MAT MARTIN | Design Process – 9 Stages from Idea to Delivery (Infographic)
11 May, 2018, 10:30
The design process usually begins with the idea that some concrete asset (a website, a logo, etc) is needed to help us connect with an audience. However, creating a good brief for a project almost always ends up requiring a deeper starting point than we expect. In the early stages we can find ourselves challenged by large, difficult questions about brand and message.
These questions can be the key to a successful design.
This post looks at where and why those questions arise, defining a few principal stages in approaching the design process in order to trace the creative journey of a brief in the wider context of effective design.
Elements of the Design Process
Instinctively, people (including designers) tend to think of the design process as a purely visual one. The solution to a design brief is imagined to be the result of combining visual elements until they somehow look “right”. This implies a process of trial and error leading to one of perhaps infinite possible versions. Clients often say things like “show me lots of different ideas – I’ll know what I want when I see it,” or “I want to make sure we’ve tried everything before I pick a design.”
The reason why this approach is usually unhelpful lies in its failure to take into account that good design solves or answers a specific problem or question. It is all too common for that problem or question to be under-defined, and when that is the case no amount of time spent combining visual elements will make up for it.
In short, a piece of work can only be as effective as its brief allows.
If you’re working with a professional, their insight on this may well be their biggest single point of value for you. There’s a good chance that their experience, combined with their ability to see the task from the outside, will be the key to full and clear definition of an effective brief.
More choice at the concept stage is not necessarily better for you or for your brand. It can affect your judgement and create a loss of vision very quickly. In fact, arriving at a design solution which is both effective and attractive involves drilling down to the core question at the centre of a brief, and making sure the tools are in place to answer it properly. This usually results in fewer design choices – each proposed solution being based on more complete information and therefore being more apt to hit its mark.
Rewriting the Menu
When we eat at a restaurant we are placing our experience in the hands of a professional who has spent time creating a menu. Often, the more high-end the restaurant, the smaller the number of choices on that menu becomes.
There are of course points in the process at which our input is necessary – we bring vital information to the table which only we can provide. Perhaps we have allergies, or dislike specific ingredients. Maybe we are hoping for a certain number of courses. There are specific key moments in the exchange at which our input is an integral part of the process.
We wouldn’t, though, enter the kitchen after ordering and begin suggesting changes to the chef’s approach. Even if they acquiesced to our requests, it is likely that we would find the result disappointing compared to a dish created with their experience, technique and sensitivity. In making the latter, they would take into account aspects of their activity we were unaware of, and be thinking in ways which wouldn’t occur to us.
In order to arrive at the decisions a professional makes instinctively, based on their experience and insight, we would have to try more options than could realistically be undertaken. The process would become bloated, uncomfortable and inefficient, and we would very soon lose our sense of perspective and clarity.
Finding the Question
The restaurant analogy offers us some parallels with the design process. A chef needs to know what we want to eat, and the parameters within which that desire can be met (budget, dietary requirements, etc.). They do not need to be told how to prepare the food. The brief is the dish, not the recipe. A good chef will know how to introduce, exclude or balance elements and processes so as to meet that brief effectively, and needs to be trusted to do this.
In the case of design we are dealing with a similar distinction. The question a good designer will need the answer to is not “what do you want it to look like?” but rather “what do you need it to do?”
Considered this way, the look – or even nature – of a finished design is in fact a by-product of its purpose. This is often why strong design looks so unique – there is something deeply appealing about being able to see the purpose behind an elegant form. In fact, our concept of elegance can in some cases be defined by this very observation.
This is the basic premise behind the often-cited idea that form follows function. The result looks the way it does because that is how it needs to look to best perform its task. The clarity that is inherent in this execution will almost always result in the most effective – and often the most attractive – designs.
Notions of beauty are ever changing, and debate is active around whether they are a valid consideration in design at all. It is certainly difficult to ignore that our notions of beauty not only differ across cultures and individuals, but over time too. Perhaps those designs we refer to as ‘timeless’ are the ones for which the starting problem does not change. Certainly we can hypothesise that a design born of a clear purpose is more likely to last as long as the problem it solves.
What do You Need it to Do?
Most successful designs are practical solutions to well defined problems. The process of making something of lasting value begins with that definition, and a good designer will encourage you to consider it carefully.
Whether we are thinking of architecture, clothing, or practical objects, we are surrounded by designs which display elegance in the solution they offer to the problem they solve. It is hard to think of examples precisely because successful designs pass into our culture in a way which means they no longer look strange to us.
Coeli Carr delves into Birkenstock’s adherence to form following function in an article for the New York Times entitled Thank You for Insulting Our Sandals. She notes that retailers originally refused to stock them on the grounds that they were “hideous”, but that:
“All [customers] had to do was see the shape of the sandal, […] and it was ‘Oh, my God, it makes sense.’”
The list of strange designs we no longer question is long: eyeglasses, the jerrycan, the VW Beetle. Their established status, their perpetual use and their eventual adoption as fashion items have redefined the idea of what an object should look like to such a degree that our idea of beauty has changed to accommodate the appropriateness of their designs.
