Survive and Thrive In The Design Process

Article 6 min
Master the ins and outs of the design process to ensure a smooth project from initial concept to delivery.

There is no denying that powerful visuals can make information more easily understood and consumed. A reader may initially pass a paragraph of text but stop on a stunning photograph, infographic or illustration. Judicious use of imagery is a great way to get readers engaged and interested in your content.

Creating the right imagery that tells the story your client wants and targets the right audience takes work. It helps to follow a process and use it as your guide.

Every creator's design process is unique, but there are certain wickets through which everyone must pass on the path from initial idea to delivery. Uncover the common paths through the design process and get tips for surviving the feedback loop so your designs are well received and you're inspired for the next project.

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Survive and Thrive In The Design Process

An abstract background composed of various shades of blue. Pencils, paper, folders and stars decorate the background.

Identify the Needs, Set the Goals

At the start of the design process, meet with your client to establish the client brief. The purpose of this brief is to define the client's needs, design goals and deadlines. It will also inform your future design decisions and provide structure as you execute the plan.

Your client brief should have the following key takeaways:

  • Deadline, expectations, deliverables and other pertinent information
  • Target audience
  • Key information points

You also need to establish the goal of the product. Is it simply a feel-good/branding product, or is there a specific outcome like a conversion (ex: products intended to increase awareness of safety protocols)? Once you know the goal, you can establish ways to measure success, such as:

  • Performance metrics (fewer accidents)
  • Consumer visits
  • Inquiries
  • Downloads
  • Revenue

Take plenty of notes during your meeting with the client and listen carefully to what is said. This is the time for the client to discuss the project and the designer to ask questions.

Design is problem-solving, so look to provide solutions to the client's requests. Throughout the process, change is inevitable, so be flexible and pivot when needed.

Establish the Deadline

Use backward planning when agreeing on deadlines. The designer starts with a proposed deadline for product delivery and works backward through the design process steps, ensuring that there is adequate time allocated in the schedule to complete each step properly.

Research and Develop Assets

This is the “Research and Development” phase when you learn more about your target audience and the project you’re creating.

Throughout your project, you will create and exchange assets. Files should be easily accessible to you and your client. You should establish:

  • A file protocol for assets
  • A file naming convention

Create a Mood Board

A mood board (or inspiration board) is a collage of ideas. You should create wherever you feel comfortable -- on an artboard, a digital slide or an online tool like Canva or Pinterest.

A mood board explores the visual themes that will be used in the initial design and any subsequent pieces. They are great places to try out textures, style, typography and composition that will help convey the overall feeling you're trying to capture.

Sketch and Analyze Ideas

Whether your final product will be a video, graphic, photo series or a podcast, it is incredibly helpful to sketch out your ideas. This might take the form of thumbnails and rough layouts, paper prototypes, storyboards, outlines or wireframes.

In these sketches, you'll establish the overall visual language of the product (or series of products), what copy you may need and where that copy will go. You'll sketch out how to convey the branding through logo placement and typeface. These early sketches ensure that the user can interact with the product in a way that meets your established goals.

Sketching is important not just for the ideation process but as a roadmap for other designers on the project to follow. One designer may start the project, but another may finish. The person who handles the early sketch may not be the same person who wraps up the final deliverables.

Follow these tips:

  • Think “quantity now, quality later.”
  • Don’t worry about how your notes/sketches look.
  • Sketching can include notes about possible solutions, such as color combinations, typefaces and the use of elements.
  • Sketching can be done on a sketchbook, a whiteboard, plain printer paper, your mobile device (phone, iPad) or even a napkin.
    • In 1998, Paula Scher, one of the most influential graphic designers, sketched her logo ideas for Citibank on a napkin. The company paid $1.5m for it. Sketching gets the idea out of your head and into existence.
  • Create a list of words/phrases that are related to the theme.
    • Look for connections and combinations.
    • Make word associations.
    • Try mind mapping.
  • Use a whiteboard.
  • Analyze and compare ideas to each other, then compare them to industry. Start looking for things that stand out.

Develop The End Product

In this phase, you'll zero in on solutions to meet the needs you uncovered in the early phase of the project. Your initial sketches and mood boards come in handy here. As you begin to develop the end product, it's good to remember the decisions that were made, the agreed-upon goals and the details from the finalized sketches. There will likely be a few ways to reach the project goal, so creating and presenting alternates is a good idea. Check to make sure all decisions are incorporated into the final product.

Have fun during this phase. Be curious. Try new things.

Get Valuable Feedback

You are now in the phase where you'll present your idea and sketches to your client. Before doing so, try getting some preliminary feedback. You may want to:

  • present your work to team members and non-designers for critique.
  • show members of the target audience your work to get real-time feedback.

Critiques can feel intimidating because you never know what will be said. As a professional, you need to know how to deal with feedback. Don’t take it personally; it’s part of the job. Embrace it and use it to improve your final product.

Prepare to explain your design decisions but be flexible. If the client wants something changed, change it. If, in your professional opinion, that change is negative, then show them what good looks like.

Present to your clients using these tips:

  • Present your work as though it’s the final product. Don’t show the client your messy artboards.
  • Clean presentations enhance your credibility and make the approval process easier.
  • Use the templates from Adobe Spark or Google Sites for a simple slide presentation if you don't have software.

Improve Your Design And Finalize Deliverables

During your client brief, you established what deliverables are needed, and as you have moved through the process, you have taken feedback and assured that you met the requirements laid out in the client brief. In this step, finalize your materials and wrap up the project. Before you send your final product to the client, make sure to take it through one last quality assurance round.

Ideally, you have been testing as you create. Even so, before you deliver, follow these testing tips:

  • For printed work, make test prints.
  • For onscreen work, test how the deliverables will look on the screen.
  • Don't forget to include mobile views.

Create a Style Guide

A style guide or, branding guide, is an essential document that ensures brand consistency throughout all products. For example, a style guide:

  • contains the necessary information on how elements will be handled.
  • can be physical or digital.
  • serves as a transition between brainstorming and the first draft.
  • gets the party started for the creative team by providing direction.
  • conveys concepts quickly.
  • sets the tone that influences the imagery, color, voice and type.
  • prevents misunderstanding that verbal explanations can create.

Review Your Goals, Refine as Needed

You designed your piece with specific and stated goals in mind. Ideally, it delivers the desired results, but more commonly, it will need to be adjusted and refined. Perhaps the call to action was unclear, the action link was broken or the poster placement necessitates a larger typeface. The design may be fine but needs companion pieces to deliver the reach you require.

Take your time analyzing the data and use the resources available to you, such as focus groups or experienced designers, who may be able to provide hard-won experience. Don't be shy about taking designs back to the drawing board. Evolve your work with the changing needs of the audience you serve.