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The Process of Design

It’s easy to list the results we, as graphic designers, can deliver for a client: a logo, a brochure, an annual report, a web site, etc.. We usually have a portfolio to prove it. Generally, by virtue of these results, we get more work; we have proven that we can create and is the main way in which people outside of our profession see us, as creators of… stuff.

Yet, most of us know that the results are part of a bigger process, that it is also the hardest part to sell of our business. What exactly is the process of design? On the most objective level, it is a set of steps we take (varying immensely among designers) from start to finish: first meeting with a client, submit pricing, research, sketch, present, revise, approval (generally more revising), produce. Realistically it’s neither that easy nor that objective. And graphic design would be too boring if we followed such a dry, simple process.

Now, on a more subjective level, the process of design is harder to define. What exactly are we doing? How do we transform ideas and concepts into tangible realities? How does it happen? Sometimes it seems like it’d be realistic to say “by magic,” because even we are unsure of how all this takes form. Yet we still find a way (in one form or another) to deliver results. And that is what separates and makes us valuable as counsels to other businesses.

The process of design is something that has always amazed me, it is the reason why I love graphic design; the creation of ideas, the challenges, the victories as well as the defeats. The final product, to me, is merely icing on the cake — the result of the process.

A few days ago Joseph Michael Essex of SX2 in Chicago shared something he wrote about the process of design: A Design Epistle (in PDF format, 17Kb). I found it more human and more approachable than AIGA’s Designing effort. A document that I would be inclined to share with a client to explain what exactly it is we do. Personally, I liked it.

How do you approach design? More importantly, how do you follow-through?

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PUBLISHED ON Oct.13.2003 BY Armin
surts’s comment is:

How do you approach design? More importantly, how do you follow-through?

My quick and dirty response would be through awareness and application. Question the outcome, disect the positives and negatives, learn and move on...

On Oct.13.2003 at 10:40 AM
d’s comment is:

The process of design is vital to me and the way I work, partly because I think it helps me to produce something better. Without it, I find it difficult, sometimes uncomfortable to begin a piece of work if I haven't been able to run through my process. And partly because I find that a well thought out, and successful process of working goes a long way to improving a clients perception of designers as well as how to work with them.

It's also something I've spent years - yes years, researching. Through working with many different types of clients, and at different types of design firms.

For me and the way I wish to work, I find that I need a process that is as collaborative as possible - in the right places, where it places both my client and myself together in the process to bring about a designed concept. The process also needs to be as flexible as possible according to the different types of design work that might be requested, or in how big the scope of work is. So that I can add many steps to each process or keep it as simple as a three phased process. And finally, the process needs to have plenty of space to tweak, review and make a mess.

So for me I have three main phase of my process, Research, Concept, Design.

The research phase is the most important to me, and quite frankly the most enjoyable for me. I have a list of assessments, exercises and activities that I can use depending on the type of work - and I produce the type of deliverable needed to define and articulate the findings from the research phase.

The concept phase is a familiar one to us and never takes that much explaining and the design phase is the final crafting and execution of the work defined.

A lot of the time, every time if I can help it, I like to set out goals that will measure the success of the project at hand. Whether the goals are to improve something, solve something or bring about a required change. And I like to set up ways to monitor and report whether the design is a success - so that if it fails in some area, it can be fixed or changed.

The process of design is where we get to have ideas, show our difference and be creative. The final stage of the process, is where we get to prove our skill and experience in the craft of design that we specialize in. I find that because the way designers have to sell themselves, through showing excellent final results of their collaborations, that clients or organizations fixate on that part of design and don't see past that.

I prefer to discuss the process of design with new clients, the way to work together to bring about a better result and show them some of the ways that in the past, I've done it. I rarely - if ever, will show my design work independently of the research and strategy work as well.

I think the SX2 piece is great, and I look forward to their book. I was greatly disappointed with the AIGA 12 step program, because I felt it to be an alienating and overblown exercise designed not to make design more integrated with other processes of industry but seemingly inflexible and intolerant of anything else.

We do need a 'human' way of describing how working with designers can be participatory, thought-provoking, rewarding, contagious and most of all successful - and I think that it needs to be said in a way that all involved can understand and see their part in it.

I have to add here that the only 'design' activity that I do which the process doesn't apply is illustration. It gets tweaked by the client, but I don't work with them on the concept of the illustration unless they don't know what they want.

I'd be interested in what Felix or other illustrators felt about this.

