It happens to all of us. You’re cruising along pretending to work while perusing design blogs when all of a sudden your Internet connection disappears.
The first thing you do is give in to your natural reaction to any semi-significant event: tweet about it. Unfortunately, you quickly realize this requires the Internet; blast. Then you start to Google the phone number to your ISP only to realize that this too requires a connection to the web; curse you technological revolution!
You look around for a phone book in vain, knowing for certain that you haven’t used one since Clinton was in office. Finally, you remember that the last time this happened you wrote the number on a piece of paper and put it somewhere on or around your desk.
After no small amount of scrounging and wondering aloud why you didn’t put the number into your phone’s address book, you discover the note and dial the number of your service provider who then informs you that you will be without the Internet for the better part of the day. Now what?
Some of us desk jockeys are so used to being tethered to the virtual world that we go into shock during those rare unplugged moments when we can’t access it. With the widespread acceptance of smartphones and hotel WiFi, instances of Internet downtime are rapidly decreasing. However, if you ever do find yourself sitting at your desk or on a plane, blankly staring at the wall wondering what to do with your Internet-less life, resist the urge to lay down and die and remember these 15 productive and inspiring activities. I’ll throw in some online resources along the way for you to visit while you’ve got a connection.
#1 Work Undistracted
The first thing you can do as a designer with no Internet connection is to get back to work. Believe it or not, designers were using computers long before Facebook, Twitter and even email were ubiquitous. Whether you are a print or web designer, it’s perfectly possible to get plenty of work done without an Internet connection. In fact, you might discover that you are far more productive without a constant connection. Many of us who sit at a desk all day have developed severe ADD when it comes to the web. Every fifteen minutes of work merits at least ten minutes of social media and/or blog time. This phenomenon has caused such a profound drop in productivity for so many workers that employers are blocking popular time-sucking sites in droves.
If you suffer from chronic Internet distraction, check out Freedom, a Mac application that can block your Internet access for up to three hours while you get some work done.
#2 Plan Ahead
Many freelancers and designers have a workflow that is so tied to the Internet that they legitimately can’t proceed without it. In these circumstances, look for secondary work activities that you can perform offline.
Planning is a huge necessity for freelancers and design employees alike. Sometimes we get so busy juggling ten projects that we don’t have the time we need to sit down and effectively plan out how the stages of each project will progress or even which project takes precedence over others. Instead of “spur of the moment” time management, use your offline time to properly schedule projects you’re currently working on and those that are coming up in the near future.
Try embracing your cruel thrust into the dark ages by grabbing a pencil and having some fun. If you’ve got an urgent project or two, start sketching out possible site layouts or logo ideas. Design classes will often have you sketch out as many as ten to twenty rough ideas (or thumbnails as they’re called) for a single piece. This may sound like a lot but remember they aren’t meant to be detailed drawings but quick sketches. Having so many unique versions forces you to really expand your creative bubble and think outside anything you would’ve come up with if you had stopped at two or three ideas.
Once upon a time the term “designer” was fairly synonymous with “artist.” However, this relation all but evaporated as computers became more popular in a designer’s workflow thereby mercilessly killing the sketchpad. If you’re one of the many designers who are drawing-impaired, don’t gloss over this suggestion as something for experienced artists only. Instead, consider purchasing a small sketchpad to pull out whenever you’re offline. Whether you’re in front of the television or at 30,000 feet, see it as an opportunity to hone your skill (or lack there of). I promise, learning to draw can only lead to your improvement as a designer.
- Book: The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
- Book: Drawing for the Absolute and Utter Beginner (Paperback)
- Drawn! The Illustration and Cartooning Blog
- Drawing Basics: Learn to Draw
#4 Visit the Real World
Occasionally, this tactic comes in handy when I’m working on a new design project for a field that I haven’t worked with before. For instance, a few years ago I was tasked with developing in-store signage and printed materials for a popular wine brand. After spending hours coming up with half-rate concepts, I hit a creative dead end. Instead of heading to Google I grabbed my car keys and visited the stores in my area featuring wine displays. I also hit the magazine racks in each store for wine advertising inspiration (there are magazines devoted to pretty much everything). I returned home from this quick field trip enthusiastic and full of great ideas.
The point is, no matter what type of advertising or website you’re working on, venturing out of your office can provide a rich inspirational experience to complement your usual web search. Whether your client is selling computer software or trendy clothing, try stopping by a few retail stores focused on that category and soak in the atmosphere, textures, color and design of everything around you.
General Design Hot Spots
Beyond visiting a store specific to the industry you’re targeting, here’s a quick list of places to fuel up all your general creative inspiration needs.
- Art Museums
- Book Stores
- Shopping Malls
- Urban Downtown Areas (with lots of outdoor advertising and little shops)
- Zoos & Aquariums (think about colors, textures and cool illustrated mascots)
#5 Grab A Camera
Whether you’re going to take that trip to the real world or wander around the house until the Internet fairy stops by, try grabbing a camera as a fresh source of inspiration. Even if you’re not a photographer, using a camera forces you to view the world in a completely different way. Photography enables your mind to notice and contrive attractive two-dimensional representations of three dimensional objects. Take pictures of random objects and scenery and think about how you can use natural colors, textures, and spatial relationships to improve your designs.
