The Setup


What do people use to get stuff done?

David Malki !

David Malki !

Designer, cartoonist (Wondermark)

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm the author of the comic strip Wondermark, which is a gag strip constructed collage-style out of 19th-century book and magazine illustrations. I've been doing the comic since 2003, and in that time I've managed to build a rickety little publishing company around the thing, so now I publish books and cards and calendars and things like that. Recently I just wrapped up a Kickstarter for a series of jigsaw puzzles, which are on the press right now.

In addition, I'm one of the co-editors of the Machine of Death series of short story anthologies, for which I recently designed and produced a storytelling card game spinoff, called Machine of Death: The Game of Creative Assassination. We raised half a million dollars on Kickstarter and I ended up fighting a wizard and showing copies of our games to goats.

I also do the art direction for the books published by TopatoCo, a comics publisher in Massachusetts, as well as other miscellaneous design projects, often for and/or with people involved in the world of webcomics. I draw dice-generated portraits of amazing imaginary beasts. For several years I collaborated with Kris Straub on a comedy podcast called Tweet Me Harder, and this year I've been going back and forth with Ryan North designing fake book covers in order to slander one another.

Most of my day-to-day work is design-related, whether I'm making comics, or doing layout for books or posters or packaging, or working out prepress requirements with printers and manufacturers. I like to make things with my hands. Intermittently, I also make weird videos and write articles exploring the fun and amazing things I stumble across in musty old books.

What hardware do you use?

The raw materials for my comics are my collection of 19th-century books -- mostly bound collections of periodicals, but also catalogs, storybooks, primers and newspapers. I have a bookshelf full of crumbly old volumes and I'm acquiring more all the time.

Less interestingly, my main computer in the office is a dual monitor Mac Pro. I have a MacBook Pro for the road, although I'm actually writing this from a Chromebook which has replaced the MacBook for the times that I'm traveling without too much work to do. I've been using Intuos graphics tablets now for so long that I'm starting to lose my dexterity with a standard mouse.

I use a Canon 7D camera for stills and video, and a Tascam DR-05 for audio recording which is just the perfect little device. Other miscellaneous production tools in my workshop include some Nasty Clamps, a Rode Podcaster microphone, and a teleprompter I built myself out of random stuff I had lying around. Last week I bolted a tripod head to a garage-sale Dora the Explorer skateboard and made myself a little tabletop dolly. It's messy but it works! (Kind of.)

I try to carry a notebook everywhere. Pentalic makes some pocket journals that are just as good as Moleskine and about a third the price, but usually I just pick up a handful of notebooks whenever I see some on sale and throw them in a drawer. Then I always have a stack of new ones ready. A typical notebook lasts me 8-12 months, and then I number it and put it on a shelf, which makes for a really cool series to watch grow over time.

And what software?

80% of my work is done in Adobe Creative Suite -- chiefly Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. I use Final Cut Pro to edit video (and podcasts and other audio-only stuff too -- it's a much easier program for me to use than dedicated audio programs).

There are also a lot of little single-use programs I use daily (or almost daily). Dropbox for file syncing, Instapaper for throwing articles and files into a queue to be read later. (I also email myself PDFs to my Kindle account.) Jumpcut is a clipboard extender that I'm absolutely useless without, anymore -- it automatically stores your last 30 or so clipboards, so you can copy and paste stuff asynchronously. Cocoapotrace and Audio Recorder are both free apps that do a great job of vectorizing and audio recording, respectively. MPEG Streamclip and Magic Bullet Grinder for converting and transcoding video files. Transmit for FTP. I've just learned about Screenr, which creates screen recordings.. from a browser. Incredible! This world we live in!!

On the web I use the Chrome extension Memo Notepad, which I can write in even while offline and sync to the cloud later. I have a bad track record with productivity apps -- I wish I could use them better. I've tried a bunch and I've never stuck with any. But I like Google Keep for short to-do lists and what I call "braindumps" -- just listing out everything I'm thinking about so I can free up mental RAM. I'm also on Google Books all the time, poring through centuries' worth of public domain books and magazines.

The most-loved apps on my phone (besides the usual ones, Twitter, Gmail, Safari) are Waze for navigation (responds to realtime traffic -- a must in L.A.), TripIt for keeping travel info close at hand, Square for accepting credit card payments.. and the KPCC app (my local public radio station) which nicely collects streaming archives of basically all the good public radio shows.

For ecommerce, I use Shopify; for postage, Endicia. I've also found BackerKit to be helpful with managing crowdfunding campaigns.

I'll also list mental processes under "software". All the apps and tricks in the world are just cargo cult trappings if you can't control the way you think. This is really hard for me! And it's an ongoing learning process as I struggle to navigate the canyons that streams of habit have carved into the workings of my mind. But the few things I've found that work really well (when I can stick to them) are:

Scheduling - it's amazing what you can accomplish when you write down in advance that when a certain time comes, you'll stop doing one thing and turn your attention to another thing. Writing out tomorrow's schedule the night before helps keep me on task in otherwise aimless mornings -- the bĂȘte noire of the self-employed night owl. "Things that don't get scheduled, don't get done": I don't know who said it first but it's absolutely true.

Monotasking - If the schedule says I'll work on X, I try my best to just work on X and nothing else. This ONLY works if I also write emails/social media/distractions into the schedule itself -- then I can think "I'll check that in an hour, when it's time for that" and not be tempted to check it NOW. And no social media first thing in the morning, or the day runs the danger of falling off the rails.

Handwriting - Computers and phones are distraction machines. Writing in a notebook or scrawling on a crumpled-up printout makes things flow more easily for me. When my mind's buzzing and flitting everywhere, sitting and scrawling something by hand feels clunky and forced for five minutes.. but if I can just make myself physically write on paper without doing anything else, minutes six and onward usually start feeling pretty decent.

What would be your dream setup?

My limitations now revolve mainly around space. Real estate is expensive in Los Angeles! I'm lucky to have a cool little office/studio where I can do lots of stuff, but it doesn't allow for much expansion. I'd love to have an alcove with a little photo/video stage, and another nook or a garage with a proper workshop -- a place where I can fit real tools, like a table-sized board shear. And a courtyard where we can properly enjoy the California sunshine.

I keep my eyes open for places to move my operation.. but it's only in touring other spaces that I realize how good I have it just to have natural light and a breeze coming in the window. I can do good work in a light-filled space with a breeze.

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