Stock photo from Dreamstime

Introduction to the Design Process

For many people design is just “firing up photoshop” or “playing with the mouse”. After all when it comes to design everyone has an opinion and actually “knows” better. We probably all have heard at some point things like:  “Of course this pinkish colour will do fine in my manly mustache products! My little daughter chose it for me!”. And other gems similar to this.

The purpose of this article is two-fold:

a) To give non-designers a better understanding of what is design and it’s process. Maybe along the way busting some of their misconceptions and hopefully help them realize how much those design contests and cheap design is really harming their business.

b) To help junior designers understand more about the creative process & design thinking, and how can they be creative on demand.

Let’s begin with a fundamental definition: Design is a process. Its purpose is to turn a brief, requirement or idea called the “design problem” into a finished product or “design solution”.

Stages of the design process

The design process comprises of stages (which we’ll separately discuss briefly).  At one point or another, each designer develops his own steps. But generally speaking are the following:

1) Define : First the problem must be defined through a brief, so that we establish what the problem is and understand who is the target audience and what our constraints or restrictions are.

2) Research: We research and review our information about the design problem at hand, historical data about the company, the competition, potential obstacles or expectations.

3) Ideate: We brainstorm, generate potential ideas and we identify the needs and motivations of our end users.

4) Refine: Those ideas we got will need to be reviewed against our design brief’s objective, refined, and the most efficient of them are being prototyped. The prototype aims to test aspects of the solution & of course its not yet made with the final materials.

5) Implement: The final design solution is implemented and we deliver it to the client.

6) Learn: Obtain feedback and learn from what have happened throughout the design process.

The necessity of a proper briefing

Designer’s shine the most when they have an actual problem to solve. And because sometimes we got carried away and tend to solve the wrong problem, a proper briefing is crucial.

The brief is the key in successfully establishing what is the design problem at hand. The more detailed and properly prepared the brief is, the more accurately the designer will assess the problem at hand, and deliver the proper design solution. At its bare minimum a successful brief should at least be able to give the answer to five simple questions. The famous five W’s: who, what, when, where, why.

Who is the client and our target audience? If its not clear in the current brief it should be made clear. Ask the client to explain the meaning behind their company and current logo. Their company values & mission, strengths and weakness and how their audience perceive their brand. Its also important to have a understanding of the company’s target customers and also their competitors.

What design solution the client is thinking of? And also what kind of applications the client thinks of?  If it a visual identity what additional items are required? Does the company already have a logo or brand identity established? Is there a specific idea already under consideration? Or maybe a specific art style is desired? Its then the designers obligation to question the solutions validity depending on the target audience. A brochure for example might be less appealing to a younger audience than a web site. Or the client insisting on using a cartoon character when its totally unfitting of his brand image etc.

When will the design need to be ready? Unlike to the common misconception designers do like to have things ready before their deadlines. But for that is necessary to know exactly when the design needs to be ready. The designer should also inform the client if this time-scale is achievable. And take into account the availability of any outside associates or requirement might be necessary for the project. Maybe the project needs for the designer to hire a photographer and coordinate a photo-shooting,  for a commercial advertisement, or there is extra time necessary for post production etc.

Where the design will be used? Its important to know the medium the solution will be applied to, as the specifications of the design will be different. Will the design need to be printed? If so the material will might be enforcing further restrictions. Will it be presented in a video or online in the web? The designer should inform the client of these restrictions, and offer alternative solutions.

Why the client thinks this design solution is required? Finally its important to make sure that the client really needs this specific design solution, and not a different one. For example a client don’t having any dynamic content on his web site and asking for a wordpress site. Or preparing an online campaign when his target audience in majority is elderly people that don’t use computers. With people having varying experiences of design services, the quality of the provided briefs might also be different. So whether you are the client or the designer, it is important to clarify all the ambiguous points first so that both of you are in understanding and have shared expectations.

Sometimes it might be better to cooperate and have a non-robust brief re-written by answering at least those 5 questions, rather than having the wrong design problem defined (and end up with the wrong solution)

Why research is crucial

Part of the research may have been initiated by the person who assigned the job, or the research department of the company,  or is up to the designer to do all the research on his own.

Even the humblest design assignment requires collecting basic information about the design’s purpose. the target audience, and competition. High stake campaigns demand extensive research, analysis and planning.

Several data gathering methods exists on that purpose and will give us insights on the attitudes and behaviours of the target group, helping us effectively communicate our design with that group, and also avoid alienating them with wrong choices. Additionally they will help us understand the approach of the competitor’s products, brand and organization and help us form a more effective campaign.

Regardless of who will gather the initial research data though, and however big or small is the design job, there is a bare minimum of data that we need to know in order to proceed to the ideate stage.

1. Who is the audience?

Knowing your audience is critical for developing visual communication the resonates. Focus groups, surveys, and opinion polls are several commonly used methods to collect insights about where our target audience leans and how it interprets the messages.

Various secondary data resources include public reference libraries, newspapers, books, trade periodicals, blogs, conference papers, official statistics, business reports, internet search etc.

In the end we should have been able to at least gather some key data for our target group, like gender, age, socio-economic demographics concerning them, education, income level and their lifestyle aspirations.

2. What is the communication objective?

Meaning what we want our audience to think or feel from the design? Are we creating conviction or preference? Stimulating actions or behaviours? These communication objectives will affect almost every design decision, from the format we’ll use to the font.

3. Does the design need to coordinate with past design work?

Does the company has an already established visual identity or branding our design need to conform? If so we’ll need to study the company’s branding manual and printed materials and ensure that we’ll provide them a solution that will work alongside their existing design and not against it. Incorporating these guidelines to our design solution, will strengthen the company’s  branding, and we’ll not risking alienating the existing client base.

