What is a Graphic Design Development Process?

Previously, I wrote about the value of design in libraries, and others, including Stephen Bell and Aaron Schmidt, have written and presented on the topic of design in libraries as well. Now I’d like to focus on and delve specifically into what graphic design process may entail. For librarians who design regularly, I hope this helps to articulate what you may be doing already or perhaps add a bit to your tools and tips. For those that don’t design, I hope that this might give you insight into a process that is more complex than it may seem and that you might give designing a try yourself. For some ideas, try any of these are great library design projects: signs, webpages, posters, flyers, bookmarks, banners, etc.

What Is It Like to Design?

People might wonder why design needs to be a process. The very basic process of design, like many processes, is to solve a problem and then create a solution. Jason Fried, founder of 37signals and co-author of Rework, tweeted recently, “Your first design may be the best, but you won’t know until you can’t find a better one.” He later added this image from The Intercom blog as an illustration to make this important point. Striving for an elegant or best solution is something librarians and designers have in common. Librarians often share best practices and examining this process may not only assist us in terms of design, but perhaps we can apply these concepts to other areas of librarianship as we create programs, outreach, marketing, and more.

Design is a process.
Designers work hard to develop a successful design and it doesn’t always come easy. Here are some of the basic steps designers take in the development phase of their work. Every designer is a bit different, and not all designers follow the exact same process. However, this is a pretty good foundation for beginner designers and once you get good, you can incorporate or modify pieces of the process to make it work for you and the project at hand. Design is subjective and there are few hard and fast rules to follow, however, in future posts I’ll be talking more about design elements and details to help you create stronger designs that will speak to your users.

Design has constraints.
Before you start laying things out and jumping into a design, you want to understand what the “specs”  or specifications are. These are the details of the final piece you need up front before you begin any design. For example, is the piece going to be printed or is it an online piece? What’s the budget? Is it black and white, color, how many colors? What size? If printed, what paper will it be printed on? Will color bleed to the edge or is there a border? Is there folding or cutting involved?

All of these considerations are going to be the rules you must work under. But most designers like to think of them as challenges; many times if the specs aren’t too restrictive they can actually empower the designer to drive harder to make it more creative. You really don’t want to start designing before you get this all worked out because once you’ve jumped in it can mean starting over if a critical spec is missed. If you have designed for a set of specs and then try to modify it to fit all new specs later, it almost always compromises the strength of the design to work this way. Better to know those specs up front.

Design requires an open mind.
Sketch like crazy. You may think you have the best, most original idea ever once you get your assignment or have your specs, but please do yourself a huge favor and sketch some ideas out first. Do at least a page of sketches if not much more. Take notes, do some research on the topic, do word associations and mind maps and draw stick figures and doodle. Keep an open mind to new possibilities. Observe the world around you, daydream, and collect inspiration. You might still stick with that first idea but chances are you come up with something even better and usually more original if you push yourself to think in new ways and explore.

Design step by step.
Depending on the complexity of the piece, whether it’s print or web, I might do more or less of each step below. If you’re designing or reworking a website, this is a good method to get a powerful, thoughtful design. And of course, you can go back and iterate based on feedback given, changes to the design that impact design elements. If the design structure is strong, changes should be fairly small.

Basic Design Development Process:

1. research the topic, take notes, ask questions, doodle, jot down ideas, simmer 

2. series of thumbnail sketches
This is an extension of step 1. Do as many as you can muster…do it until you are sick of it. Here is a great presentation I recently found on sketching.

3. build wireframe
Stay abstract/block in composition. This is going to be larger than a thumbnail but try to keep it free from detail.

4. sketch comps
Take steps 2 and 3 and flesh out 3 comps. These should not be final but should follow specs and be close to finished in terms of look and feel for the major design components. You may use lorum ipsum text if you wish. This technique helps to keep people from giving feedback about the content over the design. Of course there are times the content may absolutely need to be there but use your own discretion and know that this is an option and may help in moving forward.

5. finalize comps
Usually 3 choices are offered to a client, but if you are your own client obviously just do your favorite.
All of this is separate from any CSS, html, javascript, etc. Mock it up using Photoshop and/or Illustrator (or a similar program of your choice). The point is to focus on the design apart from laying down code. “Form Follows Function” really rings true. It isn’t an either/or statement. The product must work first and foremost and the design will support, enhance, and make it work better. If it doesn’t work, no amount of gorgeous design will change something that is badly broken.

TaDa, right?
The design is done, let’s celebrate!

Well, not exactly. This process is merely just one phase of a much larger process that includes steps including: initially meeting the client, negotiating a contract, presenting your designs, more testing and usability, iterative design adjustments, possibly working with developers or print houses, etc. Design is a process that requires study, skills, schooling, and knowledge like many fields. I’ll be talking about more design topics in the future, so what is not covered here I’ll try and cover next time. Luckily, I gathered some great…

Design resources to get you started:

This is not a comprehensive list by any means but highlights of a few resources to get you thinking about design.

  • Non-Designer’s Design Book: One of the best beginner design books out there (overlook the cover- it really is a great book!).
  • Smashing Magazine: Really good stuff on this website- including freebies, like decent icons and vector artwork. Covers typography, color, graphic design, etc.
  • a list apart: another great site that delves into all kinds of topics but has great stuff on graphic design, UI design, typography, illustrations. etc.
  • Fast Company Design: relevant design articles and examples from industry.
  • IDEO: design thinking, great high level design examples- check out their portfolio in selected works.
  • Thinking With Type: title says it all- learn about the fine art and science of typefaces. You will never look at design and type the same way again.
  • Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works: another must on typography
  • Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: seriously. even if you think you can’t draw. try it. anyone can draw, truly. Drawing helps you think in new and creative ways- it will help you be more creative and help in problem solving anything. Even those small doodles are valuable.

Pick. your. favorite. see above. do it.

Enjoy and thanks again!


One Comment on “What is a Graphic Design Development Process?”

  1. Esther says:

    What a great resource. Thanks so much!