he design process can be carved in a number of different ways. But one way to think about it is that the design process is constituted of four main pieces:
• Framing or articulating the problem
• Exploring the solution space
• Finding a good solution
• Refining that solution.
As designers, we know that design problems rarely come fully specified and pre-digested. Much of what the designers have to do is articulate exactly what the design problem is that they are going to solve. Activities such as user research, competitive analysis, data analysis, and summary are fundamental for allowing designers to really get a grip of what design problem is that they’re working with, and how they want to frame it. Besides framing of the problem, another key component of the design process is an exploration of the design space. This in the context of interaction design is called ideation. And it is often done through two basic activities: brainstorming and sketching.
The basic idea here is that designers never just come up with one solution which they just iteratively refine over time. Rather, they initially come up with many, many different solutions. And then try to identify solutions among that set that best fulfill the various constraints that their design problem presents them with. In order to come up with a set of solutions that can then be refined into a much more robust and much more polished solution. This kind of selection among alternatives is often driven by the creation of process artifacts, such as scenarios, storyboards, and personas. That allows designers to concertize and visualize the various constraints that their design problem has so that they can easily think about specific sets of a problem and how the solution that they’re considering is going to fit within the constraints of the design problem.
Finally, at some points, all these considerations are distilled into certain prototypes. The actual artifacts that start iteratively resembling more and more what the final solution is going to be. That can be done by testing with targeted users, and slowly refined until the designers here come up with something that is a very polished, and very robust solution to their design problem. Although you might be under the impression that the design is a linear process, where designers slowly move in sequence through these four stages, it is actually not the case. Rather design is highly iterative, where one aspect of the design loops unto the other. And many of these activities are done over and over again in different sequences as the person moves through the design process.
For example, after designers articulate what the problem is, they often immediately jump to the creation of storyboards and personas and scenarios, to get a much more complete form of these constraints that they can work with. Once that is done, they’ll loop back to doing sketching and brainstorming in order to come up with more solutions that better address this deeper understanding of the context. As soon as they can identify the components of the solution with which they feel relatively confident, they often jump directly into wireframing and creating of lo-fi prototypes that can be tested with target users so they can get feedback as quickly as possible. In other words, all of these phases are done iteratively in various sequences and in various kinds of order, in order to create over time a solution that is as robust as the designers can come up with.
What this means is that design is fundamentally messy. One of the things that designers have to learn very early in their design career is to become comfortable with messiness. To become comfortable with ambiguity, and to allow themselves to trust the process, knowing that at the other end they will emerge with a sturdy art effect. The sooner you become comfortable with messiness, the sooner you start learning to trust the process, the better off you are going to be as a designer.
Every designer's process is different, but here's some advice on how you can customize your own workflow.
1. Before diving into the creative process, it is crucial to gather as much knowledge about the project and the client as you can. Speak with the client to hear about their ideas, future goals and who they are targeting. Don’t be afraid to ask too many questions. This gives the clients an opportunity to think deeply about the direction of their project. Allowing both teams to come to the table ready with ideas to discuss and execute. The questionnaire is submitted well before onboarding, so the design team has enough time to review and compile any questions. Having this information drives conversation. The questionnaire acts as a catalyst, moving the discussion into areas that you might not have expected from the outset. The answers set off light bulbs in each designer’s mind. This is the moment visualization begins and ideas are born, where the design team weighs in on all the different approaches that could be taken. It’s my favorite stage of a job — the unknown!
2. Brainstorming at the very start of the project normally takes shape in the form of a mood board. A mood board is a combination of color swatches, typography, illustration styles and photography. It is a tool for inspiration: a bit of eye candy that illustrates a number of possible styles and directions for the product. The mood board demonstrates that we’ve understood the client’s needs and showcases ideas that have been discussed. It acts as a North Star, providing creative direction and keeping designers on track in case they lose sight of the project’s objective.
3. Putting pencil to paper. Now that we’ve collected all the project’s information and have some initial thoughts, it’s time to put ideas on paper. This phase can be the toughest. When a project is initially assigned, the designers have the freedom to be as creative as they like, opening the floodgates to move in any direction they choose, as long as they keep the project’s end goal in mind. The client has more than likely tasked you with, “I want a unique concept to solve the problem, something that hasn’t been seen before”, a blueprint for the “whatever”. What’s more, they want it yesterday. So, where do you start? Do you jump straight onto your Mac, open Illustrator and start crafting? You could, but from my experience, this is not the best approach. Designers who jump straight into the deep end will be hindered by the program they have chosen, restrained by the tools available. This can stifle an idea that isn’t quite ready for life. The designer will likely burn too much time looking at one route, while other, better, ideas will not see the light of day. Opening a new artboard in Illustrator does present you with a blank canvas of sorts, but you’ll be asked to specify sizes, line thicknesses, and you’ll more than likely select predefined colors and fonts that are already installed. These are all choices that can limit raw expression. A pencil, on the other hand, will allow you to articulate ideas without any restriction. Putting pencil to paper provides something solid and real to interact with. Studies show that students who handwrite notes typically recall more than students who type their notes. Which made us realize something extraordinary is happening with the way we process ideas in a handwritten form.
Don’t get me wrong, it would be a lot harder to bring your idea to life without a Mac and the creative programmes we know and love. However, they are there for when you have the idea, a rough visual of what you’re trying to achieve. Once a rough visual is produced, you can then use the correct tools from Illustrator, Sketch, etc. to develop your concept into a concrete idea. You can play with the colors that work or browse for the font that reflects the personality you desire. You will start to make the correct decisions, instead of having your decisions manipulated by pre-defined assets. So, you have your paper, you have your pencil but you’re scared to make your first mark. Will it be any good? The whole idea of pencil and paper is that you have the chance to get each and every thought out of your head and scribbled down — good or bad. It’s a sketch. Once it’s down on paper you have something to work with, manipulate, copy, and compare. You can then evaluate whether it is a strong enough concept to move forward with.
Have you ever had an idea in your head and no matter how much you think to yourself it won’t work, you always come back to it? It has happened to me plenty of times, and the only way to stop thinking about it is to get it down on paper and out into the open. This approach is insanely rewarding and grants the designer the freedom they need to create. They can explore any direction without the pressures of right and wrong. Who knows, it might not turn out to be a bad idea after all. Your ‘bad idea’ might just spark a brilliant idea.
4. Develop and Refine. The initial exploration provides a variety of ideas to nurture into a more coherent and strategic approach. It gives the designer the opportunity to find out if their ideas make sense, and provoke the reaction they had hoped for — does this concept solve the problem at hand? Does it tell the brand’s story? Does it create a visual language that’s easy for the target audience to understand? It allows us to quickly sort the good from the bad. This next phase becomes less of a free-think. You’ve done the initial exploration, now you’re ready to start telling the story. At this stage, the initial designs find more structure, we’re looking to develop the concepts to fit what’s best for the project, evolving as we learn. Does your design concept provide enough visual direction that your clients can clearly understand your thinking — the story — the visual language and how it will engage and excite their target audience. Providing mockups is also an excellent way to get your client to visualize the end product and excite them about the possibilities to come. As you develop your ideas, make sure you keep an archive of your development work. Never delete or discard anything. Save versions of each stage, renaming and dropping older files into an ‘Old’ folder for future reference. For example, when experimenting with logo ideas, I often start with basic geometric shapes. It could be a circle or a square. I then duplicate it, to try out different extensions of that original idea — color, line weight or orientation. I adapt the original but never erase it. Documenting this exploration will help you explain the story, key decisions, and how you arrived at the end product.
Once you’re happy with your creations, it’s time to share the magic. Show the client how you’ve taken their vision and made it a reality. Be bold, your clients have brought you on for a reason. They trust in your ability to take the abstract and think it through to create a coherent visual approach. Be sure to present in an enthusiastic manner, to excite and inspire the client. Your responsibility in the client presentation is to tell a story that conveys your thinking and to give them a concept they can’t live without.
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