Modified from Photo by Noble Mitchell on Unsplash

What We Do Before We Start Designing

Ty Fujimura
Aug 6 · 3 min read

At Cantilever, when we kick off a project creating large new site, the first thing we do has nothing to do with pixels. Before we design a single page, we ask questions. We call this process Discovery.

We ask about the obvious things: how the current site is doing, who the audience is, and what content the client has available. But then we go further. For the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank, we asked about the difference between bipartisanship and centrism. For IEH, a manufacturer of electrical parts used in aerospace, we explored the physics behind why their flagship “hyperboloid connector” can withstand multiple g-forces. We ask any question we can think of about the client’s business, market, and world.

Sometimes our clients ask:

“Is this… helpful?”

They wonder if the questions we are asking are too far afield to be relevant. But when it comes to design, everything is relevant.

Design cannot be judged in a vacuum. What makes a design successful or unsuccessful is the degree to which it informs, enables, and inspires users. Can an ugly website be successful? Sure — users of Craigslist and Drudge Report certainly think so. When we are designing a new site, we cannot simply dive in with preconceptions about what “good design” means in this context, and expect to be successful. We need to know two things:

  1. What is going wrong for the client that is inspiring them to need a new/updated website?
  2. How can we solve those problems through design?

If we don’t know the answers to these questions, the site won’t live up to its potential. We dig for answers by diving deep on any information we can get our hands on about the client and their market. We talk to their customers and learn how the proverbial sausage is made. We once designed the website for a dentist, and insisted on sitting in the chair like a patient would.

Every detail matters. No matter how fantastic or beautiful a site may be, it won’t succeed if it doesn’t present the client’s brand well. Creating a website involves thousands of decisions, many of which are too technical and intricate for the client to provide direct feedback on. In Discovery, we learn everything we can about them and their business so that when it comes time to make one of those choices, we know what they would do if equipped with the domain knowledge we possess. We try to “grok” their brand so that the project is imbued with its qualities.

GIF featuring the song “Getting to Know You” from the 1956 film musical “The King and I”
GIF featuring the song “Getting to Know You” from the 1956 film musical “The King and I”
Source: GIF created from the 1956 film musical “The King and I”

When we are done with Discovery, our clients often tell us that they have an entirely new and expanded awareness of the qualities of their brand than they had prior. They are now able to see aspects and elements of their brand that they were blind to or took for granted before. The process of creating a new site with us unintentionally provides them with an expanded self-awareness of what their brand looks like and does.

If you are investing significant amounts into any design process, make sure the people doing the design know and understand your brand first. It’s much easier to establish this understanding at the beginning than to correct false assumptions later. The upfront time spent may feel inefficient, but it represents just a fraction of the overall cost and has a huge impact on the direction a project will go. You should leave the Discovery period feeling confident that the company working to represent you understands you and that the rest of your investment in design is a good one.


Edited by Rebecca Testrake
Studio Manager & Magical Instigator at Cantilever

Cantilever

Cantilever is a boutique digital agency that creates quality websites and web applications.

Ty Fujimura

Written by

Founder of Cantilever, a boutique remote web design and development firm. Lots of hats.

Cantilever

Cantilever is a boutique digital agency that creates quality websites and web applications.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade