Robert Bowen February 3rd, 2011

The Price is Right: Breaking Down the Design Process

Like with most creative fields, there are those who operate outside them who do not necessarily understand all of the time and energy that goes into the design process, and as a result, they tend to undervalue our contributions and imaginative creations. The design community is not at all immune to this treatment as we regularly come across a client or potential client who views our work through this sort of devaluing lens. [fblike] Without a comprehensive breakdown of our process, clients lack the insight into the project that allows them to see the amount of work that we, as designers, put into it. That is where this post comes in. For anyone who has ever turned to a designer and asked if they could simply throw something together for you or your company, we have an in-depth look at the steps involved in creative process that we call design. Hopefully this post can not only help potential clients better understand where we are coming from, but it can also act as a beacon and reminder for those who are new to the field and could use a little more of a glance behind the proverbial curtain to feel more comfortable and secure in their own process. We want to let the clients know that we are doing much more than just doodling in Photoshop when they hire us! So below is the process laid out for everyone to see. Perhaps this post will help us to rise above the stigma placed upon the field by those who have not fully understood the lengths that we as designers have to go to in order to create our work, and thereby will alleviate the stress and headaches that tend to be attached to working for someone who undervalues our work in this way. Perhaps this post can also explain why our prices tend to be higher than many people expect when they contact us for a quote. Not to mention it can shed a little bit of light on the reason why it takes us time to work out. Help the clients see why we cannot just hand them the design in the span of a day or two.


Naturally, the first place that you want to turn is to the information gathering portion of the process so that we can get an idea of who the client is and exactly what we are up against in terms of putting together a design that will not only achieve their goals, but that will hopefully reach out to their audience and have lasting appeal. The best way to ensure this longevity and connectability is being pulled together into the design, is to put the time in and get the information you need to craft a unique and appropriate piece.

Begin With a Brief

There are some of us in the field who do not always rely on a full design brief in order to get us going, but it really does allow for the client to offer you their complete insight into their company. How they see themselves and their mission is an invaluable peek into who you are working for. It allows you to see things through their eyes, and in doing so, arms us better with the knowledge we need to proceed and refine those things we have learned into the design. So having the client fill out a design brief can give you a big step forward in the beginning as you try and sort out who you are working for and exactly what they need.

Check Out the Competition

Another area of research that tends to prove useful to our process is to check out the client’s competition within their field. This allows you to see how others in the field have made their mark, which can prove extremely useful as you begin hammering out an approach for your client. Not only can you see what has worked for their competitors which can help with other areas of the process, but it also lets you see what to avoid so that you do not end up copying another’s approach. Not only that, but if you have not been able to get much a feel for the industry the client works in, looking into their competition can often assist you there too. Get to know the people you're working with. 

Who Is Your Audience

In the last section we mentioned seeing how some of their competitors have connected with the intended audience of your client can be useful, and this is the main way that can help. It can offer us a sense of who the audience is, and to see how they have responded to certain elements and approaches from others in the field. This can give us a leg up as a start into our process, seeing as we have seen the audience in action so to speak. We need to know who that audience is that the client wants to appeal to, because as we know, that determines a large portion of how we decide to approach them through our design.


The next section that we move into after we have spent enough time gathering the information that will help point us in the right design direction, is the brainstorming part of our creative process. The brainstorming is a crucial and fluid part of the process wherein we just set our minds on the path towards our end goals and see the numerous ways in which we come up with to tackle the issue. Like a radio set to scan, we allow our minds to freely flow through our imaginations, throwing back ideas like station signals being grabbed and sampled before our minds push on for more.

Filling the Pool

The first step to brainstorming is all about the generating of ideas, not worrying about the full follow through that is required to implement each one, you are just letting them come at this point. Filling the page with various elements and approaches that you see fitting into the project, as they come to you. This is not the time to pick them apart or even determine if they can fully satisfy all your client’s needs. This step is just about the frenzy of techniques and takes that come to mind when you think about the best solution for the client. No matter how far from left field the ideas tend to come, give each one their chance to be considered, and write them down.

Sorting Through the Mess

Now that we have taken the time to come up with a list of various solutions, we have to take the time to actively pour through them, picking out the workable ideas and tossing the rest. Some designers choose to sort their ideas into more than just yes and no piles, but instead taking all of the ideas that compliment others and lumping them together into a possible solution. Sometimes this step in the process can be somewhat cumbersome as we begin compiling multiple solutions and approaches together for alternate design routes that we can take the project down. This can stil leave us with a rather large pool of solutions to whiddle down, but that is where the next step comes into play.

