How I stay creative as a web designer

It’s tough to stay creative when a project moves into maintenance mode. Here’s what I do to keep myself from becoming complacent.

Casual Research

Almost every day I make a small effort to keep up with emerging trends and technologies. Reviewing blogs, magazines, technical documents and videos. Usually an hour, sometimes more and not always related strictly to design. I’ll branch out to programming and development or user experience etc.

Blogging can provide an avenue to reflect on accomplishments or setbacks. I often refer to some of my old posts for advice and inspiration.

Small Challenges

Design isn’t a static certification, every few months the industry adopts new technologies and methods to solve problems. What’s working today may not be enough to satisfy demands tomorrow. Every week I like to set aside some time to code something new or take a tutorial.

Recently I built a single page site in WordPress fed by multiple posts just to learn the process and it’s challenges. I discovered is it’s a beast to update so dropping in a simple “edit” link for each element on the live page help maintain the components.

Community Involvement

Attend conferences, workshops and meetups in your field of expertise. Assist people in forums. It’s a great way to find out what challenges others in your industry are experiencing and avoid working in a creative silo.

Set Limits

Generally I won’t work on a single problem for more than two hours unless it’s urgent. Too much time on a single task seems to make me less productive with each hour, I like to take breaks, walk, exercise and just do something completely different for a bit.

WordPress as a note taking tool

A new academic year is about to begin. Instead of using a proprietary note taking service that could leave you burned consider WordPress.

Terms of service agreements have complete control over your content and could delete your work or change at any time. Evernote recently removed functionality from it’s free version and Google shut down a 14 year old Blogger site.

But with little effort a self hosted WordPress site can become a full featured note taking suite where you call the shots.

Taking notes on your phone or tablet

WordPress for Android
WordPress for Android on my ASUS ZenPad S8.

Like Google Keep and Evernote WordPress has an app for iOS and Android. It can handle text, links, images, documents and media files. Posts are stored locally on your device until you’re ready to hit publish. Don’t want the world seeing your notes? Save it as a draft or set a password.

Taking notes in the browser

Whether you’re on a Chromebook, Mac, Windows PC or using a Linux distribution the WordPress dashboard can be accessed from almost any web browser.

Distraction free writing mode
Distraction free writing mode hides everything except the content editor until you hover outside with the cursor.

Before you say, “Joe… Wait, WordPress is way too busy.” Consider trying distraction free writing mode and using keyboard shortcuts to speed things up. (My favorite is hitting Ctrl + k to hyperlink a selection.)

Collaborate and extend functionality with themes and plugins

Providing accounts for colleagues and friends can extend WordPress to a project management tool. Posts can be tagged or categorized and revisions can be automatically saved on the server . For instance beyond taking notes and blogging I use WordPress to track small projects like tracking website carousel slides I created for reference later, and as a personal calendar / to-do list.

For calendars I use the aptly named “Events Calendar” plugin from Modern Tribe. That “small project” blog was merely a custom theme I built myself.

Why self hosted WordPress?

Complete control, you can backup your site and move it to any host you like. Don’t want to use a web host? Install it on your computer or personal server and control your data and who sees it.

Have you tried using WordPress as a productivity tool? Please share your experience in the comments.

Be wary of refinancing solicitations


Nationstar confirmed that the letter was from their refinancing department. They did not comment on my opinion that it looked like a phishing scam. I appreciate the reply. My original post is below.

This week I received a refi solicitation letter from what appears to be my loan servicer Nationstar Mortgage. However three things struck me as odd and make it look like a phishing scam. Anyone with time and some web skills could easily do the following and that’s what makes it suspect.

  1. letter-from-nationstarIt arrived in a USPS flat rate envelope instead of the usual business reply envelope.
  2. The letter instructs me to go to a third party url with my name attached to it located at also the phone number is not listed their official website.
  3. When logging into my account dashboard this letter doesn’t appear anywhere as an offer or in my inbox.

