Creative Design Process

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Adobe describes the design Process as one involving the following specific steps:


  1. Before you can build a product, you need to understand its context for existence.
  2. Once the product idea is defined, product research (which naturally includes user and market research) provides the other half of the foundation for great design.
  3. The aim of the Analysis phase is to draw insights from data collected during the Product Research phase.
  4. When it’s clear what the goals are designers move to the design phase which is both highly collaborative and iterative (meaning that it cycles back upon itself to validate ideas and assumptions)
  5. The validation phase starts when the design is fleshed out. A product is validated with stakeholders and end-users through the series of user testing sessions.
  6. It’s important to understand that design isn’t a linear process. The phases of the process often have considerable overlap and usually there’s a lot of back-and-forth. Communication is a key.


There are four main features of research design, which are distinct, but closely related.

They are:

  • Ontology. How you, the researcher, view the world and the assumptions that you make about the nature of the world and of reality.
  • Epistemology. The assumptions that you make about the best way of investigating the world and about reality.
  • Methodology. The way that you group together your research techniques to make a coherent picture.
  • Methods and techniques. What you actually do in order to collect your data and carry out your investigations.

These four are like the rings of a tree trunk: the methods are the outermost, and most visible, but without the inner ones, the outer one would die. All four need to be coherent and consistent to create a viable research design.

These principles are the same, whether you are doing scientific research in a laboratory or sending out a customer questionnaire.

Before choosing your methods, you need to understand how they fit with your ‘bigger picture’ of the world, and how you choose to investigate it, to ensure that your work will be coherent and effective.

Ontology Realism Internal Realism Relativism Nominalism
Summary The world is ‘real’, and science proceeds by examining and observing it The world is real, but it is almost impossible to examine it directly Scientific laws are basically created by people to fit their view of reality Reality is entirely created by people, and there is no external ‘truth’
Truth There is a single truth Truth exists, but is obscure There are many truths There is no truth
Facts Facts exist, and can be revealed through experiments Facts are concrete, but cannot always be revealed Facts depend on the viewpoint of the observer Facts are all human creations

From: Management Research (4th edition), Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson

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The key to initiating a successful design process and ultimately a successful design solution is in clearly discovering and defining the problem to be solved. Rarely will your client be able to come to you in the initial meeting and articulate this concisely, clearly or most importantly, accurately. It is, therefore your first job to discover what the problem actually is that can be approached with design thinking and design making.

Your goal of personally finding out more than what you currently know about your subject is key. Prior to the publication of Frances Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning, learning had relied on the writings of the esteemed philosophers of the past more than direct observation. For example, it was believed that a heavier object fell faster than a lighter one because Aristotle had written so. Then Galileo leaned out of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, dropped two balls of different weight, and disproved Aristotle’s theory. In his book, Bacon charged that “we have withdrawn ourselves too much from the contemplation of nature, and the observations of experience, and have tumbled up and down in our own reasons and conceits”.

A useful philosophy to follow throughout the entire process and guide your decisions, but especially in the first stages are expressed in this Universal Design Brief.

Express the Essence

Create Emotional Impact

Delivery the Gift of Delight

Compel People to Think

Inspire People to Act

Flowchart of the steps in the Scientific Method

Whether your individual approach to the creation of design follows something similar to the scientific method of discovery, traditional design thumbnails>>roughs>>comprehensive>>presentation, or “flying by the seat of your pants”, the consistent creation of meaningful design does not happen by waiting for inspiration to strike you in the middle of the night. Instead it is the result of following a process of some kind.

Always present in this process is a stage requiring research. You must know details about your project needs, your intended audience, the context it will be seen/used in and the project’s direct and indirect competition.

Always present in this process is a stage requiring development. Variations, options, and spin-offs of the original idea happen here as a means of flushing out the essence of what is needed, what looks best, what is most meaningful—what works.

Always present in this process is a stage requiring reflection. An objective critique of what you have at this stage is important in revealing previously unforeseen flaws or weaknesses as well as potential improvements or tweaks in the original idea. Reflection needs to happen at several points within the overall process, not just at one stage, nor just at the end.

Always present in this process is a stage of refinement and craftsmanship. Lack of this attention to detail can doom a good idea. It will not save a poor idea, but can certainly prevent an otherwise good idea from being accepted by the client or being allowed to go forward. Your patience, care and concern for craftsmanship will translate the concept of quality to the project and by contrast. Poor craftsmanship and execution will translate as lacking quality.

Always present in this process is a stage of presentation. Your ability to represent and explain your project to those who will either accept or reject it requires persuasion. Confidence, positive attitude and basic public speaking skills are essential in assuring the success at this stage.

Innovation is about arguing, and How to do it productively.

Always present in this process is a stage of production. Good design must accommodate the limits and advantages of the methods of production which will be used to produce your project once approved. Paper, binding, and printing method are 3 examples of individual choices at the production stage which can enhance or doom your project. Design with this stage in mind from the beginning, not something that is tacked on at the end.

The Proof is in the Process by George Shaw

A teacher once told me, “Anyone can be creative on their best day. If you want to make a living at this stuff (graphic design), you’ve got to be creative on the days when your car breaks down and your wife leaves you.” I thought he was trying to get me to listen to country music, but eventually, I figured out what he was talking about. Having a creative job has its ups and downs. When you’re able to patiently nurture your creativity with mood lighting and inspirational trinkets, taking all the time you need to carefully refine your ideas before presenting them to your client, you should consider yourself very lucky. But when it’s 3 a.m. and you need to finish a set of comps before the start of business in six hours and the only ideas you’re having are colorful excuses to explain your total lack of creative thought, the frustration can bring you to your knees.These are the times when having a concise, clear creative process will save you, allowing hard work, experience and intelligence to get you through the job.

The Need for a Process

You probably already have a process you follow when creating any new design from scratch; you may have just never “formalized” that process or thought about it in a lot of detail. By picking apart the way you already do things, possibly modifying your technique a little, and creating a repeatable plan for the generation and execution of new ideas, you’ll improve your consistency, your ability to plan and time your work, and perhaps even raise the quality of your best work. You’ll ensure that your work is not only artistically great, but commercially viable as well, communicating more effectively and in a more sophisticated manner. By focusing on your process, you’ll have a chance to analyze what works, what doesn’t work and what you should emphasize in order to get the most from the good ol’ right brain. For the purpose of this discussion, we’ll assume that we’re talking about the initial phase of a design project, the production of comps. This phase is often where the groundwork is laid for the rest of the work to follow; where style, colors, graphic systems, information architecture, and details of execution and production are either planned or considered in detail. In large-scale Web projects, there might be thousands of pages that follow directly from this early moment of creation. In identity design, a client’s outward appearance might be affected for years by the work a designer does at this initial stage. The design of a printed piece with many pages is often largely based on the structure and style established in the comps. Yes, comps are quite important!

What is a Process? Your creative process is a series of steps that you repeat every time you need to create. Simple. The trick is to make the steps fluid and flexible enough to allow you the room you need to create well, while still being structured enough to help you through when you’re having a hard time. An effective process should allow for serendipity—happy accidents are responsible for lots of great design (probably more than anyone cares to admit). A good process should also have room for moments of creativity—flashes of brilliance—mingled with long bouts of mental chaff. Your own process might be a very rigid step-by-step approach, or it might be a loose progression of stages you go through, or it could be anything in between. Your process might take, or it might take just a few minutes right before a flurry of creative energy. These factors will depend, of course, on personal taste and habits, the requirements of the particular job at hand and the medium in which you’re working.

Developing Your Own Process

In order to begin thinking about what kind of process you might follow, it’s important to really examine what it is that you do, or at least what it is that you’re expected to do on a particular job. Were you hired primarily as a “visionary” who the client is expecting to reel in come production time? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, are you more of a craftsman, hired to build something conservative and simple, but to build it really well? These two extremes, and everything in between, have different creative needs and therefore different creative approaches. A good process will allow you enough flexibility to work with varying levels of creative freedom and varying expectations of “creative muscle”. You should also be able to modify your approach slightly to function in almost any medium, with almost any style, and within a myriad of other constraints that might be placed upon you. By focusing on one aspect or another of your process, from research to planning to execution, you can guide your own thinking toward your creative goals without having to significantly modify your overall approach. When thinking about how to develop a process that will work for you, it’s also a good idea to think about how you’re most comfortable working and how things tend to happen when you’re really clicking. Think back to your best moments—what form did inspiration take? Different people are triggered creatively in different ways, and it’s important to know the types of things that set your own mind in motion so that you can structure your process around those things. Whatever process you follow is a very personal choice. In thinking about and developing your process, you need to take an honest assessment of who you are, what you do, what you’re good at and what you’re not, and what you hope to achieve in your work. The Proof is in the Process An Example of a Process That Works Following is a description of the process I use to create new comps. Sometimes this process takes months, sometimes minutes, but I always stick to the same basic guidelines. Hopefully, reading this will help you to gain some insight into how you might best approach creative situations.

