Brilliant Everyday Design Tricks We’d Never Heard Of

I write a lot of different things, but this stacks up as one of the most difficult pieces. Why? Because design tricks are a dime a dozen, but unheard of ones are, by definition, unheard of. To find them, you either have to know a few of your own, have some friends that are willing to dish their secrets, or get very lucky. Fortunately for me (and you), I had a combination of all three helping me out.

Will you use these tricks every day? Probably not, but when you do remember that they exist, you’ll thank your lucky stars that you have them at your fingertips. And for that, I say, "You’re welcome."

Little Ipsum

We’ve all had design projects that required some lorem ipsum — the name for the gibberish dummy text that we use as placeholders for the good stuff to come later on. There are lots of ways to do this (and I’ll mention a few in just a minute), but if you have a Mac, you might want to try Little Ipsum.

This app does pretty much what you expect: It outputs lorem ipsum into your documents — but it does it in a cool way. It lives up in your Menu bar, and when you click the icon, you can select how many words or lines you need to fill. It then randomly dumps latin text into your clipboard, for you to do with as you please. For example, I selected "1 word" multiple times and came up with "Mattis," "Pellentesque," and "Justo." Neat, right?

Text Expander for Dummy Text

Spinning off the Little Ipsum pull, let’s talk about Text Expander. I use Text Expander for a ton of writing-related things, but that’s not what you’ll use it for here — well, not totally.

But let me explain what it does by way of example. I do a lot of writing about cars, and so I use the word "Chevrolet" a lot. If I want to save myself a few keystrokes, I just enter "ChV" and Text Expander pops out Chevrolet. Neat, right? Well it can do lots more than just simple words. In fact, I use it for entire paragraphs, including Lorem Ipsum text. But since I like my Lorem to be a bit funky, I have a few twists.

If I type "sjlorem," I get 10 paragraphs of Samuel L. Jackson text pulled from various films he’s done over the years. Should I type "swlorem," I get 10 paragraphs pulled from the Star Wars trilogy. And then there’s "frlorem," which is all from Futurama. Cool, right?

Using the Library of Congress for Design Purposes

You know what the Library of Congress is, right? Well, it’s a mammoth library (dur) run by the U.S. government, and it’s packed with all sorts of historical documents. But what’s really cool is that they have a digital collection, and it has a lot of images that you could use in your designs.

How? Why? Well, let’s take this Plan of New Orleans, for example. If you look under "Rights and Access," you get a disclaimer that basically says that since the subject was produced before 1922, the Library of Congress isn’t aware of any copyright holders. And you still should do your due dilligence on who owns (or doesn’t) own the rights, but since most of the time you’ll come up blank, you’re in the clear to use it in your design. Now I’m not a lawyer, so don’t take anything I’m saying as legal advice. But I will say that the Library of Congress is a great resource, and if you’re a designer, you might want to make use of it.

Use a Subtle Shadow

First off, credit where credit is due: I found this tip on Design For Founders, and I loved it.

Now for the good stuff. I’m not a huge fan of drop shadows in Photoshop. I think they have their place, but often they’re overused and look crappy. However, if you do the lightest of light shadows, well, they can look pretty good and make your text pop. How? Well, use some magic. Set the blend mode to Multiply, put the opacity at 30%, and set distance, spread, and size at 1, 0, and 1, respectively. Again, it’s super subtle, but it makes a big difference.

Pick Colors from Real Life

One of my favorite apps for the Mac is Sip. Click on it from your Menu bar, and it will give you a loupe. Place that over the color you want to match, and it gives you a bunch of different numbers for that color, including the hex code. Wouldn’t it be great if that existed for the real world?

It does. It’s called Cone, and it’s a way to pick colors from the world and get their color codes and Pantone shades. The app installs on your iPhone, and then you use it to grab colors from the universe whenever you like. How cool is that?

Make Icons Fast

Ever had to make an icon for a project? I have, and it can be both incredibly enjoyable, and super irritating. But if you’re like me, sometimes you overthink things and make them harder than they have to be. Over at Bjango, however, they have a different plan.

I’ll let them run through the actual graphics, but they create a heart by making a v-shaped line with the pen tool, then plumping up the stroke and putting in rounded caps. Then they can tweak as necessary. Wi-Fi symbol? Super easy with their system. In fact, they’re calling the project Vector Icon Speed Runs, which is pretty cool. Go check it out for yourself, because it’s pretty sweet.

Break the Rules

Sometimes the best tips are the ones that become mantras. I found this one on Quora while researching this topic:

“A grid system is even more powerful when you break from it.”

Powerful stuff right there.

Get Some Extensions

The power of the browser extension is real, people, and two of my favorites are my secret tricks of the trade.

The first is Whatfont Tool. Click the icon in your browser and then roll your mouse over some text. Right away you’ll see the name of the font, and if you want more info, just click and you’ll get it all. Now that’s handy.

The second is ColorZilla, and that one works with Chrome and Firefox. With it you get a color picker, eye dropper, and gradient generator, plus a whole bunch more. Fancy, right?

Tweak Your Settings

It doesn’t matter what app you’re using, there are always keyboard shortcuts that can help things move along faster. That’s because instead of moving your hands away from the keyboard to mouse around, you’re keeping them on the home row instead. For example, on my Mac, "P" turns the cursor into the pen tool in Illustrator, and V goes back to the selection tool. But did you know that you can tweak those settings in Adobe products?

Go to Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts and change things around. If cmd-p works better for the pen tool, then pick that. And if a conflict appears, Adobe will tell you so, that way you can adjust the conflicting setting as necessary.

Automate When Possible

I love automation. It’s how I rename files on my desktop without touching the keyboard. I have entire systems that can change files from PNGs to JPEGs, identify their sizes, then process them accordingly in Photoshop to output the files I need. And automation saves me so much time on a regular basis that I can’t imagine living without it.

I have a few different programs that help me with this process. Hazel is the first, and it’s arguably my favorite. Hazel searches folders for changes, and then enacts rules that you pick out. For example, I name all of my folders starting with an underscore. That way, I can always find a folder as opposed to a file by starting my search query with "_". Any folder that I create on my desktop that doesn’t have an underscore is automatically renamed by Hazel. It does the same thing for numerous other tasks, but if you need something done to a file or folder, Hazel is a great place to start.

The learning curve on Keyboard Maestro is a bit steeper, but it can help out a ton. Give it a trigger, and it will enact anything you like. For me, I use it to automatically copy a set of folders to my desktop when I hit a certain keystring. I also setup a new one today that takes any site I have open in Chrome and opens it in Safari. It’s a simple task, sure, but these little time additions made throughout the day give me back time I’d never have otherwise.

Ready? Now go design!

Again, you might not use these tips every day, and that’s fine. But someday, you just might need a hack like one of these, and if that day comes, you’ll remember this article — so go ahead and bookmark it now.


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