Toolbox Blog: resources, tips, tricks & info for creative professionals

Posts Tagged ‘tips’

February 16th, 2009

Designer’s Block – Tips for getting out of a Slump

Some days you kick out great work like it’s nobody’s business.  Some days you can do nothing right and feel like you’ll never design anything worthwhile ever again.  Everyone has been there, and its incredibly frustrating – especially when your deadline is looming. So next time you’re wrestling with a bout of Designer’s Block, try a few of these tips and strategies that AgencyTool gathered from a few fellow sufferers.

1. Sketch it Out
Go old-school and pull out a pencil and paper or whiteboard.  If you find yourself stuck do some brainstorming sketching first.  If you are completely stuck just doodling can help to get the creative juices flowing.  If you have a vague glimmer of a plan formed you can cross out, change, and put fresh ideas down faster than with any of the design programs out there.  This way if you suddenly don’t really like how the design is going it will take you all of 2 seconds to scratch it out and start again.  Voila, no “but I’ll lose all the progress I’ve made” dilemmas.

2. Just Let it Go
Say you make some type of kick-a** component, an awesome button, icon – whatever.  But this great piece of art just doesn’t fit into the design you’re currently working on.  You spent so much time and effort making your icon that you find yourself trying to change the entire design (and possibly getting stuck)  just so you can include it.  Words of advice from great designers…’Just let it go’.  Save your glorious button for another day and get your focus back.

Also under the ‘let it go’ category – don’t be afraid to step away from a design that’s just not working.  Let it go for a few hours/days then come back to it.  Then, if you’re still stuck, consider just letting it go altogether.  Instead of forcing something that isn’t quite right you’ll open up to ideas that might work better.

3. Switch it Up
Don’t use the same techniques over and over again.  When stuck, people have a tendency to fall back on tried and true components, resulting in a design that looks like everything else you’ve done before.  Force yourself to branch out and create something that looks different from your previous work.  Experiment with color, technique, layout or change locations by getting out of your office – just switching up your routine may be enough to get you out of the slump.

4. Take a Look at Galleries
There are a lot of gallery inspiration sites around, set aside an hour or so and just take a look through them.  Sometimes all you need is a kick in the pants.  Just be careful not to cross the line between being inspired by someone else’s work and stealing it.

5. Ask for Input
Ask people whose opinions you trust and who will be able to give you specific feedback and constructive criticism.  Steer clear of people who don’t have any design experience or tell you that ‘it just doesn’t feel right’, you’ll end up spending hours trying to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix something that may be perfectly good.  This can be a bit tricky – see the  SEOmoz blog on this topic: How to Ruin a Web Design

6. Relax
It’s cliche to use the batting average example but it does fit.  You’re not going to knock one out of the park every single time you sit down to complete a design.  It might be a good thing to lower your expectations just a bit – not everything you produce is going to be great.  Once you take the pressure off and realize that even the best designers run into this wall you’ll be over it in no time.

photo from

January 6th, 2009

If You’re Not Utilizing Social Media You Should Be – Tips, Tricks, and Pointers

If you didn’t hop on board the Social Media train in 2008 or haven’t heard about it (living under a rock perhaps?) 2009 is your year!  It’s a big deal trend, and it shows no signs of slowing down.  Don’t believe me?  Check out Todd Mailcoat’s post on – 9 Reasons You NEED Social Media Marketing in 2009.

Developing a social media marketing strategy can be especially tough.  The list of available Social Media sites seems endless (Twitter, Digg, Delicious, Facebook, LinkedIn, Technorati, StumbleUpon…I could go on forever) and there are tons of pitfalls and mistakes to make that could derail your campaign in seconds.  However, using Social Media to your advantage can be extremely rewarding – leading to much higher traffic and better search rankings and in the end more money/sales/whatever for you.

So to start the new year off right AgencyTool has compiled what we think is the best advice around when it comes to Social Media.

First off – what NOT to do.  Janet Fouts posted the Seven Sins of Social Media and every single one of her points should be taken to heart by anyone getting into SM Marketing.  Along the same line is The 11 Rules of Social Media Etiquette by Eric Brantner.  Both of these articles are great places to start to learn the basic do’s and don’ts of the trade.

No matter which sites you decide to use you’ll invariably have to create some sort of user profile before you can go to town.  Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn profiles are pretty self-explanatory and their importance is obvious.  What some people fail to realize is that your profiles on Digg, Reddit and other aggregation-type sites are important as well.  For help check out this video from Brent Csutoras: Tips on Building Social Media Profiles.

