As we all know by now and despite what some people may think, the graphic design process is much more than just shoving words and pictures on a page or “just” designing a logo. Any graphic design project is intricate and has multiple steps.
Of course, this exact process depends on the person who is designing and may differ massively designer to designer. Though, if you’re going to succeed in the design industry then you should have your own creative process down to a T. Through the help of our graphic design teachers, and their experience both freelancing and working in studios, we’ve put together this dependable 13-step graphic design process checklist. If you’re ever stuck on how to keep up a projects’ momentum or even how to start it off, then this guide will always be your friend.
This may seem obvious, but the first step in any graphic design process has to be the brief.
A brief, as you should know, is a set of instructions or directions about the project at hand.
This could include details about the business, the target audience, the specifications, as well as a whole host of other information. For graphic designers, this first step will usually be delivered to you through a client meeting. This is where they sit down with you and discuss what they want you to do for them. Though, if you don’t have any clients right now, you can always work on self-initiated projects by writing your own briefs or using a dedicated service like Briefbox. Bonus: our students and Shillumni get a 40% discount off their services! It could be argued that The Brief is the most important of all the graphic design process steps. Without the brief, there’s no project to work on at all.
Like with the first step, the second step of the graphic design process doesn’t actually involve any designing. Though, this doesn’t make either of them any less important. After a designer has received the brief and knows what the client needs from them, they should embark on some market research. This step of the process involves gathering as much information as possible to help inform your design. This means the direction your design is going to take and all your future decisions relating to the project.
This information could be about the client themselves, what they do, their past designs, etc. It could be the client’s competitor brands and their designs. Or, the target audience and what they do and don’t respond well to. Potentially what is currently performing well in the industry in general. Market Research is essential to gauge what your design should or should not look like.
The following step of research is moodboarding, as the name suggests, helps to determine the mood of the given brief.
Developed from the market research you should have already undertaken, moodboards are a collection of visual material that can be used to understand a brief, demographic, a client and the competition.
Moodboarding inspires the visual direction of a project. They can be used to determine anything and everything—from colour to typography. They’re the perfect way to make important decisions about a project before starting the actual design. Don’t forget to always lay them out and label them correctly. This is so they can quickly and easily be referred back to later down the line.
Up next is brainstorming, a concept that I’m sure you’re already aware of. In design terms, brainstorming is the first step towards deciding how you are going to tackle the client’s brief. This means deciding what you are actually going to design for the client. Brainstorming involves putting pen to paper (or however you want to do it!) and spontaneously coming up with ideas of how to creatively solve the problem given to you by the client.
This can be done as a team. This has its benefits as the more of you there are, the more ideas you can come up with. Though, if you work on your own or freelance, brainstorming can be done on your own which ensures all the ideas are yours and yours only! Not all of the ideas you come up with will be brilliant but that’s the whole point of brainstorming—to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The next step in the design process, after brainstorming, is what we call Idea Generation. Thumbnailing is where design actually starts to look like design. Once you’ve sorted through your ideas, thumbnailing can be used to show what these ideas might actually look. Using those essential tools of a designer, a pen and notebook, you should quickly sketch out all the separate elements of what will make up your design—the images, the margins, the body copy, etc. But what’s the point of doing this multiple times? It’s simple.
You do this again and again so you can quickly develop concepts to see which one works best and to begin gaining an idea of how you want your design to take shape.
Once you’ve brainstormed and thumbnailed, you should be able to clearly see what is going to work and what isn’t. Now, you have to choose what is going to work best to fulfil the clients’ wishes. You must whittle your choices down to one standout concept. Based on your initial research and idea generation, your final concept should successfully communicate what the clients’ brief asked for. It should also differentiate from what else already exists in the market. The concept should be unique, memorable, personal to the client and appropriate for the target audience.
Now we’ve reached step seven, it’s time to actually start designing. Well, every step is part of designing but this is the step when a design actually begins to look like what you might eventually present to the client.
Start building up your design from your chosen concept and what you developed in your thumbnails.
