Step 1: Think.

A research guide for branding & digital projects

Last week, we talked about our studio’s collaborative process, Think Make Do, and how it enables a small, diverse team to produce high-quality work. This week, we’re diving into the first step in that process a bit further, breaking down Think in detail. Consider this a guide to the research process, complete with workshop exercises, for any branding, digital, or creative project.

Think is the messiest phase, and time spent on research varies based on the size of the project. This is not brainstorming, and it’s not a linear process with defined steps and checklists. Think requires casting a wide net and sifting through a variety of resources to find the most meaning, often conducting multiple analyses in tandem and defining the path as you go. The Think phase encompasses immersion analysis, qualitative research, and brand exercises. Let’s break down what those mean in the world of branding and digital projects:

Immersion Analysis

Studio 424 hosting a client workshop

Intentionally vague, immersion analysis covers everything from content audits and inventory, reviewing existing brand assets, competitor matrices, and internalizing organizations’ mission statements and values. We’re conducting thorough reviews of a client’s digital presence — their website, social media channels, press, analytics, audiences, and assets — and determining opportunities and constraints. This guides our thinking about brand equity, clarity, and goals. While we may dedicate a chunk of time to an initial analysis, this is revisited over and over, and tweaked to reflect what we learn throughout the process.

Qualitative Research

Research requires structure and critical analysis to obtain meaningful results. Each of our team members hold advanced degrees in their fields — all of which required intensive academic research — and have the training to carry out effective and useful qualitative research exercises with clients. For branding projects, we’ve found that interviews with project stakeholders provide the best insight and direction.

We recently concluded the Think phase for a large project, a process that included extensive interviews with over a dozen key individuals. We called on stakeholders from within the organization, project partners, and subject matter experts to contribute their perspective. After analysis of the interviews, we were able to present our clients with an impressive understanding of their mission and vision, earning their trust and setting the stage for a successful project.

Brand Exercises

This is the really fun part of Think, for us and for the client. Brand exercises happen during interactive workshops, and often bring out productive and even contentious conversations around how clients view themselves. We use four techniques during these workshops to build our own understanding and weed through client assumptions about their brand.

I. Word association cards

Studio 424 Brand Deck — Word Association

As straightforward as it sounds, we provide sets of 48 cards, each with a different word and descriptive image, to a client group. Words like Bold, Innovative, Agile, Visionary, Human, and Independent are found in the deck, each with a corresponding image. We give each client in the group a deck and ask them to spend a few minutes alone pulling the top 12 cards that define their organization. They are free to rank or organize those 12 cards however they like. Then, we come together to see each person’s cards, see if and how frequently matching cards were chosen, and discuss those recurring cards as well as digressions.

II. Image association cards

Studio 424 Brand Deck — Image Association

Similar to the above exercise, we follow the same routine with a new deck of cards, but these only feature images. We pull an array of imagery, showcasing color, pattern, composition, mood, nature, iconography, architecture, etc. We’re purely looking for the aesthetic qualities each client gravitates toward with this exercise. This guides a bit of our thinking when exploring color palette and stylistic qualities during later phases. We’ve also found that the subsequent conversation around why clients were attracted to certain cards are more personal and often insightful.

III. Statement ranking

One of the most useful results of the immersion analysis and qualitative research manifests as mission and value statement drafts. Sometimes these are pull quotes from interviews, common phrases found in content, or statements we craft because they embody our perspective of the client. For this exercise, we present an assortment of statements, individually printed, and ask the clients to rank those (as a group) by most accurate. We also provide markers so they can edit statements on the spot, if needed, to reach consensus. While this doesn’t always become the final mission or value statement, it sparks valuable thinking about the organization’s core goals.

IV. Sketching

Studio 424 Sketch Templates

While many clients are hesitant to dive into this exercise, we’ve found that they really enjoy the end result. We provide a template sheet to clients and simply ask them to draw several ideas they have for their new website’s homepage. We draw right alongside them on our own templates and then come together after a few minutes to compare everyone’s sketches. Even if sketches are rudimentary, clients are able to walk us through their vision for people visiting the site, interactions and content they think would be useful, and the overall experience they want users to have. We love seeing their thought process in action and value how their vision guides our design process.

So we do all this research, and then what?

The Think phase is never really finished, but eventually we need to settle on a definition of goals and move on to the next step. As we enter the Make phase, we’re confident that all of this work was not done in vain. Our design and development process is so well informed by Think, we’re able to work independently and make calls that we know our clients will trust. This early effort gives us the agility and autonomy to work efficiently through the more tangible phases. It makes for better design, faster development, and happier clients.

This phase also culminates with the delivery of a Think Report to the client, outlining findings, brand vision, a creative brief for project deliverables, and creative direction for the next phase.

Like this? Check back in the coming weeks for a deep dive into Make, our contextualizing and prototyping phase!

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