Gibbs’ Rules For Freelancers– rule #9

If, like me, you are a fan of NCIS, then no doubt you are aware that there is a set of rules (50, to be precise, although as of January 2010, we have only been given less than half, and not in any particular order) that Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs lives by. Periodically they’re mentioned or referenced, and, thanks to the wonders of the internet, folks far more obsessive and anal-retentive about these things than I have collected them. Well, it occurred to me one night that some of these “rules” can be adapted and applied to the lives and work of designers, and freelancers in particular. In the spirit of the show, I will also discuss these from time to time in a random manner.

Without further ado, the first installment of what I’d like to call “Gibbs’ Rules For Freelancers.”

Gibbs' rules for design

Rule #9. Never go anywhere without a knife (from episode 1.13, “One Shot, One Kill”)

A knife, in this case, may not be necessary (although a lot of folks, myself included, occasionally carry a Swiss Army knife or Leatherman-type tool). However, designers– and freelancers in particular– would do well to carry a USB flash drive.
It’s simple, really. There may be times when you’re working on-site and have to take files with you. Maybe you go to an initial meeting with a potential new client and end up picking up some business before leaving their office. They want you to take their logo, maybe some documents you’ll need as part of the brief. Having a flash drive with you would certainly make things easier. There wouldn’t be the need to have anything emailed (which, considering the recent rash of issues some designers and bloggers have experienced, could be a hazard). There would be less of a need to commit another password to memory because files need to be FTP’d. The client wouldn’t have to burn a disk for you to take.

You could also look at it as “being green”. You wouldn’t necessarily need to burn disks to take files to a local printer or copy center. Just dupe them to your thumb drive and have them copy it off to their machines.

My flash drives

Personally, I have 3 that I’ve picked up over the last 5 years– a 256MB that I rarely use, and my two workhorses: A 1GB and a 2GB drive– and I rarely leave the house to go anywhere without at least one of these. On them I carry PDFs of my resumé and a one-sheet of work samples.

These days flash drives have become so inexpensive that it’s almost silly for designers or other creative professionals to not have one. If you have one and haven’t really put them to use, maybe it’s time to reconsider. If you don’t have one, you’d do well to invest in one.

Design Something Every Day (#daily365)– Jan 24

So, yesterday I slacked off a bit. Okay, maybe that’s not entirely accurate. I was busy with a project, and had put all my creative focus on it. So, once I was finished, it was late and I really had no physical interest or energy to put into the #daily365.

Today, however, was an entirely different day. The inspiration for today’s project came early in the day while in church. One of the readings was from 1 Corinthians, and as I was listening to it, this image popped in my head. I had to wait till after the service to sketch it out (I usually sit near the front, and didn’t want to throw my pastor off). Here it is:

©2010 rafael armstrong

As a side note, tonight I was reminded of the importance of saving your work early on and frequently, particularly when working in Illustrator. Also, since I missed yesterday, I’m debating between doubling-up one day (to make up for 1/23), or just bagging the idea and letting the missed day stand, more as a symbol and reminder of the challenge.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcomed and appreciated.

Design Something Every Day (#daily365)– Jan 15

The story behind today’s DSED: We (the fam) had dinner at On The Border this evening. Between coffee and the check, and while the (not-so) wee one was taken for a pre-departure lavatory run, I sat there looking at the table. I arranged a couple of things and took a pic with my cell (which my phone reduced to minuscule proportions, unlike the pic taken for a previous entry– but that’s a gripe for another day). The word “detritus” popped in my head. I wrote/drew it out in my pocket Moleskine, intending to use it. In the end, however, this is what I came up with.

Hope you like it, and please do feel free to leave a comment (positive or not), if you are so inclined.

detritus-- DSED for jan 15

detritus at OTB

steppin’ out on that ledge…

After reading about it ’round Christmastime and recently seeing a bunch of designer friends taking part, I decided to throw caution to the wind and commit to Smashing Mag’s “design something every day” (their original post is here). Also, since I had opened up a Tumblr account and I wasn’t doing anything with it at the moment, it seemed fitting to put it to good use by dedicating it (for the next year, at least) to this project.

Stroke of creative genius? Train wreck in the making? Time will tell. In the meantime, you can follow my journey, explorations, and (I’m pretty sure) the occasional misstep here.

Is there a Point of No Return?

I’ve been struggling with something the last few weeks. I’m currently in the middle of redesigning the look for my site (and, by extension), my online presence in general, and, well, not to put too fine a point on it… I’m having a bit of a creative block.

I know, I’ve read the blog posts, twitter streams and facebook updates woefully talking about how you are your most difficult client, and how we need to impose deadlines on our personal work. And, from my experience, they’re absolutely right. I know this, because when I’m designing for someone else– be it when I was still employed full-time (BTW– I’m still looking *nudge, nudge*), or those times when I’ve done freelance  work– I can get things done. My creative output puts breeding rabbits to shame. I can come up with winning designs, execute them, get them approved by the boss/client, and released in a matter of a couple of hours.

Okay, maybe the rabbit reference was a bit much. But here’s the thing. When I start doing something for myself, whether it’s brainstorming a logo, redesigning the look of my site, or setting up a somewhat regular schedule for a blog, I simply get stuck. The muse (if there is one) goes on break.

Then I find myself weeks, or even months, later, with very little accomplished, and usually not a lot to show for it. So then, when I do revisit the work, I start to want to go in a different direction (instead of just refining what I already had), to try something new, because maybe the next time, the next idea will be that much better, and maybe even The One.

