May 7, 2012

Get Your Hands Dirty


Authors: Ana Labudovic, Nenad Vukusic

With the problem identified, all the research done and necessary information gathered and analyzed, it's time to mould your concept. The ideas are about to crystallize in your head and you need to let them settle and incubate for a while.

Catrin and Adrian from Pixelgarten explain to us how their process largely depends on each individual project, since they differ quite a lot from each other. Apart from that, the process also depends on the client, and the constellation you're working in, that is, your modus operandi:

"Working as a team is like a ping-pong match—one has the first idea, the other one criticizes it and develops it further and so on... the idea grows. When it comes to the execution, first we do a sketch and we think about the objects we are going to use for our image. The images are built up, similar to a painting. For the composition you add an object here and there, move it around until the object has found its final place."

Ruta, on the other hand, works alone, so when he encounters a certain type of problem for the first time he finds it is useful to check other people's notes and learn from older as well as younger colleagues:

"A good library is crucial. The Internet is useful as a source of information, but limited, as it gives no context. I used to develop several different concepts at the same time, but I have evolved to making a selection at the early stages of visualization. I try to give the client one solution. My experience teaches me that few clients like choosing from multiple solutions, and—the story goes—they usually pick the worst solution anyhow.

"It is equally important to set 'the point of no return,' when the client has to give up his right to radical change in the concept. The process of realization is relatively simple: how to create maximum effect with limited funds (and funds are always limited)."

For Duncan from Experimenta, concepts take a lot longer than the execution, although sometimes the concept is the execution.

"We have no problem making things look good, as most professional designers can do. It is getting a solid idea behind the work that can take weeks. Of course it's not often you have weeks. We like to have at least a week only doing concepts, re-looking over ideas. Depending on the work, we can usually get the artwork together very fast. Having another [designer] look over your work is so important, there are always things they will pick up."

When developing ideas, people sometimes get carried away by their own fascinations. We are not saying you should K.I.S.S. (or "Keep it Simple, Stupid", as the simplicity principle dictates) your personal preferences goodbye, but try to keep in mind your audience might have a different view. To assume everyone interprets an image or a concept in the same way very often proves to be wrong. Questions of semiotics can only be answered after some research on a relevantly sized group of people. If you are not sure, ask someone who is not immersed in the project idea to have a look at it.

At Paperjam, in order to keep an eye on quality, anyone in the studio has the authority to quality-check everyone else's work at any time, no matter what their position:

"We work with the understanding that the studio is judged by every piece of work that goes out, so our aim is to make sure each and every job is the very best we can do."

He gives us an example of a typical branding exercise to illustrate their method:

"Our first task will be to get as much information as we can from the client. We will organize a series of informal meetings to try to get the best possible brief. Without this we would be stabbing in the dark. At the outset of each branding job we put out a team of 2–3 designers to complete the first stages."

Stage 1 is always completed away from the screen:

"Our research is done on paper; brainstorming words, themes, and phrases, and then trying to tie them into three to four interesting directions each. We individually work these up and present them to the studio as early black-and-white concepts. From this, the studio decides which ones should go forward and be worked up into a complete brand presentation."

It can be difficult to know when you're on the right path, especially when you're working alone and there is no one by your side to tell you whether you're going nuts or whether you've nailed it. Ruta finds it a matter of experience and learning to deal with time constraints:

"For some solutions I just know that they are going to turn out great. However you mystify the idea of 'good design' it turns out that, in the end, most end users recognize good solutions. Being able to view your work from many perspectives is crucial, especