In this week’s spotlight on a designer’s creative process…
Designer Grace Fussell spills the beans on her techniques for tackling projects like a pro. From hitting all the sweet spots on a brief to getting inspiration off the Internet, and the importance of developing a creative work process. Learn more about her creative process below.
I’m Grace, and I’m a graphic designer. After starting my career in print design for a university in the UK, I decided to take the plunge as a freelance designer. That was five years ago, and I haven’t looked back since.
When I began freelancing, one of the things that took me a while to perfect was my creative process. Defining the way you work as a designer is really important. Establishing a process for working can help you be more creative and productive, as well as minimize stress.
To help you get some ideas for how you can develop your own creative process, I’m going to walk you through how I approach a typical project and share with you my top tips for establishing a creative routine.
Why Do I Need a ‘Creative Process’?
Even creative people need structure and routine in their daily work. Historically, a routine has an important role to play in the success of well-known creatives and artists. Renowned architect and designer Le Corbusier practiced calisthenics (intensive strength training) every morning, while legendary composer Ludwig van Beethoven began every day with a cup of coffee made from precisely sixty beans, which he counted out each morning.
Beethoven got his creative juices flowing with a strong coffee every morning.
Aside from the everyday ‘non-work’ activities—such as a mid-morning snack or a brisk afternoon walk—that give you the breathing space to head back to work with renewed energy and inspiration, it’s also important to create a routine within your work process.
Whether you’re freelancing or working within an office environment, it’s equally important to develop a set process for dealing with design projects. If you’re given a task to do out-of-the-blue, having an established process for creating will allow you to approach the work with a calm and clear head. You’ll be a better designer for it, I promise!
My Creative Process: An Example
As a freelance designer, I am often asked to help agencies out with client pitches. Sometimes I’ve been asked to put together a complete brand design for it to be pitched the very next day.
In my early freelancing days I probably would have had a minor meltdown, but now I’m much calmer and collected. Why? Because I have a process that works every time, for almost every sort of project. This is it…
Step 1: Nail Down the Brief
Whether I get a request over email or phone, I always make sure to have a long, detailed discussion with the client about their expectations and aspirations for the project.
Even if time is short, it’s very important to know exactly what they are looking for. Ask the client to fill out a questionnaire you’ve created, which details both their personal hopes for the project (e.g. Which design styles do you prefer? Do you have any examples of designs you like?) as well as the technical specs (e.g. What file format(s) should the work be provided in?).
Only when you have a very firm idea of what the client is looking for, can you start your own creative process. These discussions also prove to be indispensable to have to hand later down the line if the client changes their mind or says that you’ve not done what they asked for.
Step 2: Research
The creative side of you will be chomping at the bit by this point, wanting to dive straight into designing. But I always take a bit of time to do my research. This is particularly important to do when working on branding projects, as it’s important to get a sense of where the brand will sit in the market.
Head to Google, and do some research into the client’s sector. Make notes on the design traits shared in common between similar businesses. For example, if you’re designing a logo for a building firm, you might find that many similar businesses use punchy color combinations like yellow and black, as well as chunky sans serif typography. If you design a pastel-colored logo set in a classical serif typeface, it’s unlikely to come across as an appropriate competitor to these businesses.
Step 3: Inspiration
With your research notes to hand, it’s time to start looking for inspiration, to get your creative juices flowing. No designer can work in a complete vacuum—seeking inspiration is a huge part of making your designs the very best they can be.
I consistently turn to Pinterest when I want to get inspired. It’s fantastic for researching design trends and styles and has a consumer-driven focus, which makes the material particularly relevant and on-trend.
Try searching for related designs to get an idea of how other designers approach similar projects, before broadening your search to more random searches (e.g. ‘mid-century design’, ‘tropicana style’, ‘hand-lettered typography’ etc) which might spark an idea about the subject, style, color, mood or texture.
While Pinterest is good, other sites with a visual emphasis also make for great inspiration fodder—try Instagram, Behance or Designspiration.
Step 4: Sketch
Sketching is such an essential part of the creative process. I truly believe that designers are at their most creative when they are drawing by hand, away from their computers.
Drawing by hand allows your imagination to run wild, as there are no limitations to your ideas on paper. Take yourself away to a quiet spot, pick up a large sketchpad, and spend half an hour or so filling up a few pages with lots of ideas. I like to sketch on a large table where I can spread out lots of paper and pens, and not worry about getting the area a bit messy for a little while.
Sketch quickly and roughly, moving briskly from one idea to the next. Add annotations describing ideas about additional details and colors. When you’ve filled up a few pages, put the pad down and reward yourself with a break.
Step 5: Refine
When you return to your sketches afresh, you’ll be able to assess more clearly which ideas are stronger than others.
Circle three or four of your best ideas. Now work on refining each idea, committing each to its own page. Spend time refining the shape and form of your design, before experimenting with color using colored pencils, pens or watercolors.
Step 6: Move to the Computer
With your sketches refined, it’s time to translate them to a digital format. Scan or upload a photo of each of your designs onto your computer.
If you’re looking to vectorize your design, for example as a scalable logo, you can use the sketch as a basis for tracing the design in vector software like Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape.
Alternatively, you might want to create a raster image, using the sketch as a foundation for building up texture and effects. A photo-editor like Adobe Photoshop will be your best bet for creating beautiful raster designs.
If your project has a layout emphasis, such as creating a magazine, book cover or business card, for example, you’ll want to work in a publishing program like Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress.
Step 7: Put Together the Extras
Simply creating a digital version of your sketch is by no means the end of a design project. Most professional designers spend just as much, if not more, time perfecting the finer details of a design, as well as working on the extras that lift their work from humdrum to professional-standard.
Say you have been asked to create a logo for a client. As well as the simple black-and-white silhouette version of the logo, the client is likely to want to be able to use the logo across different media and in different formats. Spending time refining the color and style variations of the logo (e.g. versions with text, versions without) will show the client how carefully you have considered their brief, and demonstrate the versatility of your design.
For a complete branding project, you may have to think about a broad range of extras, which would allow the client to put your brand design to use. For example, consider creating a brand color palette, advising the client on which fonts to use across their communications, and how they can best work with photos and illustrations to keep the look of their media ‘brand-friendly’.
Step 8: Present
Once you’ve refined three or four concepts, and considered some of the design ‘extras’ discussed above, you’re ready to bring your hard work together and make it presentable for the client.
I usually put this together in the form of a pitch or ‘concept’ document in InDesign. I set out the designs on simple, uncluttered landscape A4 pages, and add a simple cover stating clearly the date and my own name. If the document’s longer than ten pages, I create a contents page and add page numbers for easy navigation.
Attach this to an email or, if possible, present this document to the client in person. It’s always easier to explain your reasoning for using this color or depicting this subject if you’re face-to-face.
If the client’s pleased with the work and wants to use your designs, you should also provide them with the ‘native’ artwork files, for example in EPS format, to allow them to use the design flexible.
Step 9: Head Back to the Drawing Board
Of course, the unfortunate fact of a designer’s life is that the client won’t necessarily like the designs you have created. This is nothing to beat yourself up about—it’s a common occurrence, and no indicator of your capabilities as a designer. It may be that the client’s brief didn’t match what they pictured in their head, or perhaps you’ve misunderstood a key element of what they were looking for.
Whatever the reason, don’t dwell on the negative for too long. Approaching this scenario with a positive attitude and presenting a possible solution to the client, whether it be tweaking the existing design or starting over from scratch, will demonstrate your professionalism. Most clients will hold you in high respect for approaching it with maturity and an attitude of “Sure, I want to get it completely right for you”, and remember you for future projects.
As a designer, I find that it’s really important to enjoy the whole creative process, and not focus too heavily on how the final result is received. With this attitude, you will always be able to approach a new brief with enthusiasm and the best of your creativity.
What Are You Waiting For? It’s Time to Get Creative!
This article has explored my own creative process which I’ve honed after years of (often bad!) practice, eventually finding the approach and routine that works for me.
While this is a good guide for any designer looking to develop a more consistent process in their own work, it may be that you find that a different approach works best for you. I know a designer who much prefers to brainstorm their ideas on their laptop, rather than sketching by hand, for example. You may prefer to seek inspiration away from the internet, looking at books, nature or movies to guide your taste and creative approach.
Whatever the details of your routine become, refining your creative process is a vital method for bringing balance into a creative, and sometimes chaotic, working life. Creating a routine in your daily work not only allows you to make your ideas a practical reality, but it also helps you to manage your time much better, ultimately allowing you to enjoy the ride!
Discover more of Grace and her works here.