So, right now I’m taking what I already had, I’ve turned it on its side, shaken it around, found what I think worked already (in this case, a somewhat stricter adherence to a grid), and now I’m working on incorporating the new ideas (a heavier reliance on web-safe typography, rather than replacing text with images). My goal is to have this rolled out in the next 4 weeks. No, let me rephrase. I will have this rolled out in the next 4 weeks.

But the whole thing got me thinking about a bunch of things. Do you take one idea and see it through to completion before trying something else? Do you work with multiple concepts at the same time? Is one method better than the other?

Or, do you get to a point with an idea, or, in this case, a design, and just see it through to completion? More importantly– should you? Do we take that idea– the one we thought was The One— and tweak it, massage it, refine and polish into whatever it is it’s going to be? Or, do we look at it, write it off as unusable, and move on to a newer, shinier, model? Do we do both, and pit them against each other in an idea “Thunderdome”? Or neither, and we throw our arms up in defeat, grab a soda and plop down to reruns on cable, hoping the whole mess will work itself out in some weird passive-aggressive tantrum?

So, how have you dealt with this? Have you? Or, am I just over thinking things? I want to know what you think.

Site’s been upgraded!

After months of working late at night, occasionally banging my head against the keyboard, and poking and prodding at images and code, I have finally completed and uploaded a brand new look for my portfolio site– check it out here— complete with email contact form and a little jQuery slideshow. It’s the first time I’ve coded a site from the ground up– no Photoshop plugins, no Fireworks. Just html and CSS, with a little online help for the jQuery and email form, so I’m sure there are things that could be more efficient, code that could probably be leaner. Regardless, I’m proud of the hard work and happy with the results so far.
Please do check it out and tell me what you think..

“An organized file is a happy file”

Let’s say you go on a trip. During this trip you realize you need a room for the night, so you find the nearest hotel or motel. When you get there the desk clerk takes you and shows you two rooms. The first one is clean, with a neatly made bed, all the complimentary toiletries arranged nicely on the bathroom counter, and the towels and sheets are crisply folded. The second one has all the same amenities– toiletries, clean sheets and towels– but housekeeping was in a rush that day, so they just opened the door, tossed everything into the room, and moved on.

Which room would you prefer?

Now, let’s say you’re working, and get a file from a client, or you’re at work and are asked to edit an already existing file. What would you like better? Would you like to open the file and find a nicely organized bunch of layers, with everything thoughtfully placed for ease of future use? Or would you prefer one where everything was tossed onto “layer 1” and you had to spend almost an hour untangling the mess of overlapping elements, just to make sense of it all?

Yeah– that’s what I thought.

Now, I have a confession to make. I’m not the most organized person on the planet. I know I’m not. I try to make a conscious effort on a daily basis to stay somewhat organized. There are days where I do well, and others– not so much. But, there are certain things in life that I need to have organized “just so.” My CDs and DVDs, for example, have a very specific filing order, and I’ve been known to spend countless hours straightening and sorting them out.

Professionally, one of the things I’m almost neurotically fanatical about is file organization. Nothing irks me more than opening a file created by someone else and finding that everything was dropped into the default layer. In my opinion, it’s poor planning and shows little foresight on the file creator’s part. Setting up a clearly labeled layer system is something that only takes a minute or two, will speed up your work in the long run, and can end up saving you (or the person who picks up the file after you) headaches later on when, six days/weeks/months down the line you’re asked by your boss or client to make changes on this file. I’ve been working this way for years, and can’t see myself working any other way.

Most of the major design-related programs (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Quark) have the capability of setting up– and working in– layers. The also have the ability to duplicate, lock, hide, and reorder the stack of layers in a file. For my work, I tend to use a similar layer setup across the board (well, except for Photoshop), which allows for a great deal of flexibility and makes my workflow that much smoother.

With that said, I give you my setup– beginning with the bottommost layer in the stack. I’m using the Illustrator setup for the example, since lately it’s been the go-to program for a lot of my work, but, like I said, the setup is pretty much the same for ID/Quark and in its own way, PS:

The layers:


These are the layers that I place at the bottom of every stack. I don’t always need to have both, but there are times when I find it nice to have the background art and whatever photography is used on separate layers.


This one’s pretty self-explanatory. This is where all the major elements are placed. As a general rule I try to keep all photography away from this layer (there are exceptions, of course) and keep the layer strictly for vector art and type. I find it especially helpful when you have multiple versions sharing a common background (say, for example, when you create business cards for different employees of the same company).


When dealing with packaging art, always, always, always put the dieline on its own layer. And please, make sure you set the dieline color as a separate spot color swatch (even if all you’re doing is mixing CMYK values). Again, it’s more for the benefit of making the pre-press and production work go that much smoother. And, believe me, much like waiters and people handling your food, your printer’s staff is one group of folks who you’ll want to make sure to be nice to. But that’s a topic for another time.


Any file information– trim size, printer and color specs– goes on this layer. Once again, I have found that it’s especially helpful for the folks on the pre-press side to have everything in a layer whose visibility can be toggled on and off. With InDesign (and I believe now Quark as well) you can create slugs into the document, so having a callout layer there may not be necessary.

Like I said before, I find that this approach to layers not only works well with Illustrator, but with InDesign and Quark files as well (BTW, Quark incorporated layers back in version 5 or 6–why it took that long, I have no idea– and I believe InDesign may have had it from the get-go). Where Photoshop is concerned, my approach is somewhat similar to Illustrator’s, but that’s a subject for next time.