Why You Should Document your Design Process
End products should not be the sole focus of any design work. Whether it’s studio art, digital art, product design, or anything in between, don’t forsake the process!
As an intermediate artist, I’ve learned that using a clear design process is the absolute best way to continually improve my skills.
In this article, I will define the design process, explain its importance, demonstrate the benefits of its documentation, and show ways to document it.
The most basic elements of the processes are to need-find, brainstorm, and prototype. More specific steps, such as empathising, wire-framing, testing, defining, reframing, scaling, stretching, bopping, locking, polka-dotting, countrifying, hip hopping (sorry), and so on, can be added to further fortify your process. Otherwise, I find it easy to rush to implement the first design that I love. For studio art, that may entail sketching, showing my friends these sketches, and experimenting with more sketches (some get pretty weird). For product and digital design, I try to implement as many of these steps as possible.
The importance of this process is to help me better understand what I’m trying to accomplish as a designer. This understanding and – forgive the buzzword – empathy is what helps my design in becoming the most intuitive, simple, and beautiful it could be. It will also evoke the most emotion from whoever it is I’m trying to impress.
Here’s a not-so-subtle way of illustrating the significance of brainstorming and iteration: if you’ve ever played Who Wants to Live a Million Years on the Science Channel website (or understand the basic concept of evolution), you appreciate the importance of mutation and variation. The first key to winning is creating as genetically diverse of a population as possible so that at least some creatures survive randomly generated natural disasters. The second is to strategically iterate. There’s no need for them to evolve big furry coats if the temperature is sky high.
The same applies to art. Only a rookie would make the mistake of falling in love with her first design. Iteration of prototypes, paired with constant feedback and brainstorming, will assure that her design is more, dare I say, evolved.
With so many iterations, there is much to be gained and much that could be lost. The following benefits are reasons I find it rewarding to document the process and how to do it yourself.
See Where You Go Wrong
Like any good athlete, grab a bag of ice to numb that sprain (or, for designers, a hand cramp or sore eyes) and watch tapes of yourself playing on the field. You’ll be able to see the exact moment something starts to look weird and when you fix it. These changes would be impossible to detect if you were to only look at the final product. Additionally, I usually do not notice these mistakes unless I take a step back to look at the work in its entirety. Only by taking progress pictures do I really get too look at the entire design; when I’m working on it, I usually allow details to distract me from the whole picture.
In the following series, I kept track of my progress as I experimented with funky perspectives and watercolours:
Had I taken more progress pictures, I would have known the exact moment where things went wrong and muddy. I would also have captured the difference between using thin and thick lines — I remember that I thought thicker lines looked better, but now I cannot be sure. That’s also just one specific example; progress pictures do wonders with helping you learn about proportions, experiment with colours, and generally find your style.
The above is an example of how progress pictures helped me take a step back and reevaluate the entire piece of art and document my learning experience. It’s difficult to remember the lesson I learned in colour balance (because there’s always so much to learn!). Now that I’ve reflected on this newfound knowledge, I’ll be more likely to be aware of colours in the future. Furthermore, had I not noticed this problem while I was painting, I would have noticed later on as I examined my screenshots in succession. Then, I would make a mental note to work on this weakness in future works.
The best way to learn from other artists is not to imitate their final product, but their process. If you understand the way in which they sketch, iterate, redesign, etc., you’ll be able to adapt that process to better suit your own style of working. This should also incentivize you to not forget to keep track of your work, lest your progress pictures look like this:
It may feel very vain to consider yourself as a teacher to others. However, it’s important to realise that, even though you may be a beginner, there will always be someone who started a minute later. There’s also nothing vain in showcasing your mistakes so that others can look for those in their own work.
Buff Up Your Portfolio
My engineering design skills are not particularly impressive. However, take this feat of genius as an exception:
This would surely catch the eye of any potential employer. Still, take it to the next step by showing the thoughtfulness of your creative process.
This example is a joke, but employers do want to see that your work is thoughtful and original, having evolved through trial and error (or at least good wire-framing). They also want to be confident in your ability to apply this process to any challenge and project. By documenting your projects in progress — even if you aren’t totally happy with the final product — you can show others that your design process is something to be proud of. Here’s one of my personal favourite portfolios: http://dbirman.com/grin
I heard a cautionary tale the other day; some friends at, let’s just say, Eye-DEO work extensively on whiteboards (the most ephemeral of design mediums) and forget to take pictures of their brainstorms, drafts, interviews, prototypes, and other parts of the process. Eventually, partners would ask for check-ups. To show the full breadth and depth of their work, these friends would come to work one day with three different outfits. Then, they would recreate their entire process with these outfits to look like the photos were taken over the course of many days, rather than just one.