On Oct.13.2003 at 11:07 AM
graham’s comment is:

well, it's all process, isn't it? it doesn't stop-from thought to image and off out into the wide world it goes off on its own and you never know, you just never quite know. someone once said to me (as an insult, i think) that 'for you, music is the stuff that comes out of the speakers, isn't it?' and i suppose it is but that never stopped me from wondering how (particularly) and (perhaps) why. straight in the eye and into the mind and wallop-process in action again and again, somtimes 'what?' (crap) and sometimes 'what?' (never seen that and wish i'd could've imagined in that way you clever sod you). process from mind to page and back to mind-between people, whoever, the ones who stump up the cash and the ones who think 'oh no not another bit of tat' anf the ones who think 'now and forever my life is changed', but between people first and foremost and if that's not the case then there is nothing. who knows what and why, how this should be-this process, this map, this path-way, the way; oblique strategies (google those two words and you'll see) innate to cage and surely, equally to brownjohn and maybe to bass and certainly to savile and now i know he loves hip-hop definitely to beirut, but never enough unless person to person, mind to mind-experience, knowledge and understanding, thats it all and also (to quote) 'from the ashes to the astral plane, where the setting sun meets the sea'.

On Oct.13.2003 at 04:07 PM
eric’s comment is:

Armin, I liked what you had to write more than either of the two links. The Essex manifesto was too mannered and �important’. I shut down in the presence of the hard-sell.

Also, to offer my perspective: I find that I don’t so much enjoy the process in art or illustration — it’s all about the end result. Design fills me with the same kind of thinking and pursuit that I’m attracted to in math and physics. It’s fairly rational once you set the ball in motion. A puzzle, if you will — only, there are a 100,000 extra pieces left over once you’ve solved it.

On Oct.13.2003 at 05:02 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

Great topic. It's the hardest question I have to answer when I'm talking to a potential client: “Can you describe the process you use to create a design solution that’s right for us?”.

On my cynical days, my answer might be: “I listen carefully to you as you talk about your problem and read whatever background material I can find that relates to the issues you face. If you’re lucky, I've also accidentally acquired some firsthand experience with your situation. Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can’t really explain that part; it’s like magic. Now, if it’s a good idea, I try to figure out some strategic justification for the solution so I can explain it to you without relying on good taste you may or may not have. Along the way, I may add some other ideas, either because you made me agree to do so at the outset, or because I’m not sure of the first idea. At any rate, in the earlier phases hopefully I will have gained your trust so that by this point you’re inclined to take my advice. I don’t have any clue how you’d go about proving that my advice is any good except that other people — at least the ones I’ve told you about — have taken my advice in the past and prospered. In other words, would you mind just, uh, trusting me?”

Now, an intelligent client might ask a number of reasonable questions: How can a bunch of random conversations yield the information you need to do your work? Shouldn’t the strategic justification be in place before the design work begins? If you show me one solution, how will I know it’s the only one that will work? On the other hand, if you show me a bunch of solutions, how will I know which one is best? Finally, can you explain that magic part to me again?

I'm repelled by the "proprietary methods" that some firms have cooked up for getting clients to cross the process bridge. When I think back on the way some of my best work has happened, it seldom resembles anything that could be mistaken for a coherent process. So, to be honest, I'm still looking for an answer to that question. Maybe Graham's is as good as any.

On Oct.13.2003 at 05:10 PM
d’s comment is:

In other words, would you mind just, uh, trusting me?

I think this is key - and it is helpful to aid this by being able to say that you know how to go 'about this' to get it done.

I think it is a basic part of professionalism. Both to have a relationship of trust and your own methods for getting the job done well.

On Oct.13.2003 at 06:01 PM
Scott’s comment is:

“I listen carefully to you as you talk about your problem and read whatever background material I can find that relates to the issues you face. If you’re lucky, I've also accidentally acquired some firsthand experience with your situation. Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can’t really explain that part; it’s like magic. Now, if it’s a good idea, I try to figure out some strategic justification for the solution so I can explain it to you without relying on good taste you may or may not have. Along the way, I may add some other ideas, either because you made me agree to do so at the outset, or because I’m not sure of the first idea. At any rate, in the earlier phases hopefully I will have gained your trust so that by this point you’re inclined to take my advice. I don’t have any clue how you’d go about proving that my advice is any good except that other people — at least the ones I’ve told you about — have taken my advice in the past and prospered. In other words, would you mind just, uh, trusting me?”

Hey, that's my process!

On Oct.13.2003 at 06:16 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

I've always felt the process was somewhat like homemade chunky soup. Add some researched insights, a few client interviews, some past experience. Let simmer 3-4 days. Ladle out hearty portion and mount to black board.

Ok, so that wasn't as serious as maybe was called for, but I, too, often can't get to a decent explanation of the magic part. We're all trained to translate conceptual ideas into concrete visuals. It's a mixture of distillation, translation, conjecture and, yep, magic. Think through what the client asked for. Think about how to get their audience's attention and shoot for it. Lawyers have lots of process but still need skill, training and intelligence to formulate the best strategy. They just get their results a lot quicker and in a more obvious fashion. They also have that bar exam thing to prove they can do it (which isn't much proof at all, really).

On Oct.13.2003 at 06:53 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

Designing Change; Changing Design

The question "How do you approach design?" recalled a lecture I just went to by Clement Mok. He discussed design today, our process, and how we can invite others into our world. It made me question my own process and the notion of certification.

He opened his Time of Change lecture by calling our attention to design's place in the world. Largely, it's a commercial place. He claimed that we live in a time of design. The society we live in is obsessed with Queer Eye for a Straight Guy, iPods, Volkswagon Beetles, Martha Stewart Living, and Nike. As generators of that visual culture, we spend so much time solving the problems of others that we rarely consider our own. Instead, design must create its own challenges and be inclusive. We should appreciate the trades of others at the conference table. We should encourage those who are desktop publishers to be designers, as it will make our trade more valuable. Overall, it was a heart warming and empowering lecture by Mok. Still, it had a Fortune 500 flair to it with undertones of a Harvard MBA.

Yes, we are living in designed times; consumers are aware of image and form. Yes, we still have difficulty explaining what we do to non-designers. And we supposedly have not gained the respect we feel entitled to at the boardroom tables. While we work as catalysts with large or small interdisciplinary teams, we're still shunned. People don't get what we do. Maybe they don't understand our process. So what if engineers, writers, executives, and accountants don't fully grasp what we do? So what if they look down on us? This is a big problem. As designers, we tend to be exclusive. We leave people out of our creative process.

Mok suggested that we invite others into our methods. He's developed a 12-step process to be used as that vehicle. By sharing what we do and how much work it takes, our discipline will become even more valuable and establish what Mok calls a "unified design profession." No matter the outcome, the formulaic 12-step approach Mok advocates is a tad loathsome. It would be available, online or in some other public sphere. Now why should my hard work be placed into a database, and later foraged by others trying to solve a similar problem. I can see it now, "You're not sure about what prototypes to build? No problem. Just go to Step 6 of the University of Washington Communication Program. It's case number CP_UWARTSCI. In fact, the entire innovation model is great! You should use it." How is this "process" or "research" any different from designers, who skim through award annuals? Sometimes they’re just looking for answers, for models of what to do. "Who cares about went into the work, let me try and do something like this."

Will an AIGA database of 12-step solutions be the Time of Change we should look forward to? The time when design is relegated to a series of operations? Design would become largely systematic with an emphasis on pragmatics, the bottom line, and worse yet, it would create form more objectively than ever. This is design as business. All the "unnecessary" components will be shaved away. The 12 steps spell efficiency. Efficiency is another way of saying "Let's cut costs to drive profit."

It's unfortunate that some people will see this 12-step Time of Change as an ideal. Design can function in this way, as good business. Quite possibly, this would demonstrate how we think and promote designers as more active team players. It would also demonstrate to the MBAs and executives that we do think. We don't just doodle on a drawing pad or push pixels around the computer monitor to arrive at a solution. Although, maybe somebody's process has doodling as step one and pushing pixels as step two. It used to be mine, but that's so 1980s.

Mok spent the most time focusing on how designers can be role players in the business landscape. It's true that corporations are investing in design. If design can be a catalyst in that corporate environment and revive the post-traumatic economy, Mok deserves a lot of credit. But in accordance with design as good business, know that there are other choices. And they don't require you to follow a set of guidelines. Process is personal. It depends on what content we are working with or what music we are listening to. Process is subjective. And maybe, it depends on what role the designer is interested in taking on. Designers can be social agents, artists, educators, propagandists, writers, technicians, engineers, programmers, directors, advertisers, or investigators. Design isn't always driven by good business and boardroom ethics.