We aren’t going to list every SM site out there – it would be impossible – with a little research you’ll be able to find ones that fit into your strategy and style.  We are going to share a few choice tips/tricks we found for some of our favorite social media sites.

Twitter.  There were debates about it’s purpose and usefulness, some people love it – some hate it, and it can be tough to really get involved with, but there is no denying that Twitter has substantially changed the way some people communicate online.  For a good overview of the service and how it can be useful read Dan York’s Why and How I Use Twitter and it’s follow up post.

LinkedIn is like MySpace for professionals.  It’s a great way to connect with colleagues and network with people both in and outside of your profession – it’s also a great Social Media Marketing tool.  Read LinkedIn Tips and Tricks to Get 500+ Contacts to learn how to make full use of your account.

Social Bookmarking and Aggregate News sites are another great way to use social media to draw attention and traffic to your site.  There are plenty of resources around to help you make the most of this type of site.  Take a look at BlueHat SEO’s Stumble and Digg Begging for a hack to put on your site that reminds visitors to stumble and digg up your page.  Chris Poteet write a great little guide on how to Become a Delicious Power User and this post from Top SEO Tricks tells you all about Getting Traffic from Comments.

Lastly, it’s easy to lose track of what you are doing once you charge into a social media campaign.  Keeping track of multiple profiles and what is being said about your site/brand/company can become overwhelming.  Read Social Media Tips: Tracking Your Buzz Online for pointers on how to stay up to date easily.

Do you have a great piece of advice or resource for utilizing Social Media?  Leave a comment, we’d love to hear about it.

November 19th, 2008

Valuable CSS Resources Every Designer Should Know About

CSS Tutorials

SitePoint CSS Tutorials – Sitepoint’s collection of useful CSS tutorials for advanced CSS users.

CSS Slicing Guide – Tutorial covering how to create a CSS structure by slicing a single image file.

Position is Everything – Analysis of common CSS bugs and instructions on how to fix them.

Floatutorial – Comprehensive tutorial on using float with CSS.

CSS Properties

CSS Properties – Alphabetical listing of every CSS property.

CSS Code Examples

glish CSS Layouts – Examples of some basic cross-browser CSS layouts.

DynamicDrive Code Library – Collection of submitted CSS code samples showing how to make good looking menus, forms, divs and more.

Web Design Library – Extensive library of CSS articles, tutorials and example code.

CSS Font Styling

CSS Font Reference Sheet – Reference sheet for using CSS.

November 17th, 2008

5 Great Pieces of Advice for Aspiring Web Designers

From the obvious points to the light-bulb-over-the-head moments, there is a lot of advice floating around out there for aspiring web designers.  Here are 5 pieces of advice you’ll get from anyone with experience:

Plan it out! Congrats, you’ve landed the project and now your just itching to go start the build.  But you’ll save time in the long run by having an overview of your design.  It just makes sense to do a site diagram in Visio or, if you’re old school, pick up that pencil and paper.  You’ll catch the obvious mistakes/problems early on and will be able to fix them before its too late.  As an added bonus, it gives clients something tangible to look at while you explain your ideas.

Practice, Practice, Practice. Once you’ve got the basics down practice.  Volunteer (aka do work for free) at first to find your style and build up a portfolio.  Do a site for your church/favorite local pub/barbershop quartet…whatever.  Build up and maintain a few sites of your own – people will generally be more impressed with what you can do rather than where you went to school etc.

Be a “Jack of all Trades”. Web design is a competitive market, so don’t expect to be able to learn the basics and immediately land freelance jobs.  Make yourself attractive to potential clients by learning HTML, XHTML, PHP, SQL, CSS, and Javascript.  Its unrealistic to become an expert in every single one of these – but it pays to be familiar with them all.

Get Inspired! Take a look around the Internet for examples of good design (there are countless galleries around that were created for this purpose).  Find out who designed your favorite sites and seek out their other work.  Don’t steal their designs – but pay attention to the fonts, color schemes, and techniques they are using.  Pay attention to things outside the world of web design as well; posters, menus, art, even graffiti on the street can be great sources of inspiration when your stuck.

Last but not least…

Go the extra mile! Experiment with new techniques and try things that would normally fall outside your comfort zone.  Be available to your clients – this doesn’t mean you have to answer when they call you at 3am (unless your up anyway of course) but being approachable will make the relationship more successful.  While you’re at it back up their site for them, clients will love you if you’re able to give them back lost material if/when something goes wrong.  In short, do everything in your power to continue to grow as a designer and foster great relationships with clients – their recommendations are often the most direct route to your next project!

