Meet the designer who revolutionized analog note-taking with Bullet Journal

His story is like something out of a movie. Imagine, if you will, in your best "movie guy" voice, "In a world consumed by digital apps that threaten to suck our attention dry, one artist has found an alternative." Okay, so maybe it's not a story you'll find coming soon to a theater near you in the near future. Still, Ryder Carroll's revolutionary system, Bullet Journal, has been turning heads both inside and outside of the creative space. No one can deny that the Bullet Journal system is an incredibly creative way to use tools that many digital artists these days consider to be arcane: Pen and paper. And it's coming from an interaction designer, who is someone who you'd probably think would be the last person to cast aside digital tools. Recently we had the chance to ask Ryder about his design work, freelancing and, of course, his approach to Bullet Journaling.
As an interaction designer who designs for technology, what made you decide to get away from using technology in favor of a system with just a pen and paper?

I’ve found nothing as fast and flexible as good old pen and paper when it comes to capturing my ideas. The blank page just gets out of the way, the tools disappear and it’s just about the ideas.

How do you handle synchronizing your digital tools (email, calendar, etc.) alongside your analog Bullet Journal system to keep track of what needs to be done?

My Bullet Journal acts first and foremost as a capturing and filtering tool. It’s the first, but not the last step in my organizational process. Given that the nature of my work is collaborative, I use digital tools also.

Do you come across times where you need to work specifically with an online to-do list? For example, working with a client’s method of organization for projects. How do you accomplish this in Bullet Journal?

Yes. I usually use Trello, as I find it’s easiest project management tool for clients to grasp, and more importantly, to use. Simply put, it’s not about using the Bullet Journal for everything, it’s about using whatever tools are best for a given situation. Too many tools get in the way of being productive.

What are some of the benefits you’ve found from focusing on productively taking notes with Bullet Journal?
Keeping track helps me get a better birds-eye view. For me, the main use for Bullet Journaling is being mindful of my time and filtering out noise.
Your Bullet Journal system has been around for about a year now, which is about the same time as you went into full-time freelancing. Is that timing just coincidental, or was the Bullet Journal system something that you developed to help make the jump?

It’s coincidental. Until the Kickstarter, the Bullet Journal did not generate any income. That said, the Bullet Journal did lead to work. I think side projects today are most valuable kind of resume you can have. Show, don’t tell.

What’s been your favorite creative project that you’ve worked on?
Though it may not be my prettiest work, I would have to say Paintapic.com. It was a startup I founded with my gifted developer friend Keith Gould. It was just the two of us working nights and weekends for over a year. It was incredibly intense and challenging. I touched every customer facing detail from photography to UX. Though I had built and designed online presences for many businesses, it was an entirely different beast doing my own. It was the most valuable learning experience I’ve had in my career and it made me much better at what I do.
Have you had clients try to take advantage of your varied experience to grow the scope of a project? What are some things you’ve learned from dealing with scope creep?

That has happened. My best advice is to create simple contracts that are very clear about deliverables and timelines. In that contract, build in a section that covers conditions for additional work and what is not included in the scope. That section should include how the client can order work that is out of scope. That way you have a defined scope, but also have the flexibility to scale a project in a way where both you and your client are happy.

Bullet Journal

Bullet Journal is a great way to capture notes quickly.

Is there anything you’ve updated or changed since launching Bullet Journal?

Definitely. I think the biggest difference now is how I explain what the Bullet Journal is.

It sounds like Bullet Journal has been the result of a lot of trial and error. What sort of tips can you give to designers who are having trouble figuring out how to organize their own projects and clients?

The simplest advice I can give is be your own problem solver. When you get frustrated with something, dismantle the feeling and address it head-on instead of shrugging it off. Come up with a few actionable steps that will help iron out what’s going on or how you can avoid the situation in the future. In short, learn from you mistakes by taking the time to study them.

What are some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome when you first started freelancing?

Time was always the biggest challenge. It’s your most valuable commodity. Managing it becomes a critical balancing act. On the one side of the scale is keeping the lights on, and on the other, is staying sane. Make sure you charge what you’re worth even if it means passing up some gigs.

If there’s one tip you can give a designer who is just getting started with freelancing, what would it be?

Find other people in your field. Community is critical, and it’s something I didn’t realize until far too late into the game. Aside from networking, surrounding yourself with people who are very good at what they do, will make you learn faster and push harder. It will make you better. Always be learning.