimes my best tool is solitude.

  • Nice article. I use the pomodoro technique from times to times – still don’t know why not all the time 😉

    I’s a great way to make more of your day at work. It keeps me focused and helps stay away from all the distractions like well you know them all. Add to that instant coffee with cream, DnB music station and I have a great work combination.

  • Everyone has their own recipe, and we’re all aware of the distractions that can sap your creative ability. I’ve been working with and managing bands for the past year, with a relentless phone and doorbell I’ve definitely needed to find a way to concentrate and stay organised.

    Google Calendar keeps both myself (and importantly band members) in check with their events. A White Board to track my projects (it sits right to the side of my desk). I use Dropbox to share files with clients, and media with family. My router and Hamachi keeps my homeserver and files available wherever I am regardless.

    As far as Music is concerned, if my client is a band, I listen to their material, and otherwise, anything with a mellow/ambient beat.

    …honestly the most important thing to me is my feeds. Google Reader keeps me up to date with lots of great design tips, inspiration and also that needed break every now and again.

    I definitely think I should spend some time reading up on the ‘pomodoro technique’.

    Thanks for the article.

  • Did you know there is a game based on pomdoro technique – Pomodorium

  • I didn’t know that! I do now, and I’ll be checking it out.

  • I use Google Calendar as a personal tool – we use Basecamp’s calendar for team events and milestones.

    Thanks for sharing Ralph, it’s really interesting to read what other folks are doing!

  • Great list! I think I’ll have to add the timer to my arsenal… for some reason I’ve never really thought of that before. Thanks!

  • Mineraal

    Can you pleace give a list of books that makes a base for understanding, learning and get inspiration in Graphic design.
    Which books would you advice?

  • It’s all in the mind, I personally ask my self why I am doing any activity before I actually do it… so that anytime along the way if I lose focus, I just remind myself of why I need to finish it…(sticky notes on edge of laptop will do)

  • I never heard of the Pomodoro Techniques before. I have just spent (lost) 50 minutes on the website…..

    I now have my timer and can’t wait to try it out.

    Thanks for sharing