10 Tools That Empower + Enhance My Design Business

graphic design tools

Life is very much about surrounding yourself with people that push, inspire, and support you. That is why I surround myself with positive people that make me a better person.

I also happen to think that the tools in your toolbox play an incredibly important role in supporting you. After all, a roofer can’t get by without a ladder, and a doctor needs her stethoscope, right?

And while I might only rely on natural light, a blank canvas, and a few supplies when I’m out en plein air painting, my graphic design studio looks a little different when it comes to the tools I rely on and look forward to using each and every day.

Software, books, and music…oh my!

Moving my graphic design studio from an office and into my home was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my business, but whether I’m in rented space or my home studio, there are a few tools that I simply couldn’t live without.

Let’s start with the hardware and software:

1. My Mac: This seems pretty basic, but the truth is that I couldn’t run this business without it, so it’d be silly for me not to mention it. I am grateful for the power behind my Mac and its ability to simultaneously run several of the other tools on this list. (I might also be hoping that by listing this first, I earn some good karma that will help me continue to learn and grow easily.)

2. WACOM tablet: There’s only so much you can do with a trackpad or a mouse. For those times when I wish I could just pick up a pencil and sketch right on my monitor (not a good idea!), my drawing tablet saves the day.

3. The Adobe suite: A designer’s delight. InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator have become second nature to me, providing the tools I need within them to bring my ideas to life for my clients.

4. Social media: I attempt to spend quite a bit of time unplugged when I’m not on my computer working. That being said, I can’t help but appreciate social media as a tool for my business — not only in being able to promote the behind-the-scenes of my business via this blog, on Instagram, and on Facebook, but also for my ability to follow what my clients and other businesses are doing.

5. My printer: While I love employing talented printers to make use of the more complicated papers and sizes, my handy-dandy studio printer is fantastic for letting me get a feel for what projects are going to look like. Hearing it churn out samples is often music to my ears.

Now, let’s unplug and look at the non-technical side of things:

6. Notebooks: There really are the times I just need a pencil and paper. That’s where my sketchpads and notebooks come in. I especially rely on these in client meetings, where I appreciate the arrows and lines that let me capture my thoughts exactly as they’re happening. (And where my notes often look crazed.)

7. Calendars: I never really got into the digital calendar world. But paper calendars? Oh, yes. Not only do I have my paper planner, but large, printed calendars adorn my studio wall and keep me clear on everything from my appointments to deadlines for client projects. To the naked eye, it might look a bit disorganized, but these calendars are the key to my organization.

8. Books, books, and more books: From PMS (Pantone Matching System) color books to design manuals, and business books to personal development reads, I consider books to be one of the greatest tools for growth in my business, and am so grateful for the knowledge that other people take the time to record.

9. Paper samples: While I work on a good amount of design for web projects, I still work very largely on print projects — from visitors guides to product labels and marketing brochures to large trade show displays — which makes paper samples a crucial tool in my business. The type of paper can make all the difference for a project, and different textures, weights, and materials can be a big inspiration.

And, finally, the sounds:

10. Music: Much like a color or smell can inspire a memory or ignite inspiration, music is a must-have office companion for my design work. Sometimes it means meditation playlists on Spotify; other times it means throwing the windows open and letting the birds sing. (And don’t get me wrong — sometimes, the best music is silence.)

Choose the tools that amplify your days

Much like the people you surround yourself with, the tools you choose to use can both empower and enhance your business. It’s easy to get distracted by shiny objects — that new project management tool, or the new music player. Instead, focus on finding a handful of tried-and-true tools that work for what you need.

What tools do you turn to in your business? Share with me in the comments, below.

Warm Letters From the Heart (and Soul) of Your Business

handwritten letters

There’s nothing quite like heading out to the mailbox and spying an envelope that clearly isn’t a #10, stock white, windowed piece of mail surely containing a bill, donation request, appointment reminder, or credit card offer. It’s that feeling of warmth that comes from seeing a friend or family member’s handwriting; the anticipation that follows as you wonder what might be inside.

But unfortunately, it’s more of an exception rather than a rule these days. Snail mail is a thing of the past…Or is it?

A Valentine’s Day reminder

Remember this time of year back in grade school, when we were tasked with bringing in enough valentines to pass around? Some were homemade with construction paper and markers; some were store bought with fun characters and designs; still others were attached to suckers or conversation hearts (yum!).

