The beginning of the year is a perfect time to talk about tools. When everyone is making resolutions and goals and going to the gym again, I like to spend some time rethinking my digital tools. For the last few years, I’ve spent the beginning of January — before the semester starts up and everyone is a little quieter — doing what I call ‘digital maitenance”. This involves cleaning up old folders, reorganizing and archiving old projects, making sure workflows that have been in place for years still make sense for how I work now. It’s a strangely meditative task for me. By dusting out the digital cobwebs, I feel like I’m cleaning up the brain too. By preparing a clean slate for the year ahead, I’m putting the frameworks in place for a productive year. At least that’s the goal. It’s a hopeful act; digital maintenance as self care, perhaps.
I’m obsessive about my tools — both in hardware and software — and about my file systems and backups. (Perhaps there’s a second post about file systems and backups in the future?) There are some tools that I like and keep using as long as I can and others I swap in and out, as I experiment with the best way to work. Over the last few years, as the nature of my own work has changed, I’ve found myself playing around with new tools again and in the spirit of Uses This — the canonical tool blog — let’s look at the tools I’m using these days.
There’s likely nothing special in this list. At my desk, I work on a 2015 MacBook Pro, connected to an Apple Cinema Display. I keep my laptops for as long as I can (my last MacBook was eight years old) and this one is still holding up well, although it doesn’t close all the way, but it mostly stays on my desk these days.
As I’m moving around more — from class to class, meeting to meeting — I’ve started using an iPad Pro connected to a smart keyboard and Apple Pencil. This has, surprisingly to me, become my ideal mobile system and incredibly powerful. On the iPad, I can write, edit photos, send emails, read, and run presentations in class. The only think the iPad can’t do (yet) is design work, but that’s what the desk and cinema display is for!
I always have an iPhone 11 near by. I’ve been getting a new phone every year the last few cycles mostly for the camera improvements but I’m thinking I’ll stick with this one for a few years.
I read on a Kindle Paperwhite, podcast with a Blue Yeti, photograph with a Fuji x100f, and listen to music with AirPods.
Software is where things get more complicated. I have and use all the classics:
Design. All creative work happens in the Adobe Creative Suite — I still love InDesign and use Illustrator frequently but I have started do more web work in Sketch.
Development. All coding happens in Brackets. GitHub and the Terminal allow for version control and easy hosting of all my websites.
Podcasting. For the first two years of podcasting, I used Skype connected to CallRecorder for all my remote interviews. This mostly did the job but I’d occasionally get some interference or echo. My friend Randy was a guest on a podcast about a year ago that used Zencastr and raved at how easy it was. I tested it out with a show a year ago and haven’t looked back. Zencastr is a web app that allows me to talk to a a guest where all they have to do is open the call in their web browser. It then records two audio files, one from each computer, and automatically uploads them to my Dropbox while we’re recording!. This ensures I never lose a file AND because its two audio files, it doesn’t capture any connections issues and allows me to easily edit out background noise, coughs, etc. All post production (still) happens in GarageBand.
Productivity. I use a combination of TeuxDeux and ToDoist to keep track of tasks and scheduling. I like to think in weekly increments so every Monday morning I map out the week in TeuxDeux to see a quick scan of what I should and could be doing each day. I also include classes, meetings, and phone calls in TeuxDeux so I have a sort of visual sketch of how much I’m doing each day. ToDoist is used primarily for household tasks. My wife and I have a shared account and have assigned ourselves different household chores and responsibilities. At a simple level, this helps me to remember that Thursday is trash night, but what’s become more valuable, it’s allowed us to see what each other is doing around the house, so we are sure responsibilities are shared evenly.
Much my life is organized in AirTable, a fascinating app that I describe as a super spreadsheet — yes, I’m one of those (rare?) designers who loves spreadsheets. I have ‘tables’ in AirTable to keep track of my studio income and expenses and my podcast content calendar and guest list, as well as records of my movies and television shows watched, books read, and beer and wine consumed. I basically use it as an archive for the data in my life. I keep a table, for example, of New York restaurants we’ve tried or want to try, that I can search and filter by neighborhood, cost, or cuisine.
Writing and Research. Writing happens in a myriad of .txt files, mostly in Ulysses connected to Dropbox. After years of using iaWriter, I decided to try out Ulysses and liked how it allowed for flexibility in organizing files and its export options are great for sending writing to my email newsletter, this blog, or my other websites. Notes are captured in Simplenote, though increasingly I’ve found myself returning to Apple’s own Notes app (especially with the Apple Pencil.).
I had used Evernote for ten years as a robust bookmark archive, saving everything from inspiration images to texts to notes on books I’d read but over the last few years the app slowed, added features I wasn’t interested in, and I was generally worried about its future. Two years ago I switched to Are.na which has replaced almost all of my bookmarking and I recently added Pinboard to the mix. The simplicity of Pinboard — and the ease of adding tags, works closer to how my brain works and feels like how I had originally started using Evernote all the way back in 2009.
Teaching. All my course documents are now created and stored in Google Docs. After a few years of spending entirely too much time designing my syllabi and project sheets, I realized Google Docs and Google Slides, could do just as good a job. This allows me to quickly update schedules and fix errors but more importantly, makes it easier to do all of this on the road from the iPad. After years of resisting Google’s products, in a strange bit of irony, it’s the Google Suite that has made the iPad Pro such a powerful mobile computer for me.
Last semester, I started using Day One as a teaching journal and grew to really enjoy it. When I first started teaching, nearly every teacher older than me told me to take notes after every class about what was working and what wasn’t. I’d start off pretty good but would fade as the semester went on. With Day One, I get a notification at the end of each day and I tag each note with the class it’s from as well as notes to myself like “idea-for-next-time.” These notes are general reflections about how the class went or changes I could make to a lecture but also my notes from a critique just in case a student asks for more feedback, I can go back and look at what I had said before.
Backups. I’ve been fortunate to never lose a hard drive but that fear has caused me to be obsessive with my backup system. Everything is stored on Dropbox and archived annually on an external hard rive. I keep Backblaze running in the background to always ensure I don’t lose anything. That way, every single file on my computer is saved in at least two other places (Dropbox and Backblaze) and old files in three (external hard drive). I’d like to add one more, using TimeMachine or SuperDuper so I have a cloned bootable drive but haven’t taken the time to set that up yet.