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True Tests of Your Design Process

Scantron Pong

My design process obsession began in the sixth grade, with a late morning pop quiz.

Directions: Read all the directions before beginning. Take out one sheet of lined paper. Write the number of siblings you have with a purple crayon. On line three, draw a picture of your favorite food...

In order to save time and be more efficient, I started carrying out the instructions as I went, until I reached the final directive:

Ignore directions one through twenty-five and enjoy watching everyone do this activity wrong.

A heavy rock sank down into my gut. I was probably the only kid in the room who had diligently plodded his way through illustrations of flowers, scrawling stars in the page corners, and folding up my sheet of paper in all sorts of intriguing ways, only to realize at the end that he should have stopped at the beginning. And it didn't help that my teacher and my classmates were watching me, wondering when I'd figure it out. Yes, I was the one keeping them from going out to the playground.

I'm not a linear thinker, okay? No wonder I ended up in this profession. Besides, doing great design work isn't this diagrammatic. Most designers can't quite articulate how they get the work done, other than to say that they iterate towards a result. You can't write that process down on a sheet of paper, hand it to someone else, and have them easily cough up a killer logo.

But when you're working in a group larger than you, that's exactly what you need to do, over and over again. We can't jog around our offices talking about how we're paid problem solvers, then go solve the wrong problems in a roundabout fashion, bearing the cost of wasted time, effort, and emotional turmoil. Those kinds of situations burn away at our patience until we snap. We don't want to get to the end of a project only to discover we took the wrong path at the beginning.

Here, I've tried to tease out some of the critical questions that need to be asked as part of your overall design process -- whether when dealing with clients, working your way to a design solution, or negotiating client feedbck.


Can you describe your goal for this project?

More often than not, projects don't fail because of a lack of process or a lack of a desired end product. They fail for lack of a discrete goal.

You need to really understand what your goal is before you embark on the appropriate tasks to reach it. Imprecisely described goals at the inception of a project means poorly imagined results.

There's a certain kind of fuzziness that takes hold each time you have to align clients and other project stake-holders with your goals. This applies to everything from the smallest project details to the largest-order concerns of your practice. We spend a lot of time in design school creating artifacts that assume their goals after the fact, but we don't spend a ton of time formulating the goals leading to the resulting design.

One of the reasons I sound like a broken record about creative briefs and research and getting clients aligned with your business process has little to do with business stability. It's a given that if we don't do a good job of running our businesses, we go out of business. The more fundamental reason has to do with the sheer difficulty of fixing a clearly defined goal in the minds of multiple people, that they all agree to, that will have meaning for their target audience. This is the function that your form needs to match up to.

Note that I'm not describing the result of the work, which is whatever design product they've hired you to create. I'm aiming for the real goal of the design process. It's not as easy to articulate.

What I recommend is, instead of describing surface qualities, insert the most important thing you want to communicate with your work. Getting your goal straight is as simple as putting the result of your future accountable actions into words.

Something as simple as: I will design a 4-color poster that will draw two hundred people to visit an art installation. Through my design, it will convey the spirit of the artist's work and communicate the feeling that her painting is the boldest work to come out of Tampa in the past decade.

This is a more articulate goal, compared to just saying you want to design a kick-ass poster for a rock-star painter. We all want to do that, but it's described in a way that's an expression of our design process. Leaving the results of your work a little nebulous can't easily fulfill anyone's expectations.


Do you really know where you're going with this layout?

There's no pleasure in watching people pursue a goal with the wrong tasks. But you need to be prepared to be as wrong as they are to find the right path to the result -- or throw the idea of "wrong" completely out the window.

Designers need a goal to reach, as I'd noted above. Goals should always be descriptive, discrete, and not entirely contingent on the tasks necessary to fulfill it. But to reach a goal, you need tasks, and you need an idea of the general order they need to be fulfilled in order to succeed to a level of satisfaction. Beyond that, there is no "wrong way" forward -- unless you show an unsatisfactory result.

Being an art director is an exercise in lip-biting, and for good reason. You can't just tell people how to do what they need to do. They need to find their own way to the appropriate solution, with a nudge here or there along the path. And like a chef watching his cooks in the kitchen, he has to assume that each recipe will allow for a little improvisation, as well as the assumption that some little thing will always go wrong along the way. We'll need to be nimble, learn from those mistakes, and fold them into the work.

