My personal creative process is a fairly straight-forward, slightly-modified waterfall process, and is probably quite common in our field. This is likely because it is an easily scalable process which effectively breaks down a design problem into smaller, more digestible chunks.
To better illustrate the process I typically follow, I will describe how the process applies to a larger project, like the development of a new brand and visual system:
Step 1: Research
The first step in my process is to gather as much knowledge and research as time permits on the particular design problem that needs to be solved. This is typically done through interviews with the project’s stakeholders. Often times, it can also involve a company’s separate divisions, key employees, customers, vendors and prospects. Also during this step, I will often do extensive research on competitors and will tabulate my findings into a large spreadsheet.
Step 2: Synthesize/Strategy
The second step closely follows the first and it is not unusual to have these two steps overlap each other. It is during this step that the raw data gathered in step one is synthesized and turned into more meaningful information. The synthesized information is used to discover common patterns and similarities, as well as to identify possible opportunities for improvement and/or differentiation. For example, I may be working on a visual system for a financial institution, and the competitive audit in phase one may have revealed that most competitors in this space are using blue and gray as their primary color palette. Or that their message is primarily product focused, opening up an opportunity to differentiate by exploring a more service-focused strategy instead.
During this step, I also spend a fair amount of time developing a ‘plan of attack.’ How will the new identity and visual system be developed? What is the brand promise? Personality? Brand position? Deliverables are defined, timelines are developed, communication strategies are determined, etc.
Step 3: Sketch/Ideate
For me, steps two and three are by far the most satisfying – at least usually. I suppose it’s the geek in me, but I love the process of synthesizing and strategizing an approach, and sketching ideas on how I can achieve that strategy. Granted, this greatly depends on the specific design problem, but for a visual identity system, or a website, this is often true.
During step three, I will always begin by sketching in my notebook. Whether it’s three sketches or thirty, I will always start here as it allows me to ideate quickly, loosely and focus on ideas (good or bad) rather than execution. It is here that I am able to explore the improbable or impossible without regard for time, budget, or execution. I particularly enjoy being able to explore ideas that relate closely to my findings in step two – those are the most satisfying to me.
Step 4: Design/Content
Step four is where the rubber hits the road. It is at this stage where sketches and ideas are given form and decisions are made. It is also here where content is developed and the message takes shape. This step is also in a constant state of refinement and editing and often leads to more sketching/ideation as the designs begin to emerge. Concepts are strengthened with rationale and every decision made is deliberate and supported. While the entire creative process is collaborative, this particular step is more heavily routed, critiqued, edited, refined and tested to ensure the solution actually solves the original design problem.
Step 5: Develop/Produce
This final step deals with the final production of deliverables and materials. All details are checked to ensure consistency, accuracy and quality. Final design decisions are implemented in their final state and assets are developed in all the necessary variations. Often, this step requires robust documentation in the form of guidelines, schematics and any other materials that will help the end product be consistent across all applications.
Collaboration & Struggles
Collaboration is critical throughout my entire creative process and I seek any opportunity I have to receive feedback. There are two key aspects of my process with which I struggle. The first is content development as I do not feel like I am a good writer (creative or otherwise). I respect a writer’s ability to clearly and concisely express the information, and I am particularly awed by creative writers who seem to have a knack for wordplay.
The second aspect of my process with which I struggle is maintaining my interest on projects that span long periods of time, or have a multitude of utilitarian components which require little or no additional thought beyond initial designs. This particular challenge, however, is more easily overcome than content development in my case, as all it takes is discipline, whereas good writing requires specific talents which I feel I lack. I am continuously working on it though.