From Start to Finish: The Design Process

How I begin anything


I think that it would be a good idea to not only start my blog with my design process, but to write it down and share it so people can utilize and take parts away for their own use. Afterall, a design process is never fully complete. It is always adapting and changing based on the projects that come.

Working as a freelancer, I’ve had a few clients and noticed that the questions I ask for one project are not the same questions I ask for another. The overall process itself can stay relatively similar, but small details are always being tweaked to fit the project scope.

I think it’s important to understand that I’m talking about designing a brand identity for a start-up, to a muti-page CMS website for an existing brand with a presence in their community.

Getting to Know Them

The first stage with any project, no matter what the medium is, is getting to know who you’re working with. This is, in my mind, the most crucial step as it sets the stage for a few things:

  1. Your professionalism
  2. Your knowledge of the client
  3. Your understanding of what they’re looking for

Professionalism

Without fully understanding that you are a professional working in the industry, there will always be a small mental block in your process. You may not even notice it’s there(I know I didn’t for quite a while). This can hinder your mindset, especially when you’re fresh out of school. The first step to passing this is believing that you are a working citizen doing your dream job (hopefully) and being “one of the gang” in your design community.

I know it is difficult to get your first gig outside of school, ESPECIALLY when your school doesn’t offer a co-op program (mine didn’t). You have to think about it like this:

Everyone starts in the exact same spot.

It’s a matter of how badly you want it. Are you going to continue to learn or are you content with what you know?(trick question), do you want to focus on a specific industry such as mobile development or print advertising? These are all things that have to be determined before your “mental block” can be beaten.

Your Knowledge of the Client

This is definitely an important step and CANNOT be overlooked. This is where you learn everything about the client, their needs, their likes/dislikes, which direction they were hoping to go in, etc.

A good start is to meet them in person. If it’s possible, go to their office or place of work so you can get a good sense of their culture. Absorb the surroundings such as decor, colour, imagery, style. All these were chosen purposefully and may help you figure out what their looking for.

Listen. Absorb. Learn.

Don’t be afraid to get to know them. For example, if you can’t meet at an office, go for coffee at a coffee lounge and just relax and hang out with them. Get off topic and learn about the client. Relationships are key in this industry. They pave the road to something more.

What They’re Looking For

It’s a good thing to have a basic set of questions to ask the client. Things like these are a good start:

What’s the purpose of this website?, Who are your competitors?, Who’s the target audience?, Will there be any call to actions?, What is your overall goal for a visitor?, Etc..

These are great questions and will really help shape your understanding of the project more. You should be prepared to ask more questions about the project to have a better grasp on what exactly they want. Also check out Google Forms. It’s a great tool that allows you to send them a list of questions that are easily accessible by anyone, anywhere.

Remember to take into account the industry they are in. For example, If they are a coffee shop looking for a rebranding, try to understand from their customers point of view as well what they are looking for, or their overall goal when they walk through that door or go to that website. This is a good example because you essentially have two different “call to actions” for your business based on the interaction.

If they come to your brick and mortar store, they are looking to browse your digital menu and purchase something. They may even stay in to enjoy the atmosphere. Think Starbucks.
If they visit the website however, the customer may want to sign up for a newsletter or perhaps a member’s program that gives them 10% off each coffee purchase for a year.

It’s very important to know your client, but it’s also important to know their target audience and their overall goals.

Sketching and Internal Research

Finally, after all that is done, we can start to work! My favourite stage is to doodle. It funny because during school, I was very focused on my computer and jumping into Photoshop or Illustrator and to start building shapes, exploring fonts, and playing with colours. BAD!! Now, I try to avoid the computer as much as possible in the first steps. It’s so much better.

I know it’s a good idea to research the industry and research the competitors to understand how they are doing things so you can do it better for your client, but this also makes you susceptible to sub-consciously taking others’ ideas. This is why I try to get out all my ideas before jumping in and doing my own research. This way, I’m working off of what I know about the client, what they’ve told me, and what I know through experiences in my life. Try to avoid lots of detail when designing as well. These are meant to be quick thoughts to get out on paper. I had a good tip during my schooling and it has stuck with me ever since:

If you can't use a sharpie, it’s too detailed. Simplify.

Afterwards, it is good to go in and do research on industries and competitors to see how they present themselves. Then go back and sketch knowing what you know now. Take your initial ideas and modify them. Find the strong concepts and branch off of those. The more ideas you draw out, the more refined your thinking process and idea generation will become. And the more options you’ll have.

Don’t be afraid to explore in different ways. Pair fonts together, capitalize some letters or cut off edges, push the boundaries of your designs, use negative space effectively. This is the initial stage, you don’t necessarily have to have a reason to do something, just do it. It could turn into something with a reason and purpose.

Make it Digital

After you’ve drawn out plenty of ideas, it’s time create digital copies. This stage makes me happy. I have a slight OCD for certain things like straight lines if they are meant to be straight, specific angles, being pixel perfect, and making the design balanced.

Remember whitespace. Give your designs some room, even when mocking them up. Cutting out whitespace vs an abundance does actually give the design different feelings. Don’t be afraid to explore with fonts and ligatures as well, but also don’t overdo it. Each font and colour has a voice, so make sure you know how to use them in moderation.

Approval and Modifications

You could have this step between the sketches and initial mockups, but I would be careful with that. In my experience, the client always picks the ones you’ve flushed out in your mind. If you do, re-draw only the good ones on a separate sheet so they have a select few to choose from. 6 would be a good number as it gives them variation but doesn’t overwhelm them with choices.

Don’t be afraid to get their opinion. Constructive criticism is key to making your skills better and will help you know if you’re on the right track. Give them a pen to doodle over yours. Help yourself see what they’re seeing.

This also helps you know if the client is happy with how things are going. They are using you for your skills and talent, but they also need to understand that no one is perfect and ultimately, they are the biggest influence in the outcome. If they don’t like the font, have them tell you. Getting a clear picture of what the client needs is key. Remember step 1?

Also note that they are not the experts. You are. If they suggest Papyrus as the font they want to use, or want a starburst around their logo, you need to have a compelling argument as to why this is a bad choice(and it is a bad choice).

Finishing it up

Hopefully if you are reaching this stage, the client is happy, you have a strong design/mockup, and you are working to finalize the details.

This step is usually shorter than the rest, but you need to remember a few things. You are a professional, you are a freelancer, you are working for yourself, and you need to live. This means bringing in clients and money. Use this time to make sure there are no uncertainties and that the experience working with one another was good.

Next, it’s time to ask for business. It circles around to seeing if they have any future projects on the horizon. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for a referral. Have them pass your name along to others so you can make new connections and possible clients. If you ask for business, people are naturally inclined to help any way they can. Believe it or not, people want to see other people succeed. If they are able to help, it makes them feel good about it because they were a contributing factor to your success. The relationships created through a mutual friend is also strong because the new client doesn’t want to be dishonest and have the negative mark fall back to the mutual friend.

A final thing to do before handing over the files and/or business is complete, is to get a reference from the client. This can be put on LinkedIn, your personal website, or used for future job hunting. This shows that you have happy clients in your past and you did a good job solving their problems. It also makes you feel good about yourself.

Good job in closing a client. Now, go find another!