Distilling the Idea

Once we have sorted through the aftermath of the storm, we then begin refining the concept to help find the approaches that we think will work the best for the client. Now I say approaches, because as we begin to distill these ideas down, many designers will move forward with a couple of concepts at this point for the client to choose from. So for the most part, early on, we are refining more than one design for the client. It is not like we have taken all of our ideas, and are just tinkering with one, and given the amount of work that goes into these initial steps in the process and the number of considerations to be made and weighed, this necessary divide and conquer take is timely and thereby costly.


Once we have the ideas that we want to move forward with, we step into the next area of the creative process, the sketching. Once again, this is an in-depth and time consuming step that the clients rarely see. So like with a few of our other steps, they do not take this part of the process into consideration when they are formulating their expectations and timelines. So here we take a look at the various levels of this step in the project to further highlight the full scope of our design process.

First Drafts

Now not all designers will do their sketches by hand, but some of us do. This adds another step to the sketching process wherein we have to transfer that which we have drawn by hand into a digital format that we then show to others. Many of our first draft sketches would not even qualify so much as first drafts as much as they would just drafts. We take passes at the idea, often multiple ones, before we digitally render a draft that can be shown to anyone. Some probably assume that we simply open up Photoshop and begin going to town, but they do not see the planning and constant navigating that actually takes us into town. These sketches and drafts are the stepping stones of progress that often are taken for granted by those not in the field.

First Draft Feedback

Once we have our first drafts to our liking, then we turn to both the community and the client for feedback on the directions that we have come up with to this point. This step is vital in the process because it effectively narrows down our final approach to the project. Once we have shown the ideas to the clients, they then decide where they want the project to go. They take in what we have shown them and they determine which route that we have devised best suites what they were looking for. And because the client is not always in the know about the specifics of the design field, getting feedback from other members of the community is also an effective tool to help us move forward and refine the ideas we have.

Back to the Drawing Board

After we have absorbed and digested all of the feedback that we receive, we then take everything back to the proverbial drawing board, and at times, a literal one in order to further refine the idea and actually move the project into the last stage of the creative process. That is why we may also want to get feedback from others in the field, because they can often provide us with more valuable feedback than the client can. The client tells us what they like and what they want, which allows us to go back to the drawing board ready to push on. However, other designers can give us more insights as to how to achieve certain effects and sharpen elements we wish to use which give us more than drawing board direction, it give us ammo.


Then we have the final step in the creative process, the actual designing of the piece. Following nearly the same pattern as the sketching only with more depth and detail, this step takes the refined idea that the client chose in the draft stage and actually designs it completely. Through hours and days of dedicated effort, we transform our drafts and sketches into the completed design that we have been working towards all along. And even with their consultation throughout the process, the clients often operate under the assumption, that this final step is the only one that we have, when in fact, there was quite a bit of work that has gone into just getting us here.

Taking Your First Pass

The first part of the design step is much like the first draft portion of the sketching section of the process, only you have a much more solid grasp on just where the design should be ending up. So we begin taking our first pass at the design, really focusing at transforming the drafts into fully functional, communicative projects that the client would be proud to call their own. And though the client may have gone in directions that we personally would not have, we still give the project our best, because we know that the project will always reflect on us, the designer. So we always put our best foot forward for each client and project, even with the first passes that we make, knowing they are bound for revisions. Quick Insider’s Tip: Be Sure to Always Save Your Work with Layers!

Seeking Feedback

Then once we have finished the first pass on the design, we will turn to the community and client for more feedback on the progression of the piece. Some designers may skip this step thinking that they do not want to slow themselves down too much by seeking other opinions beyond the client at this point. But just like was pointed out before, others in the field can provide much more critical feedback for your designs to sharpen them overall. This is a vital part of growing your skills and progressing your work, which always benefits the client in the end. Here is where you begin asking for feedback on specific elements or solutions as well, rather than on the overall presentation. So this step is just as necessary as the rest. Quick Insider’s Tip: If Possible Return to Same Sources For Feedback that Were Helpful on the Initial Sketches!

Final Draft and Delivery

Once we have gotten the feedback in once again, we can begin to finalize the design and finish up the project, having all of the fine tuning that we need to do within our sights and ready to be conquered. These final tweaks and adjustments can be very time consuming and very demanding as we subtly weave our design tapestry harmoniously together from the various elements that we have used to construct it. We have already found out from the client at this point, what file types the final designs will need to be delivered in, so that we can ensure they will be able to access the work they have paid for, and so once we have completed the project that is all we have left to do. To deliver the files (Once we have received the final payment of course).


Now the delivery is not always the final step for the designer to take, in fact, some deliveries are more project launches than they are a straight up handing over of files to the client, so that also has to be counted in the process. After all, when we are taking about all that goes into our pricing, the implementation of our designs is a crucial, and often times, the most stressful step in the entire project.


There are many people who never consider coding as part of a designer’s job, and some of those people are unfortunately designers. And while the project at hand may not require an extensive knowledge of coding to complete, most designers understand that some level of coding know-how is essential to being able to fully design a project for our clients. Even if we do not have to make the design work the way it is intended, for instance when we hand over a website design to the developers, we do have to be able to design something that can be implemented to the client’s specs and that usually requires knowing how it needs to be able to function to ensure compatibility. That required expertise is all part of the job, and that figures into our processes as well.

Usability Testing

If we are designing say a website or for an app over say a print project, then we also have to figure in time and the effort for all of the necessary usability testing that is going to be involved in the project. This could even require us to partner up with the developers to be on hand to help resolve any usability issues that are created by the design that we put together. These tests not only take time to setup and carry out, but they can also lead to problems being discovered in the work that may become timely roadblocks that we did not count on. But the importance of this step should not be underscored, for this vital element of the process can often prove to be another of the most challenging.

Feedback Sessions

Once again it is feedback time! Given the weight of the usablility testing, the following feedback sessions are also a crucial cog in our process to boot. Now before where we mentioned that you wanted to get feedback from some trusted sources that could be from within our own fields, this time we might want to widen our reach when looking for some critiques and insights on how things are working. Given that this project is more than likely going to be released unto the masses, we want to ensure that we have a sampling of users to provide us with as accurate of a reflection as possible as to how the public is going to receive it. These sessions are going to tend to be a little more time consuming and difficult to arrange and finish up than the other feedback bouts we have had to arrange.

Tweak and Launch (Hopefully in That Order)

Once we have finished compiling the feedback and processing everything that we have been given, the final tweaks that are necessary to get the design ready to launch need to be handled. This time can be stressful as our launch date more than likely looms, but not as stressful and time consuming as the launch time itself. That is when it comes down to the proverbial all hands on deck hours and the stress levels tend to go through the roof. This can also mean that our focus and time has to be strictly dedicated to this one client and this one project until that moment of truth has passed and the sighs of relief have all been breathed. This is a step in the process that also weighs heavily on the pricetag that tends to get attached to the project.

The End

In the end, the design process is a complicated and deeply consuming one that requires a lot of dedicated time and effort to complete in a professional and efficient manner. It is easy for someone looking in from the outside with little context to underestimate and undervalue exactly just how much goes into the process. They are not exposed to the complexities of each step, and the depths to which we designers have to delve to complete the project. Hopefully this post can help us to better explain to our clients and to those newbs who are teaching themselves the ins and outs of the field, just exactly what all we put into a design so that they can better understand our prices and deadlines.

Consider Some of our Previous Posts

(ik) [fblike]

Robert Bowen

Robert Bowen is an emerging author, celebrated podcaster and poet, and most recently the co-founder and imaginative co-contributor of the creative design and blogging duo at the Arbenting and Dead Wings Designs.


  1. Hi Robert!
    this article was nice and short description of the process. However, I think testing with actual users should already happen in the draft phase. Using prototypes (paper or SW) is a great way to do this. It saves the implementation team a lot of work later on.

    Maybe this part is covered in the “seeking feedback from the community”.

  2. Great article Rob!

    And what you outlined is only after the information architecture is already given by the client… I have so many clients come to me without ANY copy or idea what to put on the site. They want a website…then they realize they have to put something on that site and that they have to provide it… Most of the time you end up helping them with things that is not even your job. I am so sick of people telling me that web design is overpriced. It is hard sometimes not to get completely bogged down. I just love my job too much to give up. :)

  3. What a great post. Totally agree. But how can we get all this across in a price quotation? This is usually all that the clients asks for and makes decisions based on it.

  4. Hey Rob

    Thanks for the article, I intend to show it to my multimedia class (I am a teacher), I have created a simple chart utilising the headings you have created here, I hope you don’t mind.

    Here is the link for it on flikr!

    (p.s I know it says no link dropping, but as this is related and not advertising or self promotion, I figured you wouldn’t mind)

  5. As a developer who works closely with designers, this article brings a new perspective to life. Most of the time I sit around wondering where my designer’s design files are and not thinking about how long it takes her to make the files for me. I promise to be more forgiving of the time it takes her to get me files from now on. Thanks for the new perspective!

  6. Great article, Rob! My pet peeve are the endless meetings that sometimes surround a project. One client insisted all milestones be presented face-to-face but offered such a low fee for the project, I had to tell him that the fee had been used up in the first meeting alone. The look on his face was worth the cost of the gas to get there and back.

  7. Great article! Another part of the design phase often overlooked is prepping the files for the developer. Sure it takes the designer a few extra minutes (maybe 15), but this crucial step can save the developer mass confusion down the road. Let’s face it, when the developer has to deal with missing font files and “Layer 135”, you can imagine the looks you’ll be getting from across the room. Check out this quick run-down of what you can do to help your dev friends out:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *