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

He notes that even if you haven't made the conscious decision to use such a system, you may well have created one anyway. "The most common 'homebrew' system is saving files with different names, such as 'my-amazing-design.html', 'my-amazing-design-2.html', and so on, but this isn't elegant, and you can't see what's changed between versions," he says. "So for code management, I use Subversion, which provides version tracking and enables me to compare different versions of the same document with ease."

Pulling the plug

A final tip for smarter web design, again in the realm of control, is knowing when to pull the plug, and this can be applied to various situations. Dominic Arkwright thinks of this in terms of creative efficiency.

"I work on concurrent projects, breaking them up by working on one task until I feel like the most efficient period has passed," he explains. "If I'm starting to bang my head against a brick wall to solve a particular problem, I move on to something more fruitful. A change is as good as a rest, and in most cases when you return to something that was stumping you the day before, a simple solution presents itself."

For others, pulling the plug is knowing when certain technology doesn't cut it any more. Perhaps the most controversial example was the recent decision of 37signals to drop support for Internet Explorer 6. For Jason Fried, this is all about the balance between potential loss of clients and savings in development time. "We'll definitely be turning off access to some people, and that's never easy, but we did the same with IE5 two years ago," he explains. "People were upset, but they have to adjust."

Fried notes that it's pretty easy to design for compliant browsers without much tweaking, but to get things working in IE6 often requires compromises that make the experience worse for those with modern browsers. "We're very comfortable with this decision," he concludes. "But we'll still be conscious of IE6 – it's not like we'll completely ignore it. If we can make something work in an hour, we'll do it, but we're not going to spend two or three days making something work."

Some might argue that ditching IE6 entirely would be the most efficient course of action. But if you can still keep everyone happy, with only a minimal amount of extra effort, then that's most definitely the epitome of working smarter.

FIve easy ways to boost your productivity

1. Zero your inbox
If you can, answer emails right away. If not, file them into folders for bulk-reply sessions. Don't just let your inbox mushroom, or important emails may get lost in the flood.

2. Don't reinvent the wheel
If some high-quality, proven and suitable mechanism already exists for something you're trying to do, and you're legally entitled to use it, do so, be it a coding library or CMS. If you can create components usable over multiple projects, do so to save working on the same thing over and over.

3. Hone things down
If a client wants a 50-page site and you can see a way of doing it in 10, tell them and convince them to do so. Smaller sites are typically more creative, and offer more clarity and focus.

4. Avoid interruptions
Quit your email client and browsers when you want to fully focus on some design work. At all other times, work with passive communication, so you communicate when you want to. Avoid interrupting others, unless the matter is extremely urgent and simply can't wait for an extra hour.

5. Get away from your computer

Inspiration rarely comes from staring at a monitor for hours. So walk, visit exhibitions and read, rather getting all your 'inspiration' from other websites. Also avoid the temptation to start with the computer. Instead, design and plan freely with paper and a pencil. Work fast and don't linger – you may find ideas come surprisingly easily.

Five tools to help you design better sites

1. Basecamp

Of 37signals' portfolio, it's web- based project management tool Basecamp that comes in for the most praise. "We couldn't work without it," says Happy Cog's Jeff Zeldman. "We use it to collaborate with local and remote partners, keep track of deadlines, and even handle the bulk of our client communications."

2. Firefox Web Developer toolbar

If you work on standard web pages, you've probably already got this installed. If not, you're missing the means to efficiently and effectively test page components from within a standards- compliant browser.

3. Subversion
This popular open source version- control system enables designers and developers to maintain versions of code. As Andy Budd notes, "This enables you to keep up to date with the latest version of project files, which is especially useful if you're working with external developers, or if you've got a distributed team."

4. Silverback
This new kid on the block is a 'guerrilla usability testing app', enabling you to run low-cost usability tests with hardware you already have in your Mac. It records screen activity, video, audio and mouse clicks, and you can use the Apple remote to define chapter markers when usability problems are encountered. Once tests are finished, video and data is exported to QuickTime for analysis.

5. Pen and paper
Seriously. Turn off your computer, go for a walk, and sketch some ideas, rather than staring blindly at Photoshop or Fireworks, gradually turning your mouse hand into a gnarled claw.

First published in .net magazine, Issue 181

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