Tips and tricks to turn you into a faster, smarter web designer

Productivity-boosting ideas to guarantee great results

For 37signals founder Jason Fried such praise is appreciated, but he thinks there's a good reason why his company's products fare well in the current market – they do less than the competition. "They do a few things really well and get out of people's way," he claims. "And when products do a few things really well, they're more pleasant to work with, and easier to learn and understand."

The most effective tools are often the simplest – a hammer and nail, paper and pencil. It's when you start to complicate things that effectiveness is hampered. "For example, with a blank piece of paper, you can do just about anything on it, but add lines and maybe it's not such a good thing to draw on. Add grids and maybe it's not such a good thing to write on," Fried explains. The more additions, the less useful something becomes for most people. Something might become great in a specialised way, but for the majority, it's less interesting.

It's important that you ensure your tools aid you, rather than merely giving that impression. Design director for NYTimes.com Khoi Vinh has strong views about so-called 'GTD' (Get Things Done) applications. "Unless you really feel GTD is perfect for you, don't bother," he says. "It's over- rated and just about the (admittedly satisfying) pleasure of organising a system for getting things done, rather than actually getting things done."

Often, it's more practical and useful to apply stricter rules to existing tools, such as maintaining a zero-inbox policy for email. Andy Budd is a keen advocate of this. "I answer emails that will take under five minutes immediately, and file others into folders with titles such as 'action', 'respond', 'waiting' and 'hold'," he explains. "Then, when I've got a clear half-hour, I go through the lot and deal with everything in one go." With such a system, you shouldn't end up in that awful situation of realising you forgot to send out a quote to a potential client a week ago.

The need for speed

Once foundations have been laid, speed and efficiency are paramount. Sometimes initial planning assists. Simon Crab notes how the design process is "simplified by defining and distributing to the team all of the basic visual elements before the design comes together", thereby enabling designers to spend time defining typographic rules and structures, colour palettes and so on, instead of making them up as they go along – a situation that typically leads to wasteful amendments further down the line.

And if you needn't over-finish something, don't. "Designers spend days fiddling with fonts to try and 'make it look right'," says Crab. "But you have to consider how 'finished' designs need to be for, say, a presentation." Another time-saver is to think smaller. Creativity can be hampered by designing huge websites, says Jason Fried. "Many sites are very template-driven, and that happens when you have 100 pages – you've no choice but to do it that way," he argues. "But the more pages you have, the more maintenance you'll have to do in the future – which saps your energy – and the less unique each page will be."

Thinking ahead is something designer Shealan Forshaw is now a firm advocate of. He admits to once being a messy designer who'd "happily work on a Photoshop mock-up with over 50 layers and not name a single one", and whose sloppy coding practices resulted in tagged-on additions, repeated code and duplicated functionality.

He's been to that place where sites look great on the surface but are held together precariously underneath with the digital equivalent of sticky tape. "This causes huge problems if a site needs updating, or – God help you – moving to a new server," he says. "Now I'm taking an almost obsessive-compulsive approach to site construction and it's been amazing."