4. Who are the competitors?

Knowing the competitions’ visual communication strengths and weakness, is essential in preparing our own campaign. It will help us focus on the successful ideas and also avoid using visual elements that might correlate our campaign with theirs.

5. What is our budget? How the final product will be delivered?

Don’t be afraid to ask this question and don’t be alarmed if your designer ask you that.The projects budget is very important to determine many important design decisions, like how many colours we’ll use in a print application, if we’ll use special inks or special papers. What quality photo material we’ll focus on acquiring etc.

How the final product will be delivered is also of out-most importance both to determine budget costs, and also at design decision level. If the design will be used for print or for digital media, makes all the difference in the world. And also what kind of print or what kind of digital media we are aiming to deploy. Finally what are the dimension and specifications we’ll have to work with.

Research Outcomes

This preliminary research will help us identify the drivers that stimulate the target group to act on a design, but also the barriers that could impede the success of our design, and we’ll be able to move at the ideate stage.

Note that the research stage usually takes a lot of time and involves effort to successfully identify drivers & barriers, especially in complex and high stake campaigns, and its outside of the scope of an introductory article to fully analyse it, but hopefully it gave you some insights of the process involved.

Brainstorming (or how to be creative on demand)

With the design brief completely understood and our research data at hand, in the idea generation or ideate stage, its time to create & evaluate concepts that may solve our design problem.

If you had been in the habit totally skipping the previous 2 steps and jumping right on your computer, be a bit more patient. We won’t be using our computer any time soon.

Hopefully by now you understand that a designer’s job is NOT to operate Photoshop or Illustrator, anyone can do it after spending several hours watching video tutorials. Computer software is just a tool at our disposal & designers had been solving design problems long before computers were invented.

There several brainstorming techniques we can utilize to help us generate an idea, and can be applied to generate ideas in general, not just on design problem solving.

As David Sherwin, successfully describes in his book: “Creative Workshop”, “Being creative on demand is, well demanding. Sometimes ideas won’t flow without a little extra prodding in the brain cells”. And it’s quite true. The creative process really is hard work & dedication with only a tiny part given over to inspiration.

We have several articles discussing brainstorming, idea generation and creativity in our website, so i won’t be repeating these information here. Feel free to search our website and also consider reading:

You can also find some books i highly suggest on the topic at the end of this article.

Prototype and Implementation

So we got several ideas, and at this stage many designers will either start producing a first draft in the computer, or turn their best rough sketches into more detailed and polished sketches.

Either way afterwards, all will end up presenting 1 to 3 of these drafts or polished sketches to the client to chose one, depending the agreement between them. After the clients choose the idea to proceed with, next comes the refinement of this one best idea to the final version of the design solution.

At the refinement stage a variety of typographic choices and images maybe tested. Elements might need to be resized, repositioned or recoloured to achieve the best result. A design contains many different aspects that need to come together in the final job.

And unlike common beliefs, design does have rules and one should know them to achieve these best results, either by following them OR breaking them on purpose. (Breaking a rule you are unaware of, in most cases is a certain recipe to disaster.)
I won’t go into much details on the design theory since its beyond the scope of this article, but I’d like though to mention a small list of things to consider concerning each individual part of the whole. Its not complete by any means but are the most commonly misused elements by inexperienced designers, or design software users.

The images we use, can communicate in many different ways. They can have different cultural and social interpretations, or evoke different emotions. The way an image was taken also have tremendous importance. Badly photographed, or low quality imagery we’ll have your audience thinking about how bad the photographs are than your message.

The typefaces we might use in our design have their own distinct personalities and not all are appropriate for every design job. Some appear serious , others playful, others modern etc. The way we set our typography is of utmost importance because it helps or hinders the message we try to communicate. And think about how many times we’ve seen a logo or poster, and thought that something was amiss or felt wrong. One doesn’t have to be a typography master to realize that a font like hmm lets say comic sans, would probably be unsuitable for a lawyers image!

The shapes type we used, their size and their placement in a design can also convey different messages. They might evoke feelings of harmony, or of balance or of tension.

Finally colour is a very powerful communication tool in our disposal. It makes things stand out, creates emphasis and also can have strong symbolic and cultural meaning, allowing us to communicate more efficiently with a target group, but also alienate it if wrongly chosen.

After the design is refined it can then presented again to the client for the final approval before it gets to mass printing or publicly appear in a website.

The essential steps of the design process completed. Whatever you do don’t forget to get feedback on your final design from fellow designers and learn as much as you can to further improve your skills, and also evaluate all the things you learned in that process.

If you were a non-designer reading the series, i hope i didn’t tire you much. I tried to explain the process in the simplest possible way avoiding using as much as possible design slang terms. I hope i helped you understand a bit more about a designer’s work & what steps are involved in a design process.

Further Reading/Bibliography:

Robert Simons
Robert Simons

"Ideas won’t flow without a little extra prodding in the brain cells” - well said! I guess inspiration comes mainly during the working process, or some time after it: at night, for instance! :) Very very informative article! Thanks a lot!

Spyros Thalassinos
Spyros Thalassinos

Thank you Robert. It's David Sherwin's quote from his book "Creative Workshop: 80 challenges to sharpen your design skills". It's truly baffling and also astonishing the way creativity and inspiration works. It seems to always be a part of us and yet unreachable if we don't dig deep enough. From my experience creativity is all about letting your mind roam freely, but well, not so much that it loses focus to the problem at hand. Glad you found the article useful :)