Sometimes I wish media design was all about just “making things look pretty.” But most of the time, I’m glad there’s more to it. Although I find great stress relief in sitting down to organize colors and images on a page and create new pieces of work that express messages, I actually find more stress waiting for me if I’ve not first put in considerable time in planning and researching my subject first. After all, Adrian Shaughnessy writes that “in its purest sense, this is what graphic design is – a thorough interrogation of a subject resulting in a graphic presentation of the findings.” (Shaughnessy, 2009, p 7).
Begin with Research
Sometimes, I sit down at the computer with a new project or brief right away, hoping to be inspired to create something great, but often my mind just draws a blank. I find that planning and research go hand in hand. When I begin with an idea or project brief, that plan can only take me so far. It gives me the basics of what is required, but design is more than just the basics. After reviewing the brief carefully and formulating my own plan for attacking the project, I need to research additional information and inspiration to better flesh out my plan and get a full understanding of all the pieces that are involved. I first need to research the organization I’m designing for in depth. As Kathryn Best writes, “The important aspects of managing design, irrespective of the job title, are about understanding the strategic goals of an organization and how design can play a part.” (Best, 2006, p 12). I want to know the organization I’m designing for inside and out so that I can better incorporate their own vision and “strategic goals” into their design. I also find it helpful to look at competitor’s work, similar companies, and similar designs in order to bring a wide range of perspectives and designs into focus as I plan my design.
Research, Review, Revise, and Plan
I often go back and forth between gathering information and reviewing the design guidelines in order to update and modify my plan, as I seek to express the true vision and purpose of the brief. Without these hours of gathering knowledge, analyzing it, and incorporating the best parts into my plan, my designs would suffer. Planning helps me break a large project down into smaller, more manageable parts, to not take on too big a task all at once, and to not immediately jump into something without first giving it considerable thought. For clients, it also helps take the mystery out of my design process when they can see the steps I go through. Researching allows me to visit the design from multiple perspectives to see how others have solved similar problems before, and it also helps me more fully understand the goals of the company and how to meet those. This understanding of their own strategic goals helps to put clients at ease, which is an important part of the third aspect of design: its presentation.
Don’t Muck up the Presentation
The single most important thing to remember when presenting work to clients is that they are terrified of what they are going to be shown. For clients, commissioning design is like buying something without seeing what they are buying…As a result, most presentations begin in an atmosphere of nervous tension. The clients are nervous. The designers are nervous. The atmosphere is inflammable. So, the first rule of presentations is: be reassuring. (Shaughnessy, 2009, p 250-251).
He also says that “when a designer’s ideas are rejected it’s usually because they have been presented badly, and not because they are bad ideas.” (p 250). I’ve found this to be true in my own work. Although we often think that our designs stand out and ought to speak for themselves, this is not always the case. Sometimes I have to explain every little detail of a design to a client, and even if I offer my advice as a “professional,” there are times when the client just won’t have it. Shaughnessy addresses this as well, “Clients are usually adversarial because we have made a mess of explaining to them what we’ve done for them…So, if we are going to be accomplished, effective and responsible graphic designers, it makes sense that we learn how to explain to our clients what we do, and how we do it.” (Shaughnessy, 2009, p 5-6).
What about You?
What’s your design process like? Equal parts research, design, and presentation, or weighted more heavily to one side? Which is your favorite aspect of being a designer? How about dealing with clients and client presentations? Any tips?
Best, Kathryn. (2006). Design Management. Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.
Shaughnessy, Adrian. (2009) Graphic Design: A User’s Manual. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.