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04 Nov 2016

Tools of the Trade

By Scott Smith

For those of you who don’t know (I know that designers don’t read), The Paris Review is a literary journal started in the 1950s by a bunch of famous writers, including George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen. In the inaugural issue, they kicked off a tradition of interviewing a writer about their work. The magazine continues to this day, and all of the interviews are online.

What I love about is that the interview has to ask the writer HOW he or she writes. That is, literally: do they use a pen or a pencil? Yellow pads or a computer? Where do they write — in an office or in the house? outline or just wing it?

As a young writer, these questions were paramount to me. Maybe if I replicated Hemingway’s ritual of sharpening 20 pencils every morning (actually not true), I could write something as great as The Sun Also Rises. (For you designers out there, that’s a novel, which is a made-up story, or fiction.)

I love this sort of view into the tools and processes of the working life of any profession, especially one that’s creative like writing. But design is a creative collaborative endeavor. That means there are more tools, and therefore more fun stuff to play with. I have listened with pleasure to the excellent Creative Agency Podcast, done by the folks at Murmur Creative, because similar to the Paris Review interviews, in part because they ask about project management, resourcing, and collaboration software. I love this stuff.

So what do we use here at Smith & Connors? Thanks for asking.

Project Management

We don’t have a single, overall project management tool. We’ve tried many: Basecamp, Redbooth, 10,000 Ft., and others. We haven’t found one that does everything we need, including scheduling, time tracking, collaboration, communication. We still have a nagging feeling that we should consolidate, and there’s always the hope that someone will create a tool that does everything and is delightful to use. To date, though, no luck.

Basecamp 3 was the closest we’ve come to being happy with a PM tool, but we ultimately abandoned it for a few reasons. One, it felt like a humongous job to integrate it into our work. There are tons of features that overlapped with tools we’re already using. Also, there are some things missing, including an easy-to-use scheduling feature that allows us to shift milestones easily and visualize them on a calendar or Gantt chart, and also the ability to have threaded conversations with clients. And although they have a handy-dandy communication tool, we just can’t quit Slack.

Communication

For chatting and in-the-moment conversations, Slack! Oh, how we love Slack. Elegant, beautifully designed, easy to use, flexible yet not confusing, it feels like we’ve always had it in our lives. We can communicate with each other and our contractors seamlessly, talk with our clients as if they’re on our team, get notifications without having to use email, have side conversations, manage RSS feeds, and annoy each other with GIFs. Somehow it maintains the perfect balance between familiarity and formality that is needed. 

I’ve used Atlassian’s HipChat, and although it has similar functionality, it’s somehow not the same.

For videoconferencing, we use Zoom. We’ve tried Google Hangouts, and might use it in the future, but Zoom’s quality and ease of use has got us hooked … for now.

Collaboration

We’re a Google shop. We use Google as our email and calendar server, and we couldn’t live without Google Docs and Sheets. I’m writing this right now in a Google Doc. It’s an unparalleled collaboration tool. We do all of our financials and estimates in Google Sheets, and most of our proposals and all of our contracts in Docs. It allows us all to make comments and changes simultaneously, and it keeps a history of all revisions. We can work internally or with clients and manage permissions seamlessly. I love it so much, more than Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which is a lot.

Cloud Server

Again, Google. Because we rely so heavily on the collaboration tools, up until recently we kept parallel file structures on Google Drive and Dropbox. Selective sync is key here — we have a lot of files, and we need to be able to control what gets synced to our hard drives so we don’t run out of space.

We were having trouble with Google Drive’s selective sync feature, so we stayed with both services. But Google somehow fixed the problem, and now we’ve moved completely to Google Drive. It’s easy to share files with each other and with clients, and I find the permissions on Google Drive to be much more intuitive.

Scheduling

We use Smartsheet. We don’t love it, but it allows us to create flexible schedules in an easy, though ugly, interface. Calendar, Gantt charts, the works. Still, it’s unbearably ugly and weird, in my opinion. As a design shop, we can’t help but make it a beauty contest. Let us know if you have a suggestion.

Time Tracking and Invoicing

We use Harvest, which is time tracking par excellence. And talk about beauty. Just wow. The interface is both stunningly beautiful and easy to use. It allows us to actualize our hours and compare them against our budgets. And it gives us control over what our invoices look like, which is sweet.

Creative Work

Of course, we use all Adobe CC products, including Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign. We’ve also been playing around with Sketch a bit. Talie has become a big fan of it. She’s trying to figure out when to use it, though, as it’s not great for exporting artboards to PDF (there aren’t options to compress or select specific artboards). Perhaps these options will evolve as Sketch releases new versions. We hope so, because the swiftness of working in Sketch is the antidote to the bear that is Photoshop and Illustrator for more complex documents.

We often load up designs and wireframes as prototypes in InVision, and use GatherContent to help clients gather, well, content before the CMS is ready. As much as we adore GatherContent, we’re thinking of adapting our backend CMS earlier in our development process to reduce the repeated content entry for our clients (right now they first enter their content in GatherContent while we’re beginning the site build, and then we have them copy over the content into the CMS).

We lean pretty heavily on Google Analytics, of course. For SEO research we often use Keyword Discovery and sometimes some of the MOZ tools.

Development

For front-end work, we are huge fans of Pattern Lab for Atomic Design. This powerful tool allows us to create styles for each element of a site, starting with the “atoms” (fonts, colors, icons) to “molecules” (navigation, blocks of text, etc) to “organisms,” “templates,” and finally “pages.” We build out Pattern Lab as a way to get early validation from our own internal team and also the client.

Our own website and many of our clients’ are built in a CMS called SilverStripe. My partner Becca has written about it in a couple of earlier blog posts. It’s robustness and flexibility is unparalleled in our opinion.

For bug and ticket tracking, we’ve tried Trello, Taiga, and JIRA. Nothing’s perfect, although Trello is favored for its beauty and easy of use (we love that you can assign a ticket to someone and then easily drag and drop it into custom columns). We’ll probably use them all again on various projects. We also use GitHub for source code control, naturally.

Other

We use MailChimp for our newsletters, and encourage our clients to use the same. For music, we use Spotify and Sonos together and love it. For password management, LastPass has been transformative for our organization in making sharing passwords and locking down security easy.

One More Thing: Analog

I actually spend quite a bit of time working off-line. Unlike Hemingway of legend, I like a good mechanical pencil that doesn't require sharpening. I’m sort of in love with my Twist-Erase Pentel 0.9mm pencil and a Leuchtturm 1917. And a big pad of newsprint for sketching. And that's all I need.

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