Five tools for design survival (especially in a tech startup)

Despite the fact that Piriform is now ten years old, and can’t technically be seen as a startup – it has certainly retained that culture. At just over 30 staff (and growing), the office doesn’t feel big enough to introduce formal procedures just yet; anything too rigid would feel excessive considering you can be at someone’s desk in a few seconds or Skype them for a quick catch up in five minutes. This is just one example of a number of differences I’ve noticed as a designer working in a startup style environment vs a large corporate office.

Although Piriform always tries to hire permanent members of staff, freelance designers, like me, come in very handy to get projects turned around quickly. In a fast paced startup-style environment, where every day is different, waiting three weeks for an agency to produce new logos is not an option. We need to be flexible in the way we work so there’s no time to get to the back of the queue! Before Piriform, having worked both at agencies and in-house within companies of varying sizes, I’ve seen both sides. Working styles, resources and limitations differ hugely and both styles have advantages and limitations. 

In small businesses, a relaxed communication style tends to exist and agile working is valued. Projects are signed off quickly as there are usually only one or two people involved in the approval process. This working style tends to foster innovation; as companies grow, this style of working diminishes but is replaced by structure, processes and a more systematic progression style. Piriform is much more the former, with a little of the latter.

Each style of working comes with its own challenges but there are some tools which have proved incredibly helpful when working on multiple projects in an agile working environment. These five applications inject just the necessary amount of structure and efficiency into our startup style culture to make design pretty seamless. Here are my favourite five:

1. Invision
Invision allows me to bring my ideas to life, helping me get a sense of what the final product will look like and how it will behave on a device without wasting weeks of valuable development time. As a designer, it’s easy to get carried away and start working on minuscule elements but Invision keeps me focused on the bigger picture, enabling me to understand whether my creation will actually work from the user’s standpoint. Invision also enables anyone at Piriform to test and contribute towards projects before they’ve progressed too far down the line. It saves me time when shaping the initial look, flow and feel of design projects – that’s why it’s a staple in my arsenal.

2. Trello
With so many projects on the go, Trello has become a lifesaver by allowing me to store my briefs, schedule and workload in one portal. It also lets me to refine designs/ideas with project owners or devs. Trello ensures creativity doesn’t come at the expense of organisation – there are a lot of fans at Piriform! 

3. Sketch 
When working on GUIs, Sketch is my tool of choice. Its vector-based intuitive workflow makes it so simple to create beautiful, pixel-perfect and functional user interfaces. GUI design usually includes many icons and Sketch’s vector shapes allow me to easily adapt to changing styles, sizes and layouts which avoids a lot of painful hand-tweaking (and wasted time). 

4. Balsamiq (or Axure)
My go-to wireframing tool for smaller projects (landing pages, pricing tables etc.) would have to be Balsamiq because of its intuitive and streamlined workflow. It allows me to put together attractive sketch-style mock-ups in next to no time with focus on content. Balsamiq is a limited tool however so when it comes to larger projects where UX has to be nailed before moving onto the design, I stick with the industry standard Axure.

5. CCleaner for Mac
Being a freelancer, my Mac is the most important piece of kit I own. Its day-to-day running impacts how well I can do my job, and with so many design tools running simultaneously almost every day, it’s not long before it has collected lots of junk and unused files. This clutter affects nearly every process, slowing up everything from start up to opening design files and running programmes like Photoshop.

To make sure my Macbook stays clean, remains stable and continues to run at its fastest pace, I use CCleaner for Mac. By setting it to automatic cleaning I stay safe in the knowledge that it’s always running at its peak performance level, without me having to do a thing.

If you're a designer or work in a startup-style business and use other great tools which you'd like to share with us, please tweet us! We're @Piriform.

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