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Alternative Tools for Creative Problems

I was thinking the other day about how I’ve really, over time, changed the way that I develop the different things that I’m trying to communicate. Whether it’s through the web, in a presentation, report, or whatever it is, I’ve developed specific tools for specific things. So I thought I’d share a little bit of that with folks. Now I know that as a Mac guy some of these tools are not necessarily available on the PC but if I happen to know a PC equivalent I’ll pass that along. Unfortunately I’ve become a bit of a Mac cripple and so I apologize in advance for those of you that are living in the PC world and are wondering that OmniGraffle was. Maybe that is a good place to start.

Over the years I‘ve started to use PowerPoint less and less. So many people have an axe to grind about PowerPoint and PowerPoint presentations. Either they come down on the side that it doesn’t convey enough information or people have started going to 70 slide PowerPoint decks. There are all these reasons people hate PowerPoint but the biggest thing that I don’t like about PowerPoint is the template driven nature. I feel that not being able to start with a clean slate so to speak puts unnecessary boundaries on how you think. I know that because it’s so template driven they’ve got a lot of nice things that allow you to make things quickly. The SmartArt has gotten really good. There’s a lot of flexibility to it but I think on some level, it kind of constrains your thinking. As a result, I’ve gone to OmniGraffle to make presentations. (Probably the closest PC equivalent to OmniGraffle is Visio.)

OmniGraffle is a nice drawing tool that has a lot of stencils available from a lot of different makers. This helps you with the ability to create things quickly because there’s a lot of these ready-made tools but there’s a much broader stencil set that you can pull from. There’s also no sort of constraining template that you’re bound by. Now sometimes that can have a little bit of a downside because a blank sheet of paper can be intimidating but that’s why I think one of the most underutilized productivity tools today is the pen and paper or the whiteboard.

I so often start with pen, paper, and a doodle before I touch any other tool because I think that when you get in and you’re using your productivity tools on your PC, there’s a sense of permanence in it. You don’t want to un-build things that you built once you’ve gone through the trouble of drawing a bunch of lines, grouping them, sending things to the back, and moving things forward so on. You don’t want to break anything. Whereas with a pen and paper, you just scratch things out and spend another three minutes hacking something new together. I think sometimes, especially at the beginning of the creative process, being able to throw things away is important because you’re going to have a lot of bad ideas before you have a good ones. At least, that’s what I’ve found. Your mileage may vary there. I know there are a lot of sharper people than me out there and so it might be that you’re able to knock things out without the number of iterations that I have to go through. I personally find that the easier I make it for myself to throw something away the better the final project is because instead of trying to take something that is halfway there and make it work, I can start over. So a lot of times my process will be pen and paper, or whiteboard if I’m working with a group, and then I’ll take it into Omnigraffle.

If we’re developing a website for somebody, I love Balsamiq. Balsamiq you can use on the web, you can use it on a PC, or you can use it on a Mac and it allows you to frame things up really quickly. It’s a lot of sort of black and white fuzzy lines and it has the feeling of pen and paper but it allows you to do drill throughs and mimic web activities a little bit better. It’s really good for developing things quickly when you’re working with a client or a group to develop out websites and things like that. I’ve even used it a lot of times when we’re developing reports for people, business intelligence type things. I’ll go in and quickly put something together and mark it up. It allows people to get the idea of what I’m doing without having the focus in on colors and line thickness for the most part. It really gets people to focus in on the informational elements, the content, and the placement which is incredibly important. So that is another great tool for rapid prototyping and I really believe in it.

Finally, for graphics development I’m an Adobe guy. Fireworks is something that I have used for a really long time. It’s just so accessible for people who may not be big graphics people but they need to be able to put together nice looking visual elements quickly without being a pro. Fireworks is a great solution. It’s also a lot cheaper than Photoshop. Adobe currently has a great offering right now which is Adobe Creative Cloud. With this you get access for $50 a month to all of their Creative Cloud offerings. I’ve actually gotten to where I use quite a bit more than just Fireworks but Fireworks has been something that I’ve always liked. It’s especially useful when you’re working with outside designers and you just want to tweak something up really quick. You can take and pull in whatever really advanced thing they’ve done and add in your little tagline, bit of text, or change a color without having to get down into 50 different menus to do it. That’s kind of the final piece of the puzzle for me. That’s where I’ll use Fireworks to pull together a couple of graphical elements and then drop them into OmniGraffle for my presentation or whatever it is.

So those are what I’m using for creative work for our clients. When we’re building info graphics and things like that we use a combination of OmniGraffle, Fireworks, and then oftentimes we’ll do the chart in in Excel or things like that. Then we bring it into Fireworks so that the graphics, the charts or whatever it is, really pops. So hope that was useful for people and I’m curious if anyone else has any helpful alternative tools they use for creative problems.

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