The Design Process: 5 Helpful Tips For Creatives

Ah, design. It’s a fundamental cornerstone in any website, however not enough light is shed on how the designer got from point A to point B. That’s where I come in. Hopefully this surface look at my personal approach to designing for the web can give you a deeper insight into how the creative talent you hire or work alongside organizes their workflow and makes the decisions that ultimately end up as the face of countless small business websites across the web.

1. Know your client, and know them well.

This one is kind of a big one. You wouldn’t buy someone a shirt without knowing their size, right? Same concept. You need to know who the client is, what their business is all about, and what sort of message they are wanting to send through their design. Is this a white collar, corporate business? A mother starting up her own daycare service? A student organization? There are a lot of clients out there, of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

To get back to my shirt analogy, one size does not fit all. Spend some time doing the research, and it’ll pay dividends when the client is happily referring other prospective business opportunities to you. Which brings me to my next point…

2. Research, research, research.

Listen, creativity is a muscle. Unlike most other job roles, being creative is not something that can be done right or wrong. Since it’s a muscle, it’s impossible to flex it constantly and hope to get great results on a consistent basis. Doing research not only gives your creativity time to rest and recoup, it also “builds muscle” by exposing you to different thoughts, methods, and approaches to design.

I should clarify here that there are two different types of research I’m referring to. The first is simply researching other websites that are in the same realm as your client’s. This could be competitors, or it could just be a similar type of business. Either way, the idea is to see what other people are doing and make mental or actual notes on what you like and don’t like, or what works or doesn’t work. This will be invaluable going forward with the design. The second type of research is the creative (the fun) stuff. Inspiration research is absolutely vital to keep you fresh and on the forefront of unique and innovative design. Always look to expand that toolbox.

3. Jump in and do what feels right.

After you know who your client is and what they want, and you’re stuffed to the gills with research and inspiration… just start working. Go with your gut. Don’t waste time spinning your wheels trying to come up with the ‘Next Great Design’. Chances are, you’re not gonna revolutionize the web with every project. Accept that, and just work.

I normally have three or four design concepts going at once. The second I get stuck or bored with one, I jump to another. I keep going and going, switching back and forth whenever I start to feel that creative spark fade. Before you know it, one or two of the concepts will start to stand out from the others and you can focus your time and attention there. Letting your natural instinct take over is an amazing way to let your designs develop and evolve. As a designer, you have the creative skills and background to trust your instincts. If something feels right, chances are you should go with it.

4. Establish the essentials early on and build around them.

For me, there are three key elements in any web design that should always receive extra time and attention: layout, navigation, and readability. The whole point of any website is to present you with information of some variety in a legible and attractive way. Making sure layout is given the proper attention is probably the number one piece of advice I would offer directly to any designer. Website visitors need to have clear and easy ways to navigate through a website, as well. My general rule is organization coupled with simplicity is key. Simple stuff like making appropriate and intelligent choices with fonts, line heights, paddings, and margins is so, so crucial. Establishing hierarchy at the outset benefits everyone… from the designer to the client to the reader. Once you have this foundation of organized layout, clear and easy to use navigation, and structured legibility, you can go wild with making your vision come to life.

5. Be open to criticism and prepared to justify.

One of the downsides to being in a creative field is that pretty much everyone is going to have an opinion on your work. It simply comes with the territory. It can be difficult to separate yourself from your design work, but it’s something you need to be able to do, otherwise you’re going to experience a lot of unnecessary hurt and frustration.

Clients will almost always want changes to the precious design you spent hours crafting for them. Don’t immediately dismiss these revision requests and ideas. Listen to them carefully, and address each one on its own. If, after some thought, you still believe your original design or idea is in their best interest, explain this to them in a kind, professional manner. Work with them to achieve success. It also doesn’t hurt to collaborate with your design colleagues, design communities online, or your co-workers. Listen to other perspectives. In the end, you should always default to your expertise in design, but don’t shut out the world around you. Always be willing to listen to any criticisms (especially from the client), and be ready to explain why you did what you did and why you think it’s right.

Some general tips for small business when hiring a designer: 

1. Make sure the designer knows their stuff. This might require you to gain a cursory knowledge of design basics, but you’ll be much better off down the line knowing you brought someone on board who not only has a flair for creativity, but also the knowledge to back it up.

2. Don’t restrict or try to structure how a designer designs. For the most part, folks in the creative field tend to like to work their own way. Trying to tell a designer how to work is like slapping handcuffs on them in a sense. Restriction stifles creativity. Besides, if they’re getting their work done before deadlines and it’s actually good, who cares how your designer prefers to work?

3. Nurture talent and keep it motivated. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but if you find that you have a talented creative on your staff, you should do everything you can (within reason, of course) to keep them with you. Designers might be sprouting out of colleges and art schools left and right, but let’s face it… not all of them are at the same skill level. – and add on top of that the real world experience your more seasoned designer has. It’s worth it to invest in their professional development, and to reward hard work accordingly.

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Tony Todoroff is the lead designer and primary creative force at Buckeye Interactive. He has an in-depth background in art and design, specializing in web design, photography, drawing, typography, logo design, branding, and front-end development. He's been involved with many creative organizations, programs, and exhibitions, from being a proud member of AIGA and Creative Smackdown, to the ADDY Awards and Graphic Exposure (among others). Academically, he attended Central Michigan University where he was admitted into the competitive entry graphic design program and obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts. He continues refining his expertise in areas he's familiar with, and is always willing and eager to stay on top of what's coming down the pipeline. His devotion to great design is both noteworthy and inspiring, and he looks to continue his growth, experience, and knowledge with ongoing education.