You can use whatever software or tools that are appropriate to the project. These could be the Adobe Creative Cloud programs, InDesign, Photoshop or Illustrator. It could be a digital design program like Sketch or, depending on the project, a more analogue tool like a paintbrush and paints. This is your chance to experiment and find the best way to turn your ideas into an actual design.
After you’ve had fun exploring and experimenting, it’s time to refine your design into something that you can present to the client. Hopefully creating something that they will love! Start off with a bit of self-critique. Look at what you’ve designed so far and see if it’s responding well to the brief you were given all the way back in step one. Compare it to your market research. Is it applicable to your target audience? Does it stand out enough amongst its competitors?
Once you’ve answered these questions and any others that you think are relevant, head back into your design programs and start tinkering once again. Keep tinkering and refining your design until it not only looks perfect to you, but until you believe it is hitting the mark set by the client.
This is potentially the most nerve wracking part of the design process—the initial presentation of what you have designed to the client. Either on a video call or in person, you’ll present the client what you have created whilst explaining why you have created it. You’ll have to go back over the last eight steps, explaining the decisions you made at each stage so that the client can understand your choices and why the design looks like it does.
Then the client will give you their feedback. Their thoughts on what you have designed and how they think the final design should look.
Of course, you may not always agree with what they say! Do your best to take their advice on board but also be comfortable to explain why some of their wishes may not work.
Once you’ve got feedback from the client, head back into the studio and try your best to respond to the feedback. It may even be worth jumping all the way back to Step 4. Have another brainstorm about how the clients’ wishes may fit into what you’ve already designed. This could give you a clearer idea of how to please the client while not having to make fundamental edits to the design that you were already happy with.
At this stage, it’s important to remember not to be overly precious about what you’ve created. The client has set the brief and is paying the bills, so you’ll have to be flexible to keep them happy. Depending upon the client and the project itself, then you may have to repeat Steps 7 and 8 more than once. But, if both sides are happy then it’s on to the next one.
We take back what we said before, this is the most nerve wracking part of the design process! Once revisions have been made, once or more, it’s time to present your final design to the client. Depending on the client, this presentation could be made to an individual or a team of people. Sometimes it’s even made to the big dogs, like Directors or CEOs.
Though, no matter who you are presenting to, you’re looking for them to say ‘Yes! We love it!’ A saying that has become magical to the ears of almost every designer. Once the client is happy and you’re happy, then it’s time to stop tinkering and realise that your design is perfect how it is. Even though that infamous designer perfectionism inside you will want to keep making tiny edits.
Now everything has been signed off, it’s time to get everything ready and let your design head out into the world on its own.
Open up your programs but don’t be tempted to start kerning those letters ever so slightly or moving that image! The designing is done. Package everything up so it can be sent over to the client. For a print project, this will involve setting things like bleed, slug, crop and fold marks so it’s ready to be printed. Though, there are certain final specifications for all sorts of designs. If the client has an in house design team, then the likelihood is you’ll send over your working files. So they are able to access them and use them for whatever they have planned. If not, chances are you’ll be sending the designs over as packaged PDFs (or whatever file type has been requested) so your designs are all ready for the final stage of the design process.
Unlucky for some, Step 13 is the final step in our graphic design process. It’s also most likely the step of the design process that is most out of a designer’s control. Once you’ve finished all the other steps, your design has been finalised, approved and packaged. It’s time for the actual production to begin. The production will differ massively depending on what the design actually is.
For this though we’ll take two examples, a magazine and a website. Once your magazine is all finished, then obviously it has to be printed. You or the client will send it over to the printing house to get the physical printed magazine out to the world. For the website, this is the job of developers and coders. They have to make the website you’ve designed for into a living, working website. Once your design is produced, you can finally relax. The design process is over and the project is complete.
Here we have 13 seemingly simple steps that make up what we regard as the graphic design process. These are the basic steps involved in any design project you will work in your professional career and should also be adhered to if you want to create a successful personal, passion project too. It goes without saying, but there may be more steps than this in some projects and some may be more complex than others. We just wanted to offer a basic outline of how to tackle a design brief.
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