The moral of the story is that clients also will want to see all the work you’ve done, and it is frustrating to have to fake your own sketches. Additionally, it will be worse to only show them just one final sketch. First, this may give them the false impression that you did not care enough to spend more time on the project when you did. Second, they may have preferred one of your earlier sketches. Third, they will understand your thought process better if they see how your design changed over time. By starting on the same page, you can both continue brainstorming right away.
Gain Empathy From Your “Users”
Your user base is comprised of the groups, demographics, individuals, or any distinct population, and will vary from project to project. You could just be designing for yourself, which means that you could just ignore this part. However, if you’re designing for a class, makeup artists, vegans, dogs… etc, then empathy is especially important.
Once you’ve repeated your process a few times, you will have a solid set of iterations to test on real life people. They’ll able to tell you which parts they did and did not like and understand. Only after iterating and testing will you be able to truly understand what your design needs to be and create something that you will be proud of.
For example, I was considering different ways to market a website. The following is a second-iteration mockup.
Although it looks very simple, it went through quite an extensive brainstorming session (before drafting):
First, one example of understanding users is making a simple choice: barcode or QR code? QR codes would be cool because you can make a QR code for the actual website. However, by stepping into the shoes of the audience I’m going for (20–30 year-olds), I saw that flyers with a QR code would take away the shock value of seeing a barcode. Coolness does not equate to stickiness (how a design “sticks” to a user). After interviewing my friends, I concluded that having a QR code would not draw people to the flyer. In fact, it would actually repel my audience by showing that this is just another company using QR codes to spread their website. Thus, by iterating on my idea, I was able to choose the version that made the most sense for my user group.
Second, this is not even the final product. The final poster may look completely different because I’m continuing the process of interviewing others, checking in with clients, and so on.
Gain Empathy From Other Designers
Nothing encourages me more to see that my favourite artists also made the same mistakes I did when they were younger. After all, empathy is why fitness journeys and “glo up” posts are so popular online. If you really wish to connect with other designers, show your work at its most vulnerable. It will also legitimately give people hope if you not only keep track of individual projects, but your lifelong portfolio.
If you can do it, so can they! And if they can do it, so can you.
Learn To Trust Yourself
I cannot count the number of times I’ve wanted to give up on a project because the work looks so weird at the time. After documenting my processes, however, I can objectively observe that my best work has looked just as bad (if not worse) in progress than whatever it is that I want to trash. I’ve since learned to trust the process and now enjoy making straight-up ugly designs. I’m not afraid to mess up and flaunt it. If I fix it, I get to showcase my ability to evolve. If I don’t, I learn from feedback and gain empathy from others. It’s a win-win.
How To Do It
Take constant screenshots and snap pictures on your phone
I sometimes set a timer for 10, 30, or 60 minutes to remind myself to take a progress picture. And, although it embarrasses me to say so, the urge to Snapchat your friends your progress is a good reminder to also keep track of your work.
Take a video/timelapse:
If you are able to get your hands on an iPad Pro, Adobe Sketch & Draw and Procreate all automatically record high quality videos of your projects. Quicktime player has a recording function that also works well if you work on your laptop.
You can also get crafty and duct tape your phone on an elevated surface to timelapse a physical project/paper notes (or have a real camera setup with a stand). Take the following video with a grain of salt; it’s supposed to be humorous, but it is also supposed to be somewhat interesting to watch. I captured the timelapse by tying my phone to an indoor lamp post. Just make sure the lighting and angle are good, because those make or break a video!
Don’t throw things away: keep all sketches
Try to save different versions of your draft files instead of overriding one file. Google Drive/Dropbox is good for storage if you don’t have enough space on your computer. I did something really sketchy and stored old stuff on an old SD card. Just make sure to keep those cheeky little physical storage cards organised and safe.
Continuously ask for feedback and iterate, iterate, iterate
Send a picture to a friend and ask for thoughts! I like to sit and work in the library. Once in a while, I would ask passing friends for feedback. I also always send progress pictures to Groupmes, group texts, Slack channels for #design, and so on. People don’t need to have an “eye” for art to give good feedback, and if you’re working with a defined “user group”, it’s a good idea to actively search for people who fit the description.
Redraw designs/pieces of art
Meme yourself and don’t be ashamed of how bad old designs are. Additionally, if you like your old styles better, redrawing old projects is a good way to rediscover what you liked about your natural style.
Constantly organise your WIP (work in progress) unless you want it to look like this:
I hope that you feel compelled to refine and document your design process. Good luck! And draw on.