If you’re anything like me, your heart fluttered as you walked around the room passing out your creations — and it flip-flopped even more so as your desk became littered with valentines signed from other people in your class. (Especially that person…we all had that person.)

Aside from the celebration of Valentine’s Day, there was something that made the exchange of valentines particularly special — the fact that it was the one time we could count on getting handwritten notes.

Adding a personal touch

For the most part, the love of receiving handwritten notes doesn’t fade well into adulthood. While we shun junk mail and sometimes attempt to avoid the post office at all costs (particularly around the holidays), there is still something incredibly special about the oft-forgotten method of communicating that is snail mail.

Digital communications make life convenient — and I’m incredibly grateful for email, social media, and other digital forms of communication for so many reasons (my location-independent graphic design business being one of them). But with the prevalence of such channels, they’ve largely lost their personal touch: the personal touch that comes from knowing that someone picked out a card or purchased special stationery, took the time to write a message and sign their name, address and stamp it, and drop it into a mailbox.

Warm, handwritten notes are incredibly important in a world of colder communications.

Don’t wait for opportunity — create it

Connecting with others via handwritten notes can apply to so many facets of life — for me, I use them to build relationships as a business owner, a friend, and a daughter/mom/wife/sister.

While holidays provide the perfect catalyst, don’t wait for them to pop up — create your own opportunities to connect with those around you.

Here are a few ideas for how to do just that:

– Send a quick thank you to a client: for their business, for their referrals, for their appreciation of your work

– Choose a friend to surprise with a random note to say you’re thinking of them

– Grab a few cute, anytime cards and have them on hand for when you feel a family member could use a pick-me-up

A fun tip: Sites like Postable help you easily collect addresses and will remind you when birthdays are approaching. I also like to put my handwriting to the test by writing reminders in my paper planner.

Timely as it is with Valentines Day fast approaching now, what if you were to simply schedule a letter-writing session of approximately 10-20 minutes once per week? When that calendar reminder pops up, you can grab a sheet of stationery or a card, write it out, and mail it. Whoever’s on your mind is the perfect candidate.

Make someone’s day

How easy is it to make someone’s day? All it takes is $0.49 and a little focused writing time. Worth it? Absolutely. It makes you feel important. It makes others feel important.

Spoiler alert! I’m beginning work on revamping my fine art website in just a few weeks — and before we know it, it’ll be live. In the shop there, I’ll be selling notecard sets you can keep on hand for those snail mail letter writing sessions.

Quality over Quantity: A Mantra

quality over quantity

Have you ever gone car shopping, picked out a car you really like, and then, as if out of nowhere, suddenly started noticing that car everywhere you go? Or maybe you just put a book on your to-read list, and suddenly it’s showing up in your social media feeds and at the checkout line at the grocery store.

Maybe it’s something else entirely — but it’s as if once that something is on your radar, you can’t seem to escape it.

This happened to me recently. When the calendar turned to January and I dove back into business after a few weeks of family, friends, and fun, a phrase came to my attention.

Quality over quantity.

Soon, I became hyperaware of the phrase, as if the universe was sending me a message — on repeat. After just a few days, it solidified itself in my mind as a mantra that’s helping me get 2016 off on the right foot, and I couldn’t help but share it with you.

Where quality wins over quantity

This probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard this phrase. Perhaps you’ve even used it to guide some of your decision making before. Age-old adages are persistent for a reason: They make a difference. Here’s how I’m letting “quality over quantity” lead me in the new year:

Choosing quality over quantity in clients and projects: The core of my business is serving other people. There is nothing I love more than articulating a business’ brand through the perfect blend of color, typography, and texture so that it speaks to their ideal audience. Yet if there’s anything I’ve learned in running my graphic design business for over a decade, it’s this: I simply cannot do it all. With that in mind, I’ve taken the road of choosing quality over quantity in the projects and clients I take on. What that means: Having to say some hard “no’s,” but surrounding myself with work and people that truly light me up and make being a woman-owned business all the more gratifying.

Choosing quality over quantity in design: One of the most powerful ways to convey a message through design is with the use of white space. This never fails to amaze me: How much we can convey by using less. I apply the same principle for all of my design elements. Fonts, colors, shapes, and textures that carry a greater quality when it comes to evoking emotion will be more powerful than a page filled with a greater amount of elements, even if they’re each beautiful.

