My Design Process: Everything You Need to Know

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A recent How Magazine article dealing with the creative process led me to think about my own process. From what I can remember, I never went about trying to create a creative process for myself. I simply tried various techniques over the years and have come back to the ones that have consistently worked for me.

For the most part, I start every creative project with words. To me, in the end, you are trying to put certain words and concepts into the mind of the person viewing a particular design solution. This could be a corporate identity, website, poster, email, etc. Unless I know up front what these words are, I’m not sure how I would reach a solution that meets the goals.

After listing out the primary words based on discussions with the client, I begin to work on alternative words by using the Thesaurus. I will list out words and then search on new words that I think are interesting. The result of this is a list of lots of words that spark ideas of other words or related words or short phrases. These become the genesis for everything that follows whether it be a layout, a tagline, an illustration, a photo, a color combination, etc. All of these potential ideas lead back to the language that defines the design problem or the brand as the case may be.

As I get more visual that usually involves a bunch of thumbnails with rough ideas and lots of notes, arrows and asterisks. I hope that I can actually read these notes later and that the things that the arrows are pointing at can be discerned from a blob of ink. The asterisks mean that I think an idea might be pretty good. I might not feel that way the next day, but at that moment it seemed pretty good.

When it comes to writing headlines or ad copy that flow out of the process I tend to work from two directions. I may write some copy and then look for visuals to support them, and what usually happens is that I find some great images that speak to what I am trying to communicate but don’t work with what I have written, so I end up writing copy that works with the image. It’s like designing a living room. If you paint the room and pick out everything in the room and then go shopping for a couch that is going to match, you will never find it. If you start with the couch, you have a lot more flexibility in what you choose for the rest of the room. Not that choosing imagery is like buying a couch. Buying a couch is much more difficult. For that I have to gain the approval of the creative director, my wife.

Once I have a number of ideas in their early stages I take those ideas and try to flesh them out and see how they work in the format of the design. Some ideas that look great in a thumbnail tend to fall flat at full size or simply don’t work as well as they did when I envisioned them in my head. Hopefully some of the ideas do work as planned and even better, they are actually more successful when fully realized.

The final step is to articulate and explain the idea as it relates to the original design problem. Why is this a great solution? If you can’t explain it, you will have a hard time selling it. I’m sure I’ve left some things out and there are always ideas that come out of left field while I am on a run, trying to fall asleep, reading, or watching TV. And while some may call these ideas random and outside of a process, it is usually the process that has my mind ready to accept ideas that may come from outside influences and the process that gets my subconscious working on the problem.

I find learning about people’s creative processes fascinating, so if you have anything to share please feel free to comment on your unique process.

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  • What a great post! I hope you don’t mind, but I plan to steal your creative process and take it for a test drive today. :)

    I’m a writer/blogger, and my creative process usually involves what author Anne Lamott calls “The sh*tty first draft.” Basically, I just try to blaze through the first draft and get some phrases that flow onto the page. Or, for an illustration, I just jam through a mockup based on a loose idea and then refine it from there.

    Thanks again for the fascinating post and tips!

  • Wow nice article. George. One´s design process its truly personal, sometimes it works for other people sometimes it won´t. in the end trying its all it takes, and knowing yourself and your way of thinking defines your path.

    thanks for sharing.

  • This is a great article. I love to hear other peoples ideas and tips on how they design.

  • That’s really interesting… I do the keyword thing too. I usually try to come up with about 5 really solid words, and then I do searches for each of the words individually on stock photo sites to see what sort of visuals come up. It doesn’t mean I’m going to buy a photo to use, but I’ve ended up with some great colour palettes and other odds and ends that all inspire the project that way.