Every aspect of these seemingly plain – even ugly – objects is conceived with an ingenious purpose which speaks to their designers’ evident scope of vision and projection. Once the practical eloquence of the object is understood the design takes on a beauty which transcends mere visual considerations. This is now the only way it could look.
Combining Brand and Problem
In order to effectively develop a design brief, two things must be in place. As well as the question of purpose being clear, the brand identity of the business or individual in question must be well defined enough to frame our approach.
In some cases, this brand identity is shaped by the practical needs of the product or service being rendered. For instance, Birkenstock’s brand identity (typeface, logo, colours, language) seems to be in keeping with the design process which led to its trademark footbed and hence to the shape of its shoes. The obvious approach in developing that brand will most likely have been to accentuate the inherent qualities of a singular flagship product: practicality, health, natural materials, etc.
In other cases, where a product or design could be styled differently without changing its ability to meet a brief, a layer of decision making in the design process will relate more directly to the wider tone of voice and personality of a brand. Colours, typefaces, repeatable assets and style guidelines may have been defined to create consistency in presentation. If not, these decisions may need to be made as part of the concept development in answering the brief of a design project.
You should expect a designer to go over these details with you early in the design process. They will need to know about the voice of the message or product they are creating for you. If the principal qualities of your brand are not clearly defined, a large part of your message will lack clarity and consistency.
If you have not done the appropriate work on your brand and/or question, you should be prepared to undertake it before you can continue with your design project.
Where it Actually Begins
We have already seen that without a clearly defined question and strong brand identity from the outset, it is difficult to define the problem or question at the heart of a design brief. These considerations therefore must form the first three (and arguably most important) stages in the design process.
All too often our idea of where that process begins makes no allowance for this – we imagine going directly to the drawing board as if these key pieces of information were bound to come to us later in the process. Actually the opposite is true, and it is the job of both designer and client to make sure they are in place.
Clients can be surprised when designers ask them for more insight than they expected to give, but these questions do come for a reason. There is work involved in getting the most out of your designer’s insight and ability.
With that in mind, the following infographic is conceived to illustrate the path a designer and client navigate together through a project.
Key Stages in the Design Process
1. Knowing your Brand
To frame your question you need to know your brand. This involves knowing the characteristics of your audience – your ideal end-user, client or reader – as well as your brand’s own personality. The value of these insights shows in their interactions. Knowledge of your brand may include visual guidelines and existing assets, but must run deeper than these – we need to have a clear idea of the qualities that make it unique.
Useful tools for defining a brand include a good set of branding questions and an understanding of the Kapferer Brand Identity Prism. Your designer may offer brand analysis or reflection services which can be extremely valuable.
2. Identifying your Question
Turning back to our earlier restaurant analogy, we could say that the identification of an initial question is akin to the recognition of a need to eat, made with full knowledge of preferences, allergies and other requirements.
A brand’s key question contains the “what do you need it to do?” part of a brief. It is a statement of intention which, along with knowledge of a brand, is the key to a successful design process. The word “question” here relates closely to the core of your brand’s position and offering. For this reason, it can be very useful to have distilled your brand’s question or questions into a set of brand statements.
3. Defining the Problem
In the restaurant analogy, this stage equates to the moment at which we select a dish or dishes. We are focussing on a specific instance or facet of the larger question(s).
The problem which is solved by a design is usually a specific combination of brand and question. For instance, the problem might fall into one or more categories, including:
- a need to communicate information on a specific platform
- a desire to offer incentives to a given transaction pathway
- a remit to archive or document information to be accessed in specific ways by particular demographics
- a need to reinforce brand identity and presence
- a desire to increase specific types of user engagement
When we know what is required, the purpose it needs to serve and the context in which it needs to function, we have the kernel of our brief. This is the point at which you will agree with your designer what it is you need to create (e.g. a website, a logo, a print document, etc). Crucially, this comes after the stage at which you have considered what you need it to do.
At this stage research will play a key part in defining the detail of a brief. This may involve your designer or developer looking into appropriate techniques and technologies, and assessing their availability, cost and possibility for integration. It may also involve creating mood boards, collating reference materials and looking into any existing designs which attempt to solve a similar problem. This latter may offer some ideas or inspiration, but may also indicate approaches to avoid.
Depending on the work done to this point, you may need or want to do some research of your own, so as to better understand the design process and the resulting deliverables. Market research will ideally have been conducted during earlier stages but work up to this point may also suggest more specific areas to look into.
Your designer may need further input from you to refine the brief, and should be able to advise you accordingly.
5. Agreeing the Brief
This stage is simple but important. Your designer will by now have enough information and understanding to be able to plan the whole project and define deliverables in detail.
The specifics of the brief are then set, written down and agreed upon. This document will be the basis for all the work to come, and protects both client and designer from the dangers of scope creep and loss of focus. It is a good idea to gain sign-off from both parties at this stage, to ensure everyone is on the same page.
