No More Process Books

Design process books should give valuable insight into a student’s work instead they’re self-indulgent and boring.

Q: “How many process books should I show at an interview?”

A: None.

Design teachers are thoroughly enamored with process books—those bound scrapbooks that show a project’s evolution from idea to finished piece—and it shows in the fact that students have brought 2–3 of these entirely worthless documents to every portfolio review I’ve done.

The idea behind the process book makes sense. You (the student) are able to preemptively answer the question “So what is your design process?” by showcasing a major project from brief to research to end product. The process book should answer an unasked but often lingering question in the interviewer’s mind, “How much of this work is you and how much is the result of a good teacher guiding you?” (this is what every portfolio reviewer is thinking when we’re looking at a mediocre book with occasional flashes of brilliance). But after dozens of interviews and portfolio reviews I haven’t seen a process book that does this. Instead I see a 50+ page document of anemic research, countless iterations of the final design I’ve already seen, and no notes or context.

When you say “Here’s my process book for this project”, I know to expect 5 minutes of utter boredom while I wait for you to get back to the meat of your portfolio. Half the time your 2 or 3 process books are just filler to make it look like you have more work than you actually do. Right now your process books give the impression that you don’t actually have a process and as such are a liability. So stop showing them and instead work on a succinct answer to the question, “What is your design process?” (Hint: if you can’t answer that question then your process is almost certainly a variation on “I fuck around until I run out of time and have to pick something.”).

Its called a process book. So make it one. Books have introductions, captions, notes, and most importantly, a narrative—a beginning, a middle and an end. A 60-page collage of outtakes with no text is not a process book. Its an artist’s book and it tells me nothing.

But I want to see evidence of a rich process. I want to know that underneath the brilliance of your work is a methodology that is replicable (or at least reliable). I want to see how your brain works and why you decide to kill one version and keep another. The problem I have isn’t with process books, its with the bullshit you’re passing off as “process” right now.

So if you’re going to produce process books here’s what I want to see:

  1. A story: Its called a process book. So make it one. Books have introductions, captions, notes, and most importantly, a narrative—a beginning, a middle and an end. A 60-page collage of outtakes with no text is not a process book. Its an artist’s book and it tells me nothing.
  2. Research: I want to know everything: what did you read, listen to and go look at? Who did you talk to? What do your notes look like? How did you decide what was most important? How did you know when you were done? And how do you organize your research—is it in folders, on a bulletin board or digital?
  3. Ideation: How did the research turn into actionable ideas? How many ideas did you come up? Are they lists or sketches? How did you decide what ideas to go forward with?
  4. Methodology: How do you actually design? Do you sketch out first or build up type and images digitally? Do you have a single idea or web of references? How do you decide what to kill? How are you getting feedback and what is the criteria for paying attention to it or ignoring it?
  5. Final appraisal: Why is the final result good? Not what you would change or do differently but why is it totally fucking great? I want to know that you recognize when something is good and can articulate why its good. Your process book is ultimately an argument for your end result. It says “After all this work there is no other place that I could have ended up.” I know you were raised to be humble but I need to know that you not only have confidence in your work but that you love it. If we end up working together you will never hear me say to a client “Well, we really learned a lot on this project and if we could do it all over again we would change this, this, and this.” No way. I’m going to say “We made this for you and here’s why its awesome.” If you can’t say that (or at least the safe but boring “Here’s why it works”) then you are not done with the project and you should not be showing it to me.

If you want to keep producing process books that contain nothing more than 50 different versions of a poster or an experimental image-making process involving photocopiers go for it but know that you’re about to lose my interest.

But if you can do this—make a book that I can read and understand you and your work better—then bring the process book to our interview and prepare for me to freak out about how great it is to finally see a “real” process book.

Namdev Hardisty is a graphic designer at The MVA Studio, a teacher at Minneapolis College of Art & Design, and author of Function, Restraint & Subversion in Typography. Read more of his writing at Early Ambient.