The Design Process - From Start to Finish
In this post, I’m sharing some of my practices, and will offer up some questions to help you figure out what works best for you.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve shared some details about my client intake process as well as the agreement I use to define the working relationship. Today, I’m taking you behind the curtain of how I actually do the designing.
- Finalizing / Digitizing
I covered this aspect during the client intake process; it all starts with me asking a lot of questions about them, their project, their product, and their goals.
The most important thing for me is getting the exact verbiage and how it’s spelled. For logo or branding projects, I ask who the customer is and what the words are to describe the brand. Which experience and impression does the client want to make. (Here’s my questionnaire.) Depending on whether they’re more traditional or more modern, more elegant or more playful, I can come up with several styles to write out their lines that fit the bill.
Working with a mood board is great to get an initial idea of what the client has in mind. It avoids the “I’ll know it when I see it” dilemma. For each item they share with me, I ask what they like about it to help me better understand if there’s an opportunity to mix and match.
I start sketching using different tools and different papers. I like cold-press watercolor paper and charcoal pencils for texture, 0.1 sized Micron pens for smooth fine lines, brushes and ink for thicker and more prominent features. I also use my iPad as much as possible. There are a large variety of brushes available to mimic hundreds of effects, literally with a flick of the hand.
If the design is a phrase or a quote, I test different layouts and grids. Depending on whether the words have ascenders and descenders, they might stack differently. Always make sure you ask the client where and how the design will be used, and what the size requirements are. No use stacking everything just so when they’ve always wanted it to appear on one line as a large banner on the side of the building.
This process can take anything from two to five hours. I know, I know, other masters in their classes say it’s something like 30 minutes, but I’m just keeping it real - I like time. I like to make something, and then take some time to look away, move away, do something different, and come back to it. Once I have 10 years experience I’ll probably be able to move faster, but for now, I’m taking the “measure twice, cut once” approach and investing in the sketching process upfront to save time when it comes to finalizing the design.
I have to force myself to spend time on sketching, because it’s in the nature of my personality type to want to finish work as quickly as possible (In Charge Interaction Style). Unfortunately, fast is not (always) the same as good, and for client work I want to provide the best possible quality, so I have to make sure I don’t just go with the first idea.
I’m not saying the first idea can’t be the best, I’m saying I want to make sure I try out as many others as I can come up with, and generally speaking, spending time with a design does make it better.
If you’re wondering how many sketches to make before honing in on your favorites, I’d say it depends on the project. For logo types, I write the name of the person at least 100 times with different tools and ligatures to get a feel for the flow of the letters. For quotes, I’d say I try about a dozen layouts and with varying styles. That’s where the design brief, aka intake questionnaire comes in handy, because I’m not starting with a completely blank page.
Questions for you:
- What are you supposed to design?
- How big is it?
- What shape does it have to fit into?
- Where will it be used?
- How does the client describe the look and feel they’re going for?
- What are the characteristics?
- What do you associate with the words or images?
- How many different ways can you design it?
- Which feels right?
- Which hits all the points the client made?
- Which two (or three) are the absolute best?
From the hundreds and dozens of sketches, I comb through the ones that are the best fit and feel the most appropriate to me. I will choose 3 to 5 to refine, to redraw them a little less rough and a little more smoothly, and look at them to decide which are the best 2 to present to the client. If there are 3 strong concepts, I’ll present all three - it really depends on the client as well. Some want to be more involved in the process, some prefer to have one choice only.
Once I decide on which sketches to flesh out as concepts, I make a slide deck for presenting them. Similar to my agreement, I have a template that covers the basics with additional modules that can be added if necessary.
I write down the design brief to remind everyone what the parameters were before showing into the concepts.
I make a point of explaining how and why I came up with the concepts, and place the designs in context, e.g. photoshop them into their existing website, or mock-up business cards or applicable designs. Having that visual helps the client make a decision more than seeing a design black on white, I think. Especially since you’ll be able to see where the design is going to live and how it’s going to interact with its surroundings, e.g. if it’s a logotype, what are the fonts on the existing website, or what color is the wall, etc.
Ideally, I meet with clients in person, but if they’re across country, I will upload the presentation to a password-protected page on my website and shoot them the log-in information for our meeting to discuss and go through it together online. This has the advantage that once the project is ready to go live, I can add it as a case study to my portfolio with one click. (Thanks to Dina Rodriguez for the tip!) In any case, I avoid sending over the sketch without any commentary; there's always going to be some communication around and about it.
Based on that presentation, the client chooses one concept for refining. Sometimes, the client likes two concepts and asks to combine them, and honestly, for where I am in my career right now, I’m ok with that. Other designers see that as a separate concept that might be outside of the scope and incur separate charges, but I consider it the first round of revision.
The revision process still happens in the same mode as the sketching, using the same tools, so pencil and paper or iPad. Again, I will take a few days to tinker with it, sleep on it, look at it from all different angles.
This first round of revision is also where I’m paying closer attention to weight, size, spacing, and execution of the piece. I’ll be printing it out in different sizes, look at it upside down to see the shapes instead of reading the letters, and fix any big holes or weird-looking inconsistencies.
I’m presenting the revisions in a similar slide deck as before, reminding us of the brief, the concepts that were chosen, and what the refined version would look like in its natural habitat.
Finalizing / Digitizing
At this point, the client generally says “great, that’s exactly it”, because they’ve been telling me what they’re looking for and I’ve been explaining how my design sketches and concepts fit those criteria. If they don’t, this is the point where we discuss either starting from scratch, or me walking away with the kill-fee.
Not all designs have to be vectorized, but logos generally do, so now I can take the refined concept into Illustrator to digitize it.
If you’re just starting out, yes, there’s an image trace function where the software does it for you, and there are presets you can play with to manipulate the precision with which the program will set the points.
Depending on the style of writing, the tools you used, the look you’re going for, some will work better than others. If the client is going for a handwritten look, the image trace function may even be sufficient. Just be aware that image trace will create a shape of your writing, with a path outlining the thickness of your strokes. In other words, if you scale it down, the shapes will stay the same, and the proportions and spacing might change and make the word illegible if it’s sized down too much.
It’s a lot more work, but I also make a vector image using the pen tool and setting the points myself. I’ve done a few vectoring sessions but am by no means an expert just yet, so this process will also take me anything from two to five hours.
I start by setting as few points as possible on the extrema / where the stroke changes directions, and make sure to hold down the shift key to all handles / beziers completely horizontal or vertical before going back in and adjusting and tweaking.
With the pen tool, the design will be vectored as a stroke, which means manipulating the thickness is easier and more uniform down the road, so when I resize the logo to be smaller, I can make the stroke size smaller and have the spacing stay legible.
As before, I print the design out in different stroke widths and sizes, and do a critique on paper, then sleep on it, then go back to fix and tweak.
Bonus tip, and something I’m still working on: blocking out time in my calendar to have a realistic overview of how long it takes to prepare and present my deliverables, without running the risk of overbooking myself.
Questions for you:
- Does your design have to be vectorized, i.e., will it be blown up or shrunken down a lot? (If it’s always going to be a quote that lives laser-printed in a 5x7 frame, you can probably get away by producing it on at that size and scanning it in. If it’s also going to be transferred to tote bags or posters, you want it vectored.)
I prepare another presentation for the final versions, and when the client is happy, I’m happy.
That’s when I send the final invoice, and that’s one of the first tips my wonderful studiomate and amazing designer Amy Fuller shared: send the invoice while clients are happy and excited.
Once I receive the remaining 50 % of my fee, I send over the files in .eps format, as well as editable .pdf and ready-sized .png with transparent backgrounds so they can add it to their website and start making business cards straight away.
To sum up, from start to finish, including admin, communications, meetings, sketching, revising, and vectoring, it currently (April 2018) takes me about 10 - 15 hours over the course of 2 to 3 weeks to design a logo.