6. Concept Development
Armed with a clear definition of the brand, question and problem, the results of any research undertaken and a well-defined brief, a designer can begin to create the solution which suggests itself. It is only at this stage that the visualisation we associate with the design process (putting pencil to paper) really begins in earnest.
Whether in the form of drawings, mockups or wireframes, you should expect to see some rough but clear ideas for the design at this stage. These may or may not include images or text, but should be clear about where these will go, and how the user journey through the solution is intended to work. Ideally your designer will give you enough to be able to imagine the final result accurately.
This is one of the first stages at which rounds of edits become very relevant and helpful. It is a good idea to make sure you and your designer are in agreement about the concept before the design begins to be built proper.
7. Content Creation/Collation
The responsibility for this stage often rests with the client, or with a third party/parties such as a copy writer or photographer. To some extent the collation and creation of content for a design can be undertaken simultaneously with earlier stages, although it is often only once the concept is agreed upon that the optimal type, size, length and shape of content becomes apparent.
It is therefore a good idea to communicate with your designer about things such as word counts, image availability and the like as early as the problem stage (3, above). In basic terms, finding a way to display the necessary information is very much part of the problem your design needs to solve.
Some important considerations with specific reference to images for websites are discussed in my post on the subject. The general points made here about quality and appropriateness apply, of course, to content of any type.
8. Full Development and Testing
Usually the single longest stage in the process, this is when the final deliverables are actually created. For web projects this means coding not only the complete design in full, but also creating the systems and databases on which a site runs. Print projects will need to be fine-tuned to the relevant specification, with images optimised and prepared for export. All content from stage 7 (content creation) is integrated to the design, and the concept as defined in step 6 (concept development) is fleshed out into a complete design.
Again, at this stage rounds of feedback with the client are critical, as is full proofing of the content.
Testing is important once the design is complete. This is mostly relevant to web projects, for which the variety of browsers and devices on which the design needs to perform must be checked for inconsistencies and support issues before anything goes live. For some print projects test runs will be recommended, to ensure that when translated to ink coverage the design performs as expected from the digital proofs.
Provided all previous stages have been fully completed and signed off, the final stage is the simplest. A site is transferred to its live server location at its destination URL, and the process of directing users towards it begins. Print project files are delivered to the printer/manufacturer of a physical product, and these are then delivered to the client or their distribution network.
The design process is complete at this stage, and you should expect a final sign-off and settlement to take place with your designer. The life of the design, however, is just beginning.
The delivery of a design brief usually marks the end of a specific contract with a designer, but shouldn’t necessarily mark the end of the designer’s relationship with the project. In the case of print design, there is little work needed after this stage unless a reprint is required, in which case your designer should be able to make any necessary adjustments to content or to print optimisation based on the original design, subject to a new agreement. Most designers keep an archive of project files which can be re-opened in cases like this.
Where web projects are concerned, things are quite different. No amount of testing will predict what you will learn about your site from its use by both you and your client base. It is not unusual for small changes to be needed within the first few months of a live date, and many design agreements allow for this.
In the longer term though, the conditions in which a site operates continue to change and develop. Browsers and devices evolve, as do user’s tastes and browsing habits. The sector your brand operates in may see significant developments, as may the work of the brand itself. A site that works for you now may not always be the optimal answer to the larger question and problem defined in the design process.
Keeping on top of the relevance of a site design to its key question will help you get the most from the work you have done, and working with your designer regularly after launch to make sure the design, systems and content of a site are still what they should be will yield better results all round. Try to consider a web design project as a living thing – it’s development doesn’t end with its launch.
We often think of the design process as being a visual one, but in fact the visual work of envisioning sets of information can only be undertaken once we have a clear sense of what that information is. As a result, the successful solutions designers create to the problems of well-defined briefs offer clear logic in their execution. Their elegance or beauty therefore exists in relation to the purpose they are built to serve, and run deeper than purely visual ornamentation can.
For this reason, the design process begins not with colours, shapes, fonts or images, but with questions, research and problem-solving. It is possible to create something attractive without this solid foundation, but its attractiveness will not be born of necessity and thus will never be integral to the purpose of the design or the brand, and like most things without foundation, it is unlikely to withstand the forces that act upon it (in this case time and use).
Designers think carefully about these things when creating your assets, and may question or challenge your decisions or preferences as a result of this reflection. The result may very well differ from what you had imagined, but as uncomfortable as that may feel, it is also the key reason why you have chosen to work with a professional. Like a chef, they will combine ideas and techniques in ways you may not have expected, and being open to that is very much part of a successful design process.
A good designer’s insight is of course the result of experience and training, but they also offer another important point of value, and that is that they can see your brand from the outside. If you can trust your designer to do this, it is a good idea to do so. You will almost certainly get better results this way. If you don’t trust your designer, it may be time to find one you do.
- Tufte, Edward – Envisioning Information (Graphics Press, 1990)