Beyond good clean inspiration, if you know your way around an SLR, a little practice could turn a hobby into a marketable skill. Never be afraid to branch out of design into other creative fields to pay the bills. Not only can professional photography open up the door to a whole new set of clients, it can break the monotony of doing the same thing day in and day out and therefore provide you with much greater satisfaction in your career.
Reading is an excellent way to productively kill time offline. No the latest teenage vampire love story absolutely does not count! If you want to be productive, read something educational. Here’s a big list of great books for designers and developers to get you started:
- Five Simple Steps: A Practical Guide to Designing for the Web
- The Non-Designer’s Design Book: Design and Typographic Principles for the Visual Novice
- Bulletproof Web Design
- Digging into WordPress
- Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide
- The Zen of CSS Design: Visual Enlightenment for the Web
- The Pantone Book of Color: Over 1000 Color Standards : Color Basics and Guidelines for Design, Fashion, Furnishings…and More
- The Smashing Book
- 30 Useful Web Design Books for 2009
- 20 Useful Web Design Books Worthy of Your Collection
- Recommended Books for your User Experience and Usability Library
- CSS-Tricks: The Bookshelf
If you managers a team of designers or developers, having a server go down or being without an Internet connection can cost your company serious amounts of money from the lost productivity of all the employees sitting around waiting for everything to come back online. In these times, don’t let the chaos of impromptu office frisbee take over. Pull everyone in for a meeting to discuss and examine current and future projects.
The opportunity is perfect for a completely non-formal, no-stress collaboration effort simply as a creative exercise. Find a project still in the planning stages and let your team discuss possible approaches, designs and random ideas that you might not normally have time to entertain. Encourage brainstorming and off the wall ideas as you guide the conversation from general to specific. Try to create a situation where the people under you can have fun collaborating with each other to encourage them to do more interaction on every project.
#8 Write (and get paid!)
Writing is yet another creative field where designers can flourish. The recent explosion of design blogs online has led a vast amount of designers to crack open a word processor and try their hand at writing a tutorial or design article. As the newly appointed editor of Design Shack, I have obviously benefited from this trend. Like photography, writing provides me with not only another way to make money, but also some much needed variation in my daily schedule. I do plenty of online research for my articles but the majority of work is such that it can be done offline.
Here’s a list of blogs that are always looking for guest writers and can therefore collectively provide you with an impressive supplemental income.
The Envato network provides some of the best creative blogs around (Disclosure: I frequently write for Envato) and is large enough to merit its own section.
- Even More TutsPlus Blogs
- AppStorm: Mac
- AppStorm: Web
- AppStorm: iPhone
Other Popular Blogs That Pay Writers
#9 Use Photoshop for Fun Instead of Work
Remember when you first discovered that you could do cool stuff with Photoshop? Back then it was all fun and gradients. Now that you’re a professional designer, opening an Adobe program probably means you’re making something for a client (and therefore have a lot less freedom to play). Something I’ve really started to notice lately is that I get so busy using Photoshop for work that I don’t have any time to explore it like I used to. Photoshop CS3 and CS4 have brought around a ton of new useful features that many of us have probably ignored simply because we don’t have the time to learn them.
The next time you’re on your computer in an offline environment, consider breaking open Photoshop and just playing around. Make something random, play with all the features you’re clueless about, try to mimic some techniques you’ve seen lately online, and most importantly: practice the things you find difficult like masking hair or the pen tool. As a designer, improving your Photoshop skills is most certainly not time wasted; it’s an investment into your professional talent.
To brush up on some cool Photoshop tricks the next time your Internet waves goodbye, download a few DekePod video tutorials onto your iPod/iPhone now. Deke McClelland is one of the world’s leading Photoshop guru’s and just happens to be the guy that taught me almost everything I know about the program (through his essential training DVDs). Video tutorials can be notoriously boring but Deke has an outrageous, hyperactive teaching style that makes learning a blast.
#10 Make Some Phone Calls
My last suggestion for what to do when you’re forced offline is my least favorite. However, it can be one of the most rewarding things on the list. If you’re a freelancer, grab the phone and start making calls to pass the time. There are two primary types of productive calls you should think about making.
First is the client call. Go through your list of projects and decide if there is any clarification you need on anything. If you don’t need anything from them, call just to touch base and see if they need anything from you. This is a great way to transform superficial working relationships into lasting professional connections. Clients notice when you take the time to actually make a call and are usually pleasantly surprised that you’re willing to go the extra mile by doing so.
The second type of call is the cold call. This one sucks and is fortunately only necessary if you’re strapped for cash (as many freelancers tend to find themselves from time to time). Instead of calling current clients, make contact with old clients and professional acquaintances you haven’t heard from in a long time. Make it personal and ask how they’re doing but don’t take too long to cut to the chase that you’re looking for work and wanted to know if they need any design work. Also be sure to ask them to pass your information along to anyone they know in the market for a designer.
So there you have it, ten super productive ways to spend your Internet downtime. Even if you don’t experience an unplanned outage, consider taking time every week to consciously step away from the web and work on some of the things above that you feel can improve your career.
Use the comments below to tell us which technique is your favorite and how you’re productive on flights, bus rides or other offline occasions.