RESEARCH Describe the design direction you think is most appropriate, using precise adjectives and phrases. First, you should think about what you already know about the project from initial client meetings, documentation you’ve received, etc. Use this knowledge to come up with a few adjectives and phrases that you think describe the general “vibe” you’re looking for with your design. For example: “This piece needs to be modern and cutting edge, but sophisticated. Aloof. Vibrant and animated, but serious. Expensive. Older folks trying to feel young.” Use your own words, things that evoke feelings, images or ideas in your own mind. Then, ask yourself some questions: What kind of message/client/brand/product is this that I’m trying to communicate? Who is my audience? Are they interested, or is it a “hard sell”? What am I trying to tell my audience? Is there a message? Here, you’re trying to use logic to refine your direction and make sure your work is appropriate to the client and the client’s audience. Finally, look for ingredients. Inspiration can come from anywhere—scour media (magazines, movies, books, etc.), look at your own past work, look at the junk on your desk, keep an eye on street sign É look at everything with an eye towards finding things that fit with the adjectives and phrases you already established. You’re looking both for ideas that might be able to be modified to fit your plans and also an idea of what has come before in order to provide a context for your work. After you’ve gone through these steps once, re-describe the direction with better adjectives, ask more questions, look deeper (if possible) into your ingredients pile and repeat again and again until you start to form a mental picture of what it is you’re trying to design. To dig deeper, you might want to find more work by artists whose style makes sense to you. You might want to gain a broader sense of a particular period in history, be it art history or otherwise. The tangible outcome of the research phase might be a list of informed and refined adjectives, or it might be pages of notes, piles of books, thoughts in your head, or any combination of these. The point is that you’ve done as thorough a study as possible (usually dictated by the time available to you) of what you’re designing and how what you’re designing relates to other design that might be similar in some way. This is a part of the process that’s very time-flexible; it can take minutes or months. Having a personal library is crucial here if you’re up against a tight deadline. A high bill is pretty much assured if you regularly work with short deadlines. If you’ve got plenty of time, don’t just buy a bunch of books and let them sit in a pile until three minutes before you start work! Read the books and digest the visual information. There are times, too, when your strategy will be to do almost no research at all. Although pretty much every client will tell you, “I want something brand new and exciting,” most don’t want you to actually reinvent the medium with pure originality. In most cases, commercial artists are hired to illicit commercial gain in some way, and commercial gain is only rarely achieved via personal artistic expression. There are, however, those times when art with a capital A is what’s on the agenda—Break out the incense, chill out, and put the books away! Doing effective research is the best way to put the work you do into context, both in the current design world and in history. Nike rarely hires guys living in outer Mongolia to design their ads for Rolling Stone. You need to know what’s happening in the world all the time. And although it’s possible to spew your own ideas long and hard enough that people start asking for them by name, it’s more common to need to know what has come before and where your work fits into that grand scheme.

It’s a good idea, whether you’re designing club flyers or Fortune 500 Web sites, to know what the flyers looked like last year or have some idea of the short history of Web design. The Proof is in the Process PLAN Sketch possible ideas, given the necessary elements. This should probably be a relatively mechanical process to start with, building to free thinking as time and the project merit. Draw the elements’ basic shapes, and then work through permutations of arrangements of those shapes. Sometimes the relative sizes of the shapes are given to you (more precisely than we might like sometimes, thanks to armies of corporate lawyers). In those cases you’re just putting them together like a jigsaw puzzle. There are also times when you’re free to try 4pt. type in the menus, a logo the size of a pea or copyright lines that look like headlines. Few designers draw as well as they probably should these days—at least that’s what the “old timers” are fond of saying, and I tend to agree. While the computer is (obviously) an indispensable tool for many (if not most) aspects of design, it can limit one’s thinking when planning page layouts and structure. I always recommend sketching with pencil and paper, generally at a small scale. If you’re working on a web site, these sketches will probably take the form of page layouts—choose a page that’s indicative of the design of the site (often the main page) to work on first. Sketches for other page-based design (i.e., printed materials) will often take the same form—an indicative page sketched in miniature through as many permutations as possible. In logo design situations, you might first need to decide upon a basic format for the logo—overall shape, type or no type, figurative or abstract, etc. This sketch phase tends to blend very much with the execution or design phase when you’re dealing with logos, identities, or simple page layouts.

During the planning phase, you’ll want to be thinking about some other issues in addition to basic layout. You might also be experimenting with various other design choices at this point, contemplating what typefaces might be appropriate, what sorts of imagery you might use and how the visual language of the piece will relate to the goals you settled on in the research phase. In Web design, how the page will actually function and move, what animation will be present, how the interface will feel to the user, and what the potential technical issues (and solutions) might be should also be considered in these early stages of design. Even if you don’t have answers to the questions you’re asking yet, just asking these kinds of questions of your design will help to inform the decisions you make. The more time you’re able to spend in this phase, the better. This is when you can be hanging out at the beach, jotting down ideas on your lunch receipt and still be doing your job well. “Hmmm, how might that menu work? What if it was really, really small? Or maybe HUGE type? Or É?” I like to spend at least a week or two whenever possible just thinking about a project and sketching sporadically before I move on to the next phase, execution.

EXECUTE Using the research you did and the plans you formulated, concretely visualize the final piece. Now it’s time to start moving pixels around (even if you’re designing a printed piece, it still spends most of its life as pixels). This phase is where personal work habits allow for the most variation in typical processes. You’ll need to have some understanding of how your own creative mind works and a good objective assessment of your strengths and weaknesses in order to formulate your approach to this final stage of the comps process. The goal, depending on the particulars of the job, is to create a concise visual exploration of options that fulfill the objectives laid out in the research and planning phases. There should be as much variation as possible between different possible solutions to allow for future refinement of ideas. Start with the “knowns” such as layouts from planning sketches, logos, imagery that’s either required or desired, and permutations of necessary elements such as menus and copy. Block these pieces in, add more detail, refine placements and treatments (changing typefaces, relationships, color, etc.), and continue to develop. You might begin five or six different pieces based on your sketches, making “passes” through the complete set and refining each piece a little bit with each pass. Or, you might begin a single piece, develop, build, and refine it to your satisfaction, then begin the next piece with new ideas and objectives. The goal should be maximum variety and exploration of visual solutions, using each solution as a starting point for further development. As with every other phase in the process, the time you spend here will depend on personal preference and style, the needs of the job and the time available to you. If you have the time and feel it’s important to what you’re working on, you might spend far more time choosing a typeface, creating pages of type samples to ponder. Or you might do exhaustive color studies before settling on a few potential palettes. There’s no limit to how much experimentation and study you might do with each detail of the piece you’re working on, given the time and motivation.

The difficult part for most people is moving forward in a visual direction, finishing the “look” of a page, while keeping your mind open enough to allow for more visual exploration and variation. It’s very easy to grow attached to particular solutions that you like and have a hard time modifying or removing these solutions entirely if your exploration moves in different directions. Keep an open mind and don’t fall in love too early! It’s important to “know when to say when” during this final phase. By leaving each piece just slightly unfinished, you ensure that the development of the design will continue beyond these initial comps. I read once about an old art director’s trick that says a client will ALWAYS want to change SOMETHING, so make sure you leave them something to mess with, otherwise they’ll mess with elements that you’d rather were left alone. This pearl of wisdom often applies here—if you really don’t think it makes much difference what color a headline is, leave that up to the client. Giving them a design decision to make (with your supervision, of course!) will make them feel involved in the process and possibly save you from spoiling parts that you feel strongly about. Even if you don’t give the client choices or obvious tweaks to make, you should always remember that this is an initial creative step, not the production of a finished piece.

Process is Important A lot is said in art school about “process.” We try to drill into budding designers over and over the need to focus on their process and not skip right to the final phases of a design or illustration. But somehow I managed to graduate from school (and I’m sure I’m not alone) with less than a usable explanation of what it means to build and follow a process in your job as a graphic designer. There’s a lot of logic involved in creating something appropriate and effective for your client. You need to ask yourself a lot of questions, and the right questions to ask aren’t the same for any two people. By knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, personal issues and preferences, and your objectives for the project, you can guide your own thinking in directions that will meet everyone’s needs. There’s also an element, to varying degrees, of je ne sais quois in all art, commercial or otherwise. Unexpected visual relationships and quirky visual statements are, I feel, what separates art from craft. Figuring out how to add this special something to your work is what makes creating for a living so damn fun. If finding new ways to stimulate your creativity is something you need help with, then maybe this job isn’t for you. That’s the EASY part! Recent examples of ways that designers I know stimulate their creativity include going to concerts, going to the beach, shopping for postcards and other trinkets, working at home, having cool offices with collections of evocative junk, buying interesting books about art, and socializing with like-minded professionals. And the funny thing is, it all works. That’s the whole reason, in my humble opinion, to be a graphic designer in the first place. If you’re having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that you have to relax more to do your job better, then that issue needs to be dealt with before you go any further. Turn off the computer and go outside and play.


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