There's the sender, message, channel, media, translation, and receiver (dialog can bring things full circle, back to the sender or translator). The process of communication is one way we can start our approach to design. If we have the chance to invest a little bit of ourselves into that process (whatever it may be), that's wonderful. Doing so adds another layer of complexity and interest, which is close to Mok's other challenge. He suggests that we find our own problems and ask questions. We can be critical of our own designs, processes, and thoughts. This was a call for research. Research and work can go hand in hand. It's a component that is missing from our process more often than not.

Design makes ideas visible. It's an amazing job to have. The process is a wonderful part of the discipline. It's fun. Let's leave it as such. Let design be fluid. Let design be intuitive. Let my process be different from yours. Let's work hard and introduce beautifully designed artifacts into the world. If I skip step http://designing.aiga.org/content.cfm/casestudies/step=10/sort=cn" target="_blank">10 of 12, please don't disbar me from design.

On Oct.13.2003 at 09:36 PM
marian’s comment is:

Hey, that's my process!

I wasn't going to answer this question because I was afraid to admit that I don't really understand my process. It's not that i don't have one, it's just that most of the time it's just intuitive, and I can't explain it. Somehow, Michael B. described it perfectly for myself as well as Scott.

I'm in awe of d's response. I'm in awe of anyone who puts so much professionalism behind their design work. For myself I feel more like a conjuror or shaman because as I'm talking to the client, the ideas just start to appear in my head. (I should grab my head and roll on the ground ... I wonder how well that would go down?) Sometimes I know what it should be, but like Michael, will pull a few extras out of the hat just in case I was wrong. The past couple of years, I haven't been wrong much -- or I've been convincing.

The follow-through is the kicker. Sometimes my ideas don't pan out in actuality, or I lack the skill to bring them out of the ether, usually then I'm in trouble and need to go back and hopefully get help from my co-workers; brainstorming, trying to get the visions back. But when it does work, when I start to make those visions into reality, with tangible elements, that feels sooo goood: like I do know my stuff, like I'm worth the money I get paid. (And if I never see it, and I have to labour over it, I'm fucked. The result is never good if it has to be artificially induced.)

Then there's the point of rationalization and testing. Measuring it back against the criteria, and writing about it. I think of this as bullshitting, but let's be generous and say that it's digging the innate rationale out of my subconscious and writing it in a form that the client can understand and relate to.

I feel embarrassed admitting this. I never would have said it if Michael Beirut hadn't said it first.

On Oct.14.2003 at 12:02 AM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

An oblique thought applied to the discussion:

Last week jazz guitarist John McLaughlin was interviewed on the local (New York) PBS station. When asked what he thought about the current state of jazz, he replied "There's not enough blood on the floor."

Several of the comments above allude to the pleasure and fun of the design process. Fine and dandy, but let's hear it for the value of the argument.

An argument done for the sake of the project, without personal ego but the ego of a job well done, can be a wonderful thing -- almost cathartic. That's not to say one should enter swinging every time... Let's save that for "Speak Up".

I have also come to the realization that part of the process is identifying Fear. Fear of saying "no... fear of saying "yes"... fear of doing... fear of not doing... and the most insidious: fear of failure. From thence springs neurosis.

On Oct.14.2003 at 12:43 AM
Garrick Van Buren’s comment is:

I concur with D. Anything more elaborate than:

Research, Concept, Create, Repeat

is inflexible, self-important, navel-gazing. Even this short "process" describes a linear process. Seems like we've all been saying that in the real world - it isn't. No, it's not. It's a parallel process. (Believing life is a linear process worked for Ford 100 years ago, it won't help us today.)

If creation doesn't drive continued research, you're dead in the water. A couple jobs ago, I created a diagram for how the design process "actually" (vs. theoretically) works. An illustration of many separate threads being spun together to create a rope.

We're here to help people become more successful. How? by helping them visualize, understand, and develop solutions. Can that be done in 12 discreet steps? No. Even therapy is more complex.

On Oct.14.2003 at 07:48 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> If I skip step 10 of 12, please don't disbar me from design.

Well, you are asking for it if you skip step 10.

I agree with what you've said Jason, and that is the main reason I compared Essex's description to the 12-stepper. Essex's allows for interpretation, innovation, collaboration and personalization. Not that I'm making it my mantra or anything, I was just pleased to see a good interpretation of what the design process is and can be.

> Fine and dandy, but let's hear it for the value of the argument.

Not sure what you mean Kingsley.

> I have also come to the realization that part of the process is identifying Fear.

Now that I know what you mean. It is one of the best feelings, you read a client's need and go "what the fuck am I going to do now?" Nothing better than some fear to get you going. Because I sure as hell don't want to fail, there is always the chance so I am going to work my ass off in all parts of the design process so I don't fail. It sucks to fail. It doesn't suck to be scared — that's just human.

On Oct.14.2003 at 09:13 AM
David’s comment is:

Just a followup to an earlier comment on Clement's presentation: You can view the AIGA designing framework and the beginnings of a database of case studies at designing.aiga.org.

On Oct.14.2003 at 10:01 AM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Armin wrote:

Nothing better than some fear to get you going. Because I sure as hell don't want to fail...

Actually, I meant the opposite. Failure can be a good thing. Sometimes there's no better teacher.

(For many reasons) I value my failures like I value my adversaries. They help you qualify; they help you identify.

On Oct.14.2003 at 10:02 AM
ps’s comment is:

for me, the process changes. according to client, project & budget. i feel the aiga outline can be appropriate in some cases. other times it would be overwhelming to a client. In essence i think its all michael b's paragraph that summarizes it so nicely without trying to use business language. putting it in these words will be great for some, but some corporate executives will want to hear it in a more "academic" fashion. that's the first step of the process right there.. what language do i use to establish trust with the client before i even think about his specific project.

we all have our processes, and there is probably no right or wrong, as long as in the end we can deliver a product that makes sense.

what i personally love about the process is the research& analysis. when a client gives me a chance to spend quality time on research and to find my conclusions. sure i love to "create" but to me the research is the mystery part. the unchartered territory. the part that expands my horizon and the part that makes sure my job does not turn into a routine. that right there makes all the difference and is why i love this job.

On Oct.14.2003 at 10:29 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> Actually, I meant the opposite.

Oh well.

Changing moods a little bit, would anybody be interested in sharing actual parts of their process? As simple as "I sketch on paper and then have my intern scan and trace it" to more complex thinking or researching processes.

It could be an interesting thing to share. Obviously if anybody wants to keep their "trade secrets" secret that's totally understandable.

On Oct.14.2003 at 10:55 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

I meet with the client.

I then outsource the entire process to either India or Russia (for web development), china (for product development) or southeast asia (if I want it really cheap).

They ship it back, I mark it up 300% and then hand it to the client.

Works like a charm.

On Oct.14.2003 at 11:10 AM
Armin’s comment is:


On Oct.14.2003 at 02:36 PM
eric’s comment is:

Process part 2.

I try to get as much information about the client that I can. I start preliminary sketches on paper, in a sketchbook. Next, I assess how things are going and then go to do research.

Research for me means poring over books. I need to go through my library and fight to find the thing that looked like the thing that I want to do. Invariably along the way I find something that I wasn’t even considering that hijacks me in a new direction.

The original concepts get updated I come across new ideas. Rinse, repeat. After this as things become more concrete, it all gets transferred to the computer.

I guess I still trust my hand to give me what my mind sees more than solving for things on the box. The computer lets me vary the outcome and play with different finishes.

The client comes back to the picture. And then the tantrums start.

On Oct.14.2003 at 03:01 PM
d’s comment is:

In response to Armin's interest in parts of the process (is this what you meant?) - I don't have much to hand in the way of photography of it - but for some photos already up on my site of finished or scribbled on documents - of the research of the work I've done.


If there is more interest I could take more specific photos or scans.

On Oct.14.2003 at 03:41 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> is this what you meant?

Not quite. I'll illustrate:

I will describe one part of my process. Let's say I'm doing a logo, I already established what the target audience is, what the look and feel is and I'm ready to start creating. So I sit at my desk, eager, I don't look at any books, no annuals, no magazines no nothing. I grab my sketchbook and I fire up Adobe Illustrator. Maybe launch Google's image search feature. I start doodling on my sketchbook, not sure what but I start, I have really bad drawing skills, so the moment I sort of "draw" something I like I jump onto illustrator and start messing with that idea. Thirty minutes at the most, if it has potential I save it and move on to my next set of doodles and back to illustrator. It works wonders for me.

I think that's what I meant. Other things that might be interesting to hear is how's the process with the clients: is it a constant back and forth, or is there heavy client interaction at the beginning of the project and then diminishes.

Other ideas: how do you go about choosing color? Look at it on screen and then go find a chip that fits the vision?

Maybe a set of "insider" tips and techniques that have helped make your process smoother.

On Oct.14.2003 at 03:53 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

As for my first comment regarding outsourcing, that's actually how a lot of Target products are developed. I saw some of the stark-era (not necessarily stark's stuff) designed via:

1) Target makes sketches

2) Sketches mailed to China

3) Products come back designed, engineered, and produced

It was rather impressive.

As for your specific question, Armin, it all depends on what I'm supposed to be designing. Just finding what I'm supposed to be designing can be a process unto itself, of course.

If we're talking about something like a logo, I tend to do what you do, though I typically spend a bit of time doing concept maps/word play/brain dumps prior to the sketching portion.

The color part always stumps me. I usually 'borrow' a nice color pallette from something else, or do the 'random pantone swatches' game until something clicks.

On Oct.14.2003 at 04:08 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

Maybe a set of "insider" tips and techniques that have helped make your process smoother.

The big one--for me--is to have the first few stages of the work be done in a group manner. Have 2 or 3 people do the brain dumping/sketching/researching loosely as a group and then bring all the concepts together sooner than later. If you're familiar with extreme programming, there are aspects of that that I feel work with the visual design process as well. It means most of the work produced is owned by the group as a whole, as opposed to work being from and by individuals.

I've been in small firms where we did that and the work always seemed to come faster, and was of a better quality than the firms where people worked autonomously and only came together later in the process for group critiques with the AD where they simply chose a few concepts to take to final mock up. The former always seemed to more of a real process while the latter always seemed to be more of a competition.

On Oct.14.2003 at 04:14 PM
Darrel’s comment is:


I really like your portfolio with the research documents.

(The following has nothing to do with this thread...just thought it was interesting...)

I noticed you worked at Studio Archetype. I was surfing around today and saw this:

which looked a little familiar. ;o)

On Oct.14.2003 at 04:20 PM
Cheshire’s comment is:

My actual process varies. Most of the time I spend a while thinking about how to do something that connects very specifically to the client or the project. Often I doodle what I've been thinking of, which helps me work out vague ideas and move past obvious, cliched solutions.

I hardly ever scan those doodles in -- it's usually easier for me to just start from scratch in Illustrator or Photoshop. Then there's usually a lot of playing to get the design to something I'd present.

I've learned the hard way that you should never present something you don't want the client to pick. For that reason I often give only one option. I think American designers are often trained to develop a million variations, but I've heard that British designers are more inclined to present one option than many. Is that true?

Other times, designs simply come to me whole-cloth. I see the whole design in my head, and it's usually a short leap to translate it to the computer. It often turns out that these are my favorite designs.

As has been previously mentioned, I use Google Images for visual reference as well. Very helpful sometimes.

On Oct.14.2003 at 04:39 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

I start doodling on my sketchbook, not sure what but I start, I have really bad drawing skills, so the moment I sort of "draw" something I like I jump onto illustrator and start messing with that idea.

Armin, this sounds very similar to how I work, bad drawing skills and all. I also try to avoid the books for the first go round of sketching. I used to be crazy about surfing the books and pulling out influences and ideas, but I realized that I was restricting myself to something someone else had already done. Not that I have a unique style or anything, but I don't want to do something just because it looks like CSA or Sagmeister. Most of the work I admire is linked by ideas, not style.

My process, like Armin's, begins always on paper. I'll doodle. I'll make lists. I'll write sentences and statements and ideas out. When something strikes me as interesting, then I'll doodle it some more until it roughly resembles what I'm going for. Then onto Illustrator I go. I'll work it in Illustrator for awhile until I think it bears some resemblance to my sketch. Often, I'll scan my original sketch in and do some tracing. Sometimes I can't capture the warmth of a sketch onscreen unless I do that. If I get stuck, it's back to the paper to keep working it. Typography is usually the last thing that comes when I'm doing a logo, unless, of course, I'm going for a logotype.

Sometimes I get carried away too early with color and get lost in it, then I have to back up to black and white, make sure the form is really where I want it to be, then go back to color. Picking colors via Illustrator's palette is just deadly. I try to scan through the PMS books instead to get what I want.

On Oct.14.2003 at 04:51 PM
Krystal Hosmer’s comment is:

Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can’t really explain that part; it’s like magic.