Any other bits of advice you’ve heard over the years that were particularly helpful?  Let us know!

October 28th, 2008

To Blog or Not to Blog?

Let’s be honest…blogging is hard.  In fact, Michael Parsons touts it as the “hand-to-hand combat of the writing world”.  Creating and maintaining a successful blog is a huge undertaking, and those that are really successful at it put forth great amounts of effort.  They eat, they sleep, and they blog.

The blogosphere really is another world, with it’s own set of rules and etiquette that you’ll need to learn.  You should set aside time to read other people’s blogs, and try to establish relationships with other bloggers.  Learn when to comment, when to post your own content, and when to link to other blogs.  Staying up to date can quickly turn into a full time job if you let it, so here are a few tips to help:

  1. Write about something you like and write often.  Seems like common sense, but readers will know if you aren’t sincere and you’ll build up loyal readership faster by making new content available regularly.
  2. Stay well-informed.  Get your facts straight and be aware of what others are writing about the same topic.  Readers will nail you to the proverbial wall for obvious duplicate posts or not fact checking first.
  3. Promote your blog.  Readers will not be magically drawn to your site so you’ll need to do some grunt work, especially in the beginning.  Ping, use trackbacks, and leave comments on other relavent blog posts to let others know what you are up to.  Use gimmicks, wit, a specific tagline – anything to get noticed, the internet is a black hole of information that is easy to get lost in.  Lastly, make use of social bookmarking and article submission sites by submitting one of your better posts once in a while to reel in new visitors.
  4. Don’t just blog for the sake of blogging.  Have an opinion or something useful/interesting to say or no one will pay attention
  5. Have thick skin.  Readers will leave harsh comments, its part of the game.  Respond (tactfully) if you must and then move on.  If it bothers you, use comment moderation to weed out the particularly hurtful ones.
  6. Hang in there.  It will get easier.  Most bloggers who get discouraged and quit do it in the first few months.  Building an audience takes time, and it doesn’t really matter how many people you are reaching as long as that number keeps growing.  The older your blog gets the more credibility it will earn.

It’s hard, and its not for everyone – but blogging can be very rewarding.  Adding a blog is a great way to make sure your site has fresh content, you’ll get your point across to lots of people, and hopefully you’ll have fun and gain satisfaction from sharing information with others and participating in online communitites.

September 19th, 2008

Some Exciting News

We’ve got a big announcement this week: AgencyTool is going international!  Because of the number of inquiries we have gotten and the amount of traffic we have been seeing, AT has decided to launch an ‘International’ category in our directory!  Check it out…

As for the Dashboard we’ve got some great updates there as well.  We’ve added a link to the great SEO blog Search Engine Land as well as an article: 13 ways to Determine Link Quality.  There are also 2 new options for e-commerce processors listed; CommerceGate and

A great resource on creating your own custom 404 pages has been added from skidzopedia and we’ve got a great new tool for organizing and editing screenshots called FireShot.

That’s just a bit of what’s been added -  make sure to check the Dashboard so you don’t miss anything.

May 23rd, 2008

Get Rid of Yellow Form Fields Once and For All

Have you ever created a website form and wondered why when you go to the form on the website that certain fields have a yellow background in the form field?

This is the Google toolbar that turns these fields yellow. On the toolbar there is an “auto fill” option. This tells the user that they can use this option to auto fill certain fields on your form (which are marked in yellow).

The Problem

In CSS if you declare a background color of your form fields this will typically change the background color for all the fields except the fields that are marked by Google for auto fill.

For example, CSS code that looks like:

input {
background: #F3F4EC;

Results in a form that looks like:

Yellow Form Fields

Not only are some of the fields an ugly yellow color, but the coloring is also misleading to users. Most web users are unaware of the yellow, “auto fill” option and instead assume that yellow indicates a required field. In the case of the form above, the Phone field is yellow even though it’s not a required field.

As you can probably guess, these yellow fields are bad news:

Confusing Forms = A Drop in Conversions

The Fix

To override the yellow background all you have to do is declare your background as important.

Change the CSS to:

input {
background: #F3F4EC !important;

Then the form looks like this:

No More Yellow Form Fields

Problem solved. The yellow fields are gone and the form is much more user-friendly.

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ABOUT AGENCYTOOL At its core, AgencyTool exists to serve as a resource for creative agencies, whether they be into web design, print, advertising or anything else. Here on the AgencyTool Blog you'll find a mish-mosh of resources and thoughts that we think are worth sharing.

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