Designing Your Design Process

Seeing how other designers create really helps when developing one’s own design process. No process is the same but all good ones include some form of the following: goal defining, researching, drafting and iterating.

My typical process includes these and a few others. Here’s a glimpse into what I do when I’m building a brand.

Project Inception/Kickoff

This initial kickoff with the client is my opportunity to ask lots of questions. It’s important for me to listen to what they’re saying and take note of what they’re not. I also challenge (in a polite way of course) anything the client feels strongly about. Not because I think they’re wrong, but to make sure I actually understand what they want and to see if they understand what they’re asking for.

This is also a great opportunity to do some card sorting exercises and affinitizing. This book is a great resource for different exercises you can do with clients based on the project and its needs.

Determine The Goal

This isn’t necessarily a separate step but it deserves to be called out as one. The goal is typically determined during the project inception/kickoff, and it’s probably the most important thing I do. This goal is my guiding star throughout the design process. Don’t ever forget what you’re working towards! Having a goal that both you and the client agree on also keeps the conversation on track during reviews.

Research

Research is one of my favorite steps in a project because it’s when I get to learn about something new. What kind of research you do varies, but this step should never be skipped. My research includes users, competitors, inspiration, techniques, markets, ethnography, methodology and materials.

The artifacts of my research are usually pages of notes, small doodles and collected images. This is also where the writing step begins.

Notes I took while researching a recent project. It includes pictures, doodles, random thoughts, ideas and learnings from various resources.

Writing

When I was younger, I never thought writing would be such an integral part of my design process. Over time it has become essential for developing a solid concept for any project.

With the research from the previous step and earlier client interviews, I start writing about the brand. What does it stand for? What doesn’t it? Who is engaging with the brand? And what story does the brand tell?

It doesn’t matter how shitty the writing is. For me it’s often a stream of consciousness. Get it all down no matter how weird and don’t censor yourself. My good friend and mentor always reminds me that “good writing is good editing”. You can always go back and clean things up.

My goal is to develop a narrative that will guide me as I start to work visually. A solid story will help to engage customers and ground the creative work.

Mood Boarding

This is the step where I just start pulling images. Anything that feels relevant to the brand. I try not to censor myself when I start pulling images. For me it’s often the images that feel the most out of left field that drive me in the most interesting direction.

And don’t just pull pretty images from Pinterest. Choose words from your writing and google search them. Follow it down a rabbit hole and see where it gets you.

Once I’ve collected all my images I put them in a huge Adobe Illustrator file and start grouping them. I look for links, connections and concepts and group based on that. I also label each of those groups with the concept or themes that emerge.

A mood board before being sorted into categories.
Images grouped by concept, theme and more specific things like color palette and typography.

Stylescapes

Once I have all my images and concepts, I start building stylescapes, which are essentially composing elements of the images I’ve found into interesting into collages. I may take a bit of type from one image and a pattern from another and combine them with another random image. These don’t have to make sense, they’re for setting visual tone.

I then take those stylescapes and start to rebuild them using live type and images/patterns that I have license to (or have created myself). This step starts to give me assets I could potentially use in the brand. But to be clear, this step also includes a lot of iteration. I try a variety of things and let the concepts evolve, so they don’t necessarily look like what I started with.

This is the first version of my stylescapes for a project, which use elements from my compiled mood boards. The images are composed into various collages using Photoshop. These small works inform how I want to use type, pattern and other elements in the final assets.
This is the second version of my stylescapes. At this point I’ve created custom patterns, used images that aren’t copyright restricted, created hand-written type and designed custom elements. The look has changed from the first stylescapes due to many iteration rounds. Don’t forget to iterate!

Drafting Assets

Let me just stop here and say that I don’t get to this point without some pain. My design process is definitely hard work and while I have a system that works for me, it also challenges me to not jump ahead, make conceptual leaps or follow the first idea that pops into my head.

When I start drafting the specific assets I need for the brand, I’m essentially using my stylescapes as art direction. A lot of the big decisions have already been made in that previous steps, like typeface, color, patterns, textures, etc. You should be able to just plug in the various components to the assets you need.

This pin used an icon from an old American hobo language, which is something I researched very early on and carried through each step. The pattern was created in the stylescapes and applied a background.
This giant mural used the hand-drawn line element, as well as the hobo icons, hand-written text and mountain imagery seen in the first version of the stylescapes.

Iterating

Iterate, iterate, iterate, iterate! There isn’t much else to say here. Don’t stop with your first idea. It’s never one and done. If you think you have a good idea, make it, set it aside and try going a different direction. Shake loose everything you possibly can at every step.

Clean Up & Presenting

Edit, cut and clean up. Nothing is precious. Be ruthless with yourself and remember what your goal is. Does what you’re presenting align with it? If not, kill it. Don’t get attached.

When it comes to presenting, I make sure to tell a story about the brand that creates an emotional connection. Carry the narrative throughout the presentation to draw your audience in.


This is my framework of how I approach big design projects. You’ll need to determine what works best for you and the type of design you’re doing.

It’s important for designers to share their processes with one another, because there’s always room for improvement. What’s your process?