Choosing quality over quantity in relationships: Much like my approach to clients and projects, I choose quality over quantity in relationships outside of my work, as well. I am incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful husband and two grown children, my best friends, who inspire me every day. The same goes for friends: While I absolutely love meeting new people and learning from others, I choose quality over quantity in how many people I let into my life, knowing how much I value my quiet time for reflection and rejuvenation.

Choosing quality over quantity in hobbies: I am a designer. But I am also a painter — perhaps first and foremost. While there are many things in this world that I would love to try, I most certainly approach my extracurricular activities from the viewpoint of quality: What will add the most to my life, offering the creativity, balance, and adventure I desire? While painting has always been at the forefront, this past summer, this manifested in the form of serene days floating around the lake in the Adirondack guide boat that I can call my own.

Choosing quality over quantity in followers: I love having a blog. An Instagram feed. A Facebook page. An email list. These are all essential to my business and in opening a door to my community. But what happens when you start building social communities is that there’s an overwhelming emphasis on numbers. Yet for me, a small group of engaged readers and followers who won’t hesitate to hit “reply” or tell me what’s on their mind is more important than cracking a certain milestone in digits.

Forget the numbers game

More. Enough. Two words that often get us into trouble. We always want more, and we rarely ever have enough. Yet the funny thing is this: Once we begin placing the emphasis on quality over quantity, while it often means physically having or mentally choosing less, we often feel more full. Full of love. Full of happiness. Full of gratitude.

Where, in your life, will you allow quality to overtake quantity — and ultimately fill your bucket up more?

Make Space for What Matters: Unplug & Disconnect

unplug and disconnect

Where is your cell phone sitting right now? Is it next to you on your desk, over on the kitchen counter — or better yet, in your hand?

I can tell you that for me, that last option is where my cell phone has been far too often, for far too long.

A wake up call

I was recently at a business retreat (with a fantastic group of women), where we were asked to put our phones away while attending the morning session.

A simple request, right? Well, I have a confession to make: this was sincerely difficult. I have gotten into such a habit of looking at it: checking my email; scrolling through Facebook to see what’s going on; scanning Instagram for the latest. In just a few hours, I felt a weird sense of withdrawal that quickly opened my eyes.

The wake up call continued for the rest of the trip — from the restaurants I dined at to the airport I walked through to travel home. Everyone heads down, living life through their screens. To me, this is still a crazy phenomenon — and one that I’ve only recently realized I’ve succumbed to.

And it’s not just the airport or the restaurant. It’s in line at the grocery store. It’s in the few minutes before my yoga class begins. Sadly, sometimes it’s at the red light. We feel the need to fill each and every moment — and we’re lulled into a false sense of security and productivity when it’s filled with something on the screen.

Unplugging for a few hours at this retreat was exactly the experience I needed to issue a wake up call and inspire a realization that a detox is in order.

Unplug + disconnect

The fact that we are able to connect with people around the globe at the click of a button never ceases to amaze me. But instead of treating it as the tool it’s meant to be, we’ve exploited it to the point where it’s a burden we carry, and one that interrupts what life is all about: building relationships and experiencing moments that turn into stories.

Unplugging for me is about more than turning the cell phone off and hiding it in a drawer — unplugging and disconnecting means freeing myself from the need to be in touch. It means opening up the space to feel connected to what’s in front of me, instead of what’s on a screen.

With that space comes possibility: the possibility of new observations, of new growth, of new ideas. It’s a release from the connectedness of being plugged in; one where the connection is with ourselves and our immediate surroundings. This is the release I feel when in front of a blank canvas painting, out on a walk with Banks, or in the middle of an Adirondack lake in my guideboat. It’s a release I want to feel much more often, and it only requires one thing: the discipline to unplug and be okay with it.

Make yourself available

Anytime I’m anxious, uncomfortable, or feeling unproductive, my first instinct is to grab my phone. I’m guilty of it. I’ll venture to say you’re guilty of it. It’s time for me to start ignoring that first instinct — and I challenge you to do the same, as well.

As we approach especially busy times over the next few weeks filled with numerous gatherings of family and friends, I encourage you to unplug. Disconnect.

Disconnecting gives you space. Fill the space with observance; with gratitude; with thoughts that matter instead of aimless scrolling.