I agree with Michael about the process.

Here's a little insight into the "magic" part....

John Steinback said "It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning once the committee of sleep has worked on it."

In the case of most designers, this often means just letting the job at hand sink in and cook for a bit. How many times has your best idea manifested itself in the shower? while driving? Just as you're waking up? In other words at some point when you are not actively thinking about the job?

We suck in all manner of things .... newspapers, books, snippets from the clients, opinions from others, internet research, flipping through award annuals, bits of these discussions, etc. ... and allow our minds (conscious or in a lot of cases, unconcious) to percolate it all together and form hitherto unseen connections that manifest themselves as ideas and concepts. As designers, I think our genius and our process all hinge on that, the ability to make those disparate connections concerete and visable. It's almost like we're gold miners or treasure hunters.

On Oct.14.2003 at 05:52 PM
Tan’s comment is:

> I don't look at any books, no annuals, no magazines no nothing.

(I'm momentarily out of the weeds -- so a quick posting.)

I'm the opposite when it comes to starting. I look at lots of things, including the client's competitor's materials, books, design magazines, logo annuals, whatever I can immerse myself in. If it's a logo for a healthcare company, then I pour through healthcare-related design, and so on. If it's a book cover, then I visit a bookstore during my lunchhour. I do this not to copy other people's work, but instead, to adopt the dialect, if you will, of the particular design genre I'm working in. It's like my own personal method of brainstorming -- it generates ideas that leads to other ideas. It also tells me what doesn't work, or has been done to death, or is a stylistic or conceptual pitfall. I avoid designing derivatives of things by simply looking through a wide variety of things instead of focusing on specifics.

I keep a little black, un-ruled sketchbook of everything I generate, including meeting notes, paginations, PMS chips, and copy roughs for projects. I burn through one sketchbook every 3-6 months or so, then file them away. I never lose my notes, and I can refer to things easily when I need them.

When it comes to the actual process of generating a design, I've noticed that there are 2 groups of designers -- introverts and extroverts. Introverts ingest the information, stew on it for days, thinking, creating, planning....then gives birth to a sketch or idea that's fully-baked and developed. Extroverts are the opposite. They immediately begin sketching, generate as many options as they can, changing, adapting, and creating as they go. They stop when the design gets to a certain place.

I'm an introvert. My business partner, Jeff, is an extrovert. He likes to call himself a "designer of discovery". I pretty much go dark, and when I'm ready, it comes out pretty much done. It drives Jeff crazy. I don't think one way is better than the other -- just recognize how you work best instead of simply adopting a process.

On Oct.14.2003 at 06:53 PM
marian’s comment is:

I don't look at any books, no annuals, no magazines no nothing

I start this way, because I have a fear of inadvertently ripping off an idea. But if I run into concept trouble I start looking around and then I prefer to start with Architecture mags, art books, etc. for the same reason, but yes, I've been known to peruse the CAs. Usually I'm looking for triggers rather than ideas. Usually I get depressed and feel unworthy.

My working process is different depending on what I'm designing, but usually I start by sketching. I can draw really well, but my sketches are awful; they work, though. Sometimes I find myself on the computer too soon and I find I get locked into a box in my thinking. At times like this I might be struggling and my ex-co-worker, Brian would come by and say "leave the computer." He was always right.

So I make little sketches for logos and then scan+trace, or rebuild in Illustrator (or scan, blow up and redraw large). For a logo, sometimes I'll sketch the typeface too, which runs me into trouble as I struggle to find just the right face that does THAT (and end up having to make a custom logotype).

For a multi-page/dimensional document, I also make little sketches and I cut up paper and make these teeny little mockups. Why do I always make them so small (1" x 2"-range)? I dunno, just because I can do it with a scrap of paper I find on my desk. Anyway, that way I play with folds, and upsides/downsides and signature breaks. I figure out how it works on paper, then I dissect them and turn to the computer. I make almost all of the layout decisions on the computer (and these days I use InDesign and love it).

I always have a grid, but a loose one. The few times I've shared projects with Brian it's mindblowing because he has this complicated mathematical approach to grids, and they're always multi-dimensional with billions of gridlines going all over the place. I like to keep things as simple as possible, and I usually eyeball the grid: just make something up that works for all the elements I need and an appropriate line length. Also these days I often base a design on alignment of other things on the page, but not necessarily the grid: or rather, I'll add to or change the grid depending on where the alignment of other elements on the page end up. There has to be logic and reason, but beyond that I'm not fanatical.