After a few Google and DuckDuckGo searches I found hints that the url may be legitimate. A phone number lookup says it belongs to Nationstar Mortgage as well as a search for that domain. However, those could easily be planted online using simple SEO techniques. Phishing scams are profitable and it’s important do a little research before visiting a url or phone number and submitting personal information.

Consider this, I could just as easily copy the text from any legitimate letter, secure an official looking domain address and phone number then  redirect all web traffic from any subdomain name to phishing page.

Apparently that’s what’s happening here because these urls also work and I doubt they’ve received letters.

Be safe and consider the following

  1. Is it actually sending you to the official website?
  2. Is it referencing a phone number listed on their official website?
  3. Did you ask for refinance information from your lender?

A quick note

Nationstar Mortgage has been my account servicer for well over a year and I haven’t had any problems or concerns that wasn’t immediately resolved when I’ve contacted them with questions. My intention with this post is not to defame them in any way. Simply alert other consumers to be careful when receiving unsolicited offers. Please contact your mortgage lender directly via their official website or phone number.

I’ve emailed Nationstar Mortgage via my account dashboard providing a copy of the letter and my concerns that it looks suspicious. I’ll update this post when they reply.

Productivity & getting away from the desk

Several months ago I wrote How I Work where I shared my routine and nothing has really changed. However, recently I’ve been experimenting working on my feet more. Over the years a terrible habit of working 4-5 hours non stop at my desk and I’m taking action to break it. In this post I’m sharing my solutions to break up desk time at regular intervals while maintaining focus.

Duck Duck Go Timer

I set a 20 minute timer in a pinned browser tab, when it expires I have to at minimum stand up. I often walk across the office, grab coffee or whatever. If I get up during that 20 minutes I reset the timer when I return. Twenty minutes appears to be my sweet spot.

Chrome browser history on mobile
Chrome’s synced browser history on my tablet can retrieve items you would normally read at your desk.
This can also be done with Firefox.

Identify “mobile” action items

I’ve dedicated the following action items to my tablet or smartphone.

  • Email for reading, quick replies only
  • Basecamp  for checking, reading, and quick project updates
  • Pocket or syncing my web browsers bookmarks and history for collecting research items
  • Desk phone If I answer the phone and the conversation doesn’t require my desktop.
  • Administrative work
  • Text Messages and digital notifications

Creating  a routine

When the timer expires I select a mobile action item and focus on it while standing, walking or otherwise engaged on my feet. Over the last two weeks I’ve assigned specific activities to only be performed away from my desk. So far I’ve been able to remain focused on a single activity at my desk without fear of an email or notification slipping past me for more than a few minutes.

My experience using

Underscores is a WordPress starter theme and in the last two years I’ve used it as a code reference, research tool, testing platform, and combined it with responsive web frameworks like Bootstrap and Foundation to prototype new designs and launch a few projects.

Why I chose to build on Underscores

Sometime back in 2013 I decided to make the leap into developing WordPress themes. Until that point I would hack together a theme from scratch or use a pre-designed template. Both had setbacks, A pre-designed theme meant I could get the site up and running almost instantly (As I’m writing this post my blog is running on Automattic’s Twenty Sixteen and it meets my needs). On the other hand, creating a theme from scratch takes a long time.

As a learning tool

Underscores is a fantastic learning tool. Paired with the WordPress Handbook’s Template Hierarchy you can visually conceptualize how things run, interact and override each other. Along with Desktop Server you don’t even need to setup up a web host to start experimenting.

As a prototyping and testing platform

Recently I took a Underscores and Foundation 6 put them together and created a working draft in advance of a project meeting. Granted it wasn’t as quick as throwing around a couple boxes in Adobe Illustrator and exporting a PNG but it allowed me to provide a working draft with actual content, menus and artwork. It took several hours on an otherwise slow day but I now have adaptable working theme to start from whenever I need to throw up a small micro site quickly.

As a final product

I’ve used it on a few final projects as well as picked it apart a few segments to replace or enhance older projects. Best part is it’s licensed under the GPL so it’s free to build, share, adjust.

Have you used Undrescores in any interesting projects? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.