Staying focused by shifting focus.

As designers, we have a single task. Finding a solution to a problem. No matter what discipline of design we work in, the premise is always the same. A problem exists and we need a remedy. But the thing is—problems are sometimes hard… really hard. Depending on the scope of the issue, finding the answer often takes a lot of time and a lot of energy.

When designers attempt to work on solving the same problem for too long, we can easily achieve burnout. For someone who is passionate about their craft, continuously staring at a screen for 12 hours is an easy feat. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re focused for the entirety of that time. Sometimes, the longer we try and stay focused, the less focused we really are—regardless of our enthusiasm for a project.

Over the past 3 years at automattic I’ve experimented quite a bit with the best workflow to maintain a consistent level of focus and enthusiasm for my work. Having a flexible schedule can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be extremely difficult to maintain a healthy routine that allows us to maximize meaningful output.

I’ve had days where I’ve been super involved in projects—sometimes forgetting to blink. There was a time when we were redesigning Jetpack in 2015/2016 where I spent literally 14 hours in sketch, barely ever leaving my desk. I felt incredibly productive at the time, but the next morning when I woke up, I had a cognitive hangover from overworking myself. I was drained—my productivity level for the next couple of days was atrocious. I may as well of been AFK (away from keyboard).

So ultimately, I was hyper-focused for a day, but then my focus was nonexistent afterwards. There are ways to avoid this, and I’m going to share a few with you.

Share the focus to stay focused.

A prototype of one of the activity log / backups flows by Filipe Varela

Over the past 9 months or so, the Jetpack Design team has been working with the concept of “Design Buddies.” for different projects. One designer may take point on a particular project leading most of the design initiative, while a second designer will exist in an auxiliary capacity. The idea being that the aux designer would assist with design thinking and filling in if the primary designer is AFK or what-not.

In an ongoing project for Jetpack and, Filipe Varela and I have teamed up as design buddies to re-envision how an activity log and real-time backup system would work for self-hosted WordPress users utilizing the UI. For this project, we’re sharing the same responsibilities—but rather than working on different aspects of the project, we both work on every aspect together. From the conceptual process of building out the user experience through sketches, wireframes, high fidelity UI designs, prototypes, etc.

What’s effective about our process through this project is that we sort of play design ping pong. Bouncing concepts off of each other to ensure more than one perspective is present during the genesis of the feature design. When I created a concept, I’d share it with him and he’d further the idea by enhancing it with his own ideas and vice versa. It’s particularly nice since he lives in Europe, while I’m located in the United States. Timezone differences play to our advantage here since he would post concepts before I begin working in the morning. And then when I posted feedback or enhancements to said concepts, he’d be able to wake up and review mine—which cultivates a wonderful wheel of progress that continuously rolls forward.

Through shared focus, Filipe and I took his initial activity log concepts and created something more effective for context of self-hosted WordPress users with Jetpack

What’s been really effective about this process thus far is that I haven’t strained to force any concepts. Rather than working on trying to push through designers’ block in some cases and get burned out, I can just communicate what I’m having difficulty with to Filipe and he was able to envision it in a way that I couldn’t. And when he posted his ideas, suddenly I’d have ideas to enhance his ideas. Through this process, I haven’t felt any burnout. By temporarily removing focus on some problems I was able to return to the project the next day and feel fresh thanks to a having a design partner.  

Finding other avenues to channel your energy and you’ll find the solution to your problem.

For me, nature has a way of rejuvenating me. I find myself more focused when I return to my craft.

I’m sure most folks have heard the term “just sleep on it.” The concept of putting things down and letting them simmer in the subconscious mind has been an extremely effective method for me to solve problems. Often times I sleep with a notepad on my nightstand just in case I wake in the middle of the night and have an idea. And yes—it does happen. As evidence, I put writing this post down yesterday and let my brain subconsciously organize my thoughts overnight. I woke up this morning and here I am!

I’m a huge proponent of finding finding balance within everything for maximum effectiveness. Too much of anything is bad. If you sit on a computer for too long and try to force inspiration, you’re wasting your time.

I find that having hobbies that take me far away from my profession is extremely effective in rejuvenating my focus when I do return to my craft. But also, you’ll be surprised at how the same problems exist in different realms of reality. Get out and experience the outside world. Observe nature and people. You may just find the answers to your problems out there and not on the internet.

Continuously practice different forms of design. Stay excited and you’ll remain focused.

Being on the Jetpack Design team, I have the opportunity to work in various design disciplines. Sometimes I work on product design—conceptualizing new user experience flows in Jetpack or, and other times I work on growth and events marketing design—working to enhance our PUX (Potential User Experience) in the physical world. Again, all forms of design exist to solve a problem, but the methods in which we research and execute these mediums is different. If I feel that my energy on product design is becoming stagnant and burnout is around the corner, I can consult with my team and arrange some time to switch up my focus so I stay more excited about my work.

Over the past couple of months I’ve worked with our events team to design some jetpack swag for WordCamp Europe 2017. Due to a short deadline this year, I resurfaced some concepts of Jetpack aviation wings and created some enamel pins for folks, along with some matching shirts for our Jetpack event staff. Conference attendees could “earn their wings.” by stopping by the Jetpack booth and speaking with automattic folks.

I worked with Stephen Quirk on our Events team to produce these shirts and pins for WCEU 2017

Maintain alignment with other designers for fresh perspective.

While on a mini-rotation with Jetpack Growth, I’ve worked on analyzing some data and designing concepts for testing in various avenues of the Jetpack universe. Currently I’m teaming up with Cristel Rossignol who is a very talented designer and illustrator on our Marketing Design team. We’re working to ensure the recent inclusive illustration language that was created is effective not only in the context of branding, but also Jetpack branding.

While placing my focus on ensuring these illustrations are effective in our Jetpack marketing, I’ve begun to discover ways in which we can use these inside of the Jetpack product itself.

Find your balance.

Ultimately, everyone is different. Every designer at Automattic is from a different region of the world. We all have different upbringings and different perspectives on things—which is an incredible virtue. No matter what kind of synapse is firing in your brain, I urge you to take a step back and rotate your focus on different things—more so when you run into designers block. If you more throughout different design practices and communicate with other designers working on different projects, you’ll inevitably end up with fresh perspective and a revived energy that’ll allow you to find an answer to your original problem.

Featured image by Ricardo Pelati 

Originally written for Automattic Design Flow.

Leave a Reply