I choose colours onscreen for documents, then find PMS colours to match later, unless it's a 2-colour that needs the 2 colours to combine to make more colours, in which case I'm more likely to do a little PMS research first.

I'm pretty cavalier with fonts. Too cavalier. I pick them on a whim. I'm very lazy when it comes to fonts, as I hate, hate, hate looking through books of type. I hate it so much that the past little while I was asking Brian to choose for me, and provided it wasn't some $1500 European font we didn't own, I'd go with his recomendation. Now that we don't work together I'm on the search for those 7 fonts I can use for everything.

Paper is the last thing I choose, beyond the basics of coated, uncoated, textured, black, glittery, whatever. I'm overwhelmed by paper, especially the coateds. I find that either the exact thing I want doesn't exist, or it really doesn't matter, and I consult with the printer ("Something white, something shiny, I don't care.").

Oh yeah, consulting with the printer: if the concept is at all unusual I do this as soon as possible. Nothing like having to go back to the client after you've sold them on an idea and say, "uh ... it can't be done."

For colours I always print out little colour test squares on the Epson in CMYK, and adjust them until they're as close as possible to the PMS, then I rename that colour to "FAKE PMS 230 C" and import it into my document. I delete all the other colours and change them to the FAKE colours and print my document. I leave it that way until it's time to go to press, then I change all the FAKE colours to the real spot or match colours in the final file.

So all that gets me to a concept. I always present concepts that look close to done. I find that sketches always get me in trouble "Oh, but we really liked that loose, sketchy look; those crayon-y lines; I thought these were going to be illustrations..."). I present 2-3 concepts, usually. I have never presented just one, though I'm not morally opposed to it. And I usually present with a well-written defense that refers to points in the creative brief, which I usually leave behind with any concepts (though I don't always leave concepts behind: I'll resist leaving more than one concept, but sometimes they need one to show to smeone who was absent at the presentation).

Once it's approved (and signed off) I start to refine. I always use Style tags in documents as much as possible, and used to use Master pages extensively in Quark, but not so much in InDesign; I keep my pasteboards clean; I keep my folder structures tidy and organized; I keep copies of old files in a subfolder; I name comping images with their source (eg. Getty_... or Veer_...) and ID number; I keep a paper trail of everything (though have never had any luck with the "one sketch/notebook for all" thing, alas.)

I deal with client changes with a yes-yes-no approach. "Yes we can change the colour to red, yes we can switch these around, no we cannot change the small caps to caps, and here's why.) I get signoff on everything.

Then I have to deal with the printer. This is often the worst part of nearly every job I've ever done. The nightmares of being on press could be a long topic in itself, and I think I've written enough for one day.

On Oct.14.2003 at 08:36 PM
marian’s comment is:

Is that what you meant, Armin, or was that too much info?

On Oct.14.2003 at 09:05 PM
Garrick Van Buren’s comment is:

Hi, I'm the guy constantly asking "is this what you're thinking?".

Why? "Design" is a collaborative process...a conversation. The Cathedral and Bazaar that inspired the Linux movement is pointed straight at us (designers) now. We are no longer all-seeing high priests that come down from the mountain with the answers. If we don't want to be ignored - we need to act more like guides, teaching people to fish.

Unless you want to be a high priest. That's cool. They seem to have decent robes.

On Oct.14.2003 at 11:19 PM
Garrick Van Buren’s comment is:

I second Darrel's thought - Extreme Programming is a very interesting model for designers to follow. It basically means you'll never pull an all-nighter and everbody knows what's going on. About Time.

On Oct.14.2003 at 11:21 PM
Josh ’s comment is:

I start with ideas. I envision through that childlike wonder that I have hopefully not totally suppressed, what I could do? How would I present it different? How does a brand, product or service need to be perceived? Though it may sound like jumping the gun to concept before research I find it excites me in a way i need to be stimulated when working on a project. Thats what has driven me from day one. What could this be?

Oh the naive nature of being a student.

Garrick-thanks for coming back to your alma mater. It was informative and applicable.

On Oct.15.2003 at 06:14 PM
felix’s comment is:

So for me I have three main phase of my process, Research, Concept, Design.

I'd be interested in what Felix or other illustrators felt about this.

SAme here. But there are several Folgers coffee breaks in the mts between...

On Oct.16.2003 at 10:47 AM