The idea factory

This post is part of the Please Don’t Be a Dick series. You can read the first post here.

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Choosing a designer

There seems to be a lot of mystery surrounding the details of what a graphic designer actually does. Everyone has their own notions on how a graphic designer goes about generating ideas and creating pieces of work.

There’s no closely guarded secret that the inner circle of designers don’t want to share with the rest of the world. We don’t believe that giving away our techniques will result in people designing for themselves and no longer requiring our services.

The myths

There is a lot of speculation about the design world. As preposterous as certain preconceptions might seem, they actually do exist in the minds of some people.

There is that ‘stereotypified’ image of the designer sitting in his warehouse-converted apartment waiting for an idea to come to him in a moment of substance-induced enlightenment. This is followed by a great leap to his computer, converting with poetic ease this idea of epic proportion into something visual. In a short instant his graphic creation is polished with no typos, blemishes or glitches, ready for print or production.

Another favourite designer legend: The Hunt for the Idea (on the internet). The designer scans the web for hours until discovering something to claim as his own, prowling through stock libraries or online design collections and transforming downloaded imagery into finished work in just a few clicks.

But the greatest myth of them all is the notion of the purity of genius. That a designer is bestowed with divine creativity and therefore ideas come to him as easily as tears to

an onion-chopping housewife. For the designer it’s child’s play to draw up five concepts in an afternoon, it comes naturally. It’s just playing around with fonts, colours and shapes, isn’t it?

The reality

There is no such thing as an idea factory, we do not hold a special power that lets us magically generate ideas, although such devices would be welcomed gifts. From experience, nothing happens when we sit on our asses staring at our screens all day. We certainly don’t have moments when we are struck by creative lightning. And while it is okay for some people, stealing ideas will not go far in building up a reputation amongst future clients and other designers.

The reality is that graphic design is a complex process that has many steps, often ones that are revisited and repeated. There are many various approaches to vastly different design projects and you will find that each designer has their own.

However, what should be a constant is the fact that design projects cannot properly start without thorough research into a client’s background and environment, their processes, their market and current position, as well as their problems and goals. Without proper research at the earliest stage it will inevitably become very difficult to identify the correct design needs and potential solutions. Without preparatory research there is no reference point from which to gauge whether a concept will work or not which makes the design process feel like shooting in the dark.

The research part

Sometimes this part starts before the client and designer agree to work together. It starts at first contact. For the designer, it is the essential part of understanding who a client is, what they need and why they need it. This is seen as the data collection stage.

After an initial briefing more research directions may unfold. This is not to say that any prior market research would prove useless, it merely means that the designer needs some additional information specific for his job. Through the whole process of graphic design, a designer will come back to the research phase to continue fertilising the idea generation. This part of the process is not a measured exercise and many times it carries on through the entire project.

It is very common that several meetings are required before and during the design process. After all, you should know your business better than anyone else and you shouldn’t trust anyone but yourself to pass on that knowledge to the person in charge of communicating it.

The evolution of an idea

The designer generally develops as many ideas as possible. He checks these against the results of the conducted research and the requirements of the brief. Some ideas will transpire not to be suitable for the target audience, others won’t fit the personality of the brand, some will be too static and not allow any room for further development. Some, however, will show promise and the designer will attempt to develop them further according to a stricter set of requirements.

It is at this stage that the designer might know which idea is “The One”. Presenting multiple options can oftentimes be ineffective or harmful. This is due to the dilemma of choice, where the greater the choice, the harder the decision is to make.

The decision on whether to present a single idea or multiple should be up to the designer. If multiple are presented this may be due to the directions of the ideas being substantially different enough that the decision on which direction needs to be taken by the client.

If multiple options are presented it is important not to forget to consult the designer on which option they believe to be the best solution for the brief. Only they know what went into the development of each idea, how they can survive and develop. They have the expertise to know which might work best for your company.

Presentation of the ideas

This is the part where the brains start turning into hands. Seeing sketches on a beautifully leather bound notebook can give you an idea of what things will look like but it comes nowhere close to the real thing. This is why a mockup of all, or at least a good selection of, elements needs to be designed.

Here’s what to expect from a designer’s presentation:

  • If this is a branding project, a logo alone is not enough. How will that logo work on different materials? A selection of branded materials should be presented to show how the brand would eventually live.
  • Brochure or book design should be laid out. If the product is more than a few pages it is not necessary to create the whole publication to show the concept. The cover and a few spreads should be enough to show the layouts of different information (text, lists, images, etc.).
  • Advertising could be shown as a stand alone piece but it’s always good to get an idea of scale and impact by having it graphically imposed on the medium it will be eventually displayed on — billboard, bus shelter, magazine, etc.
  • Web design projects are more complex. There are several approaches; the most common is one that uses static files showcasing the design of different pages within a website. With websites being an interactive medium, it is difficult to get a true understanding of how the website would work by using static files. An approach that is increasing in popularity is to create a working mockup of the website. This topic is too large to fit into this series and an additional series or book is currently being discussed on the topic.

Client feedback

Client feedback is an essential part of the job, without proper feedback the design process would grind to a halt. Feedback provides invaluable information that can help the designer improve upon an idea. It should contain at least the same amount of information that was given in the designer’s presentation.

That is to say that if a designer simply presented a logo without caring to explain the rationale behind it, the same amount of effort should be spent on feedback by simply saying “it’s icky, me no likey”. However, if the designer has spent time and effort explaining the reason behind the idea, how it evolved, how it can develop and why it works, then the a similar courtesy should be given with thoughtful and constructive feedback.

Don’t be insulted if a designer dismisses your taste-based comments as unnecessary. It probably doesn’t matter if you feel that the colour red is not trendy or think that serif fonts are outdated. On the other hand, it is you who will live with this design. So if you are personally uncomfortable with the colour red or serif fonts then you should definitely discuss this with the designer in a constructive and detailed way.

The development of the idea

Once feedback has been given and the next steps have been discussed it’s time for the designer to go back to the proverbial drawing board and develop all the other materials that are needed for the project. The result of this stage should be the creation of all materials that will be sent to the client for final feedback and approval.

Getting it ready

The final part of any design job is getting everything ready for print or production. This comes after everything has been approved. At this stage even the smallest of changes could result in multiple days of work.

Let’s say the designer is preparing all the files for the brandbook and exporting different sets of business cards in different formats for the printer. Having to change the font size for the email address could cost the designer hours of changing, collecting and exporting each file, so be mindful of what you ask to change, be rigorous during the checking process.

Before sending the files to the printer or pushing the “send to the internets” button on a website everything needs to be approved by you, the client. It is vital that you do the final proofing of the work before it goes out, you don’t want to end up with 1,000 business cards with your surname misspelled or a website to go live with placeholder images.

You may be thinking that surely this should be done by the designer, but rest assured that after looking at the same layout for hours on end, characters blend into each other and lose their meaning. The final approval needs to be of the client as they should know the content better than any designer.

This post is an extract from the “Please Don’t Be a Dick — A client’s handbook to working with a designer” book, which has been updated to reflect the newer opinions of the writers. The original version of the ebook can be freely* downloaded from here.

* In exchange for a post



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Paul Attard

Co-founder of wearegoat with amateur writings about website design, running a business, and surviving life, with sprinkles of sarcasm.