The One-Hour Block Technique

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May 20, 2010

Being a designer is great. You get to spend all day being creative—that is, of course, if you have all day to spend and are feeling inspired.

Unfortunately, sometimes you’re completely devoid of ideas, which can be demoralizing, especially when it affects your profit and stress levels.

Many designers I've met suffer from this problem occasionally. In such circumstances, some creatives choose to push on and just create something.

This is a poor use of your time, though, because it won’t lead to your best work. Others decide to take the day off, but this isn't always viable. I, on the other hand, use a clever technique, one that I find so effective that I use it all the time now: working in a one-hour time frame.


1. Saves time
Setting a scheduling goal forces you to be time-conscious while you work. If you’re keeping tabs on your time, then you’re less likely to redo designs from scratch simply because what you've been working on doesn't feel right or because you've strayed from your client's specifications.

At the end of each hourly period, review your work. If you decide that you've strayed from the original plan or gone on a tangent, then you've still got time to adjust or refocus. This leads us to the next benefit.

2. Forces you to make decisions
Working on an hour-by-hour schedule, you may feel a bit of pressure, which might give you a “make-do” mentality, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. One positive effect is that you will be forced to make decisions about your design while avoiding time-wasting pursuits and aimless experiments. This is what we call “getting things done.”

During the process, you may find yourself wondering “Does this work? Does it achieve my client's goals and deliver the desired results?” Ask yourself this when making both major and minor decisions (which could be anything from choosing the radius for a rounded box to selecting the width and styling of your content).

And this leads us to the final benefit…

3. Achieves good results every time
Because you spent quality time and energy setting a series of goals and specifications, as well as delineating and following a tight schedule, your efforts will have been measured and focused. Your design will look good and will satisfy your client. It will have a clearly composed message, and the calls to action will be evident.

The designs you create in this manner will gel naturally. The forced time frame reduces tendencies toward blasé, almost random design and instead produces logical, effective designs that not only look good but, more importantly, meet your client's needs to the tee.

Here are the steps you will need to take.

1. Get a good timer.

A timer application or a plain old stopwatch will keep you on track. The iPhone, for example, has a good timer that can be found under the clock application and that is easy to operate. Alternatively, you could try a dashboard widget such as Countdown X.

It's best if an alarm sounds at the end of the hour to alert you that the allotted time has run out and that it's time to stop working. Make sure your timer can easily be reset and has some sort of audio alert.

2. Plan effectively.

As you would with any project, plan the elements to include in your design. Jot down, perhaps on a notepad, the specifications for the design. These may have been provided by the client, but if not, take the time to craft your own.

You could stick to keywords such as “Add log-in field” or “Create ‘Register’ button,” or write two to three sentences on each point with additional details. The idea here is to give yourself a clearer understanding of the elements to include on the page; these become your definite goals.

It also helps to start thinking about the actual design early on. Jot down your ideas for styling and typefaces. Don't restrict yourself; the more notes, the clearer the vision.

Perhaps your client has given you wireframes or sketches? Include these in your notes. You've now formed your pre-design plan and will want to refer to it regularly.

3. Inspire yourself.

This is where the one-hour technique really starts to take off. It's always a good idea to fill your head with inspiring designs, interesting concepts and unique executions—but even more so if you're feeling uninspired. Your might consider selecting websites (sometimes whole, sometimes small segments) that accord with your pre-design plan. By this I mean websites that achieve the same goals you have (e.g. increasing customer contact, driving new sales, etc.).

You are not, of course, trying to steal ideas or copy another designer's work. The goal is to stimulate your creative impulses and hone your skills enough to execute a polished concept. Ask yourself whether other designers have solved the problem facing you.

Why did their solution work, and could you improve it? Likewise, look at your client's competitors. Do their websites include that extra something that puts them ahead of your client? If so, consider how you could offer that extra polish. If not, what is their good website lacking that would make it excellent?

This is where innovation happens. Asking yourself these questions will help you identify the conventions that work and disregard the ones that don't.

You could leave these websites open in your browser or simply note the URLs for later perusal. You may find a visual reminder helpful; or you could use a mood board or print-outs.

4. Design!

Now for the important part, the nuts and bolts of any project: the design process itself.

When you have a well-structured and concise plan, you can use the one-hour technique to its fullest. You may now start your timer and begin designing.

What sets this technique apart is the goal of completing as much of the design as you can within a single hour. Of course, not every design will be complete at the end of the hour. Taking two or three hours to produce a finished concept is reasonable. Still, breaking down the design process into one-hour blocks has numerous benefits.

Always be aware of the time. Focus on the fact that you have only one hour. Work as hard as you can, but don't rush. Rushing defeats the purpose, which is to make decisions and execute them; and you might revert to the old way of starting all over again when something doesn't work, which leads to time-wasting and haphazard results.


The one-hour block design method takes a little getting used to—perhaps two or three design projects—but once you've adapted, you'll feel more in control of your design work and abilities.

You'll be able to deliver consistent, reliable designs for each and every project you undertake. And you may well enjoy your work more, safe in the knowledge that your productivity is no longer constrained by your emotional attachment to the feeling of being creative.

Written exclusively for WDD by Ben Gribbin.

Do you use this technique or a similar one to streamline your work and increase productivity? Please share your views with us.

WDD Staff

WDD staff are proud to be able to bring you this daily blog about web design and development. If there's something you think we should be talking about let us know @DesignerDepot.

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