But there still needs to be a recipe to cook. This is what your business process is for: the rounds of review (or checkpoints) you impose onto the creative process to allow guidance and input. These guideposts don't exist because they're always needed. They persist because once you're too far down the road with a design direction, it really hurts to share feedback on how you visited that town a few years ago, and it's a hundred miles away from where you need to be.

Why all this talk of recipes? Three hours ago, I thought it would be fun to make a vegan Thin Mint recipe that my wife had found on 101Cookbooks.com. Looking at Heidi's photograph, I thought the cookies would turn out as small chocolate-covered wafers with a delicate peppermint afterbite.

But due to not clearly reading the directions, my cookies ended up as a pile of crushed up wafers dashed liberally with melted chocolate. Tasty, but not visually pleasing. (Though the leftover dipping chocolate went quite well with some frozen blueberries.) My goal was to make lovely cookies, I had a clearly defined recipe, and only survived the experience when my wife stepped in and shored up some of my mistakes I made by not being mindful of the process as provided to me. The end result is quite tasty, but not what I'd envisioned.

This is how most corporate design projects actually turn out.


Can you show me what your process is?

Do you write down a record when a design process worked out well? Do you write down a record when a design process totally fails?

We need to be flexible in how we reach our goals, look to our experience (or others) to guide us to a satisfactory result, and hope that things don't turn out like my pop quiz from above. Or my cookies. But it's not enough to live through it and then start all over again, fresh.

When you get done with a particularly turbulent design project, or a great one, write down what worked process-wise and keep that same recipe again for a later project. Otherwise, you have nothing to share and may make the same mistake thrice.

Not documenting your experience, especially when you work on very large teams, is ensuring that your company will continue to be inefficient. That's profit that comes right out of your pocket. Keep at least some sort of diary.


What happens when you disagree with your client?

Our masters care about tasks just as much as goals -- so much so that every tidbit of knowledge they share with you, they expect it to be measured in the final result. Make sure you actually listen to what they're saying, and have a good reason if you choose to ignore it.

It's your job to make sure design process aligns with project goals. Not your client. They don't want to ride a roller-coaster to get to the result.

Most clients don't really care about our process, why the great ideas come flying out of the most mundane and extraordinary activities. Often the "correct" result of our undertaking has no direct relationship from where we began. With highly creative design work, we're dealing with the subconscious. You can't sell the ocean, only a sand castle.

This is why so much depends on paying attention to every single thing a client shares with you. That is your only opportunity to show where your dreams align with their requirements.

Many designers shy away from reading client feedback or sitting in on a call to hear their undiluted feedback, for fear that it will chip away at their intuition or their motivation. But for clients, this really is critical input that feeds our black box of our unbridled creativity. And it isn't going to taint what you want to accomplish, unless you take it personally. It simply needs to be measured and weighed against the result, keeping in mind the audience's point of view.

Some clients call this having "vision" -- the ability to balance an artistic direction with proper triage of input -- and it can be both blessing and curse. No one can walk a tightrope forever. Usually you get tripped up because you didn't listen at some important point earlier in the process, or you chose to ignore something and not address it at a later date with a well-considered rationale. This is part of the give and take necessary in any client relationship: your client will hear your point of view, consider it, and agree or disagree with caveats. Learn to live with it.


These are some of the things that I trip over continually in my daily practice. The above list is by no means comprehensive, and I'd love your input on what other important questions we should be able to address as part of knowing our design process.


Michael Kozakewich

I feel compelled to comment on this old post, because I had that exact same quiz when I was in grade 6. I also found myself in the strange position of having actually read the instructions, but thinking it meant I was to 'do nothing and wait' after I had finished all the other things. It's logical: "Do everything here, then don't play around or be noisy." It sounded like a general rule of exams. I'm not sure if the wording was disastrously different than your version, or if it was a complete misunderstanding on my part.
Luckily for me, most of the other students were also doing all the steps. I was lagging behind a bit, but I could hear students asking such strange questions as "What's a doddle? How am I supposed to draw it?"
Seeing most of the class fail, I think the teacher stopped everyone before I had a chance to finish.

To this day, any time some sort of recipe is being followed, I'll subliminally think back to that class and be sure to read everything before starting.

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