When you unplug and disconnect, you make yourself available for the people, the moments, and the experiences that are happening in the present — the ones that are easy to miss when your head is down and your mind is elsewhere. Build relationships and collect stories. Your work and your life will be better for it.

Will you join me in intentionally disconnecting?

Creativity at Work & Play: Living an Amplified Existence

Creativity and Big Magic

“A creative life is an amplified life.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

I recently finished a book — one of those books where right after you’ve finished it, you feel you could read it again, and again, and be inspired in a different way each time. It was Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, and I have no doubt that it spoke to me on such a deep level because of its subject matter: creativity — something I’ve built both a business and life around.

Gilbert contends that we are all creative. We all have access to creativity, because we are human. And as humans, it is both our duty and our privilege to act on that creativity.

Which made me take a moment to think about how I’ve acted on my creativity, and how I’ve incorporated it into my life. And how vastly different the creativity I fill my work days with is from the creativity that feeds my spirit outside of my work, but how much I need them both.

Creativity embodied in work & play

While I realize how fortunate I am to have a creative job during the day and a creative passion that fuels me in all the hours around it, I have learned to set parameters around how I use my two creative pursuits so that one feeds the other.

Why do I need to draw this line? Because, as Gilbert presents so beautifully in her book, when you rely on your true creative curiosities to sustain you both financially and soulfully, one tends to “murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills.”

I never want that to happen.

For me, it’s about using two very different pursuits to fuel each other, so that my creativity is always being exercised, but never too burdened.

Creativity at work

Graphic design and branding is my creativity at work; my logical sustenance. It feeds me on a professional level by letting me use my creative soul to serve others, while making a reliable income that I can support my family with.

I say this with much love: this aspect of my creativity is the responsible side of my being. Although I am exercising creativity on a daily basis with color, texture, layout, and more, I am restricted by technological constraints — computers, software, renderings, resolutions — as well as by demand constraints — I can earn only as much as the client wants to pay, and I am bound within the calling of their brand.

While these constraints do mean that my creativity isn’t exercised as freely as it is in other pursuits, it does mean that I get to use my creative skills to serve clients, so that they can change the world with what they do. I am giving my art on a much broader scale, and can’t help but feel a certain sense of pride when I see it on billboards, grocery store shelves, tourism bureau walls, and websites around the world.

It’s not so bad for logical sustenance, right? But the real fun comes when I get to use my creativity for play.

Creativity at play

Painting is my creativity at play; my soul’s sustenance. It feeds me at my core, and lets me use my creativity to serve myself. Painting is my unbridled, unadulterated creativity. There are no limitations; there are no pressures.

There is absolute creative freedom when I am painting. I follow no rules; I don’t rely on electricity or software; I am bound only by my own, self-imposed limitations.

I am allowed to have this freedom because I’ve built a creative day job that provides that logical sustenance. Thanks to my visual branding work, I don’t have to put pressure on my paintings; I’m not worried about creating the next masterpiece that will sell for millions.

Would I love to spend all of my time painting every day in the south of France, the Tuscan plains of Italy, or the mountains of the Adirondacks? Of course. But if I demanded that my painting pay for my existence, I would not have the sacred experience I get when I paint now — when I gather up my supplies, head out en plein air, squeeze the colors from the tubes, choose my favorite brushes and pallet knife, set my easel up, and observe what’s surrounding me.

Energy comes through me from a higher source when I am totally immersed in this process. It is my commitment; it is my loyalty. I am able to experiment without any restraints or boundaries. It is my Big Magic.

How they come together

I love both sides of my creative life. I am grateful for the balance that they each give me, and how one allows for the other. Without my logical sustenance, my soul would not be fulfilled, and without my soul fulfilled, I could not enjoy my other work nearly as much.

Whether it’s the cover of a brochure designed in Photoshop or the free-flowing brushstrokes on a canvas, creativity has always, and will always, be both my work and my play.

Living an amplified life

To put her words another way, Creativity is a life, amplified. If that’s the truth (and I happen to think it is), then I am living an amplified existence — and I want you to, as well.

Find your passions and pursue them without constraint. Write those poems. Sketch that portrait. Sing that song. Bake that pie. Whatever creative experience you are dreaming of, find the time and make it happen — but don’t put the pressure on it to be your sustenance on every level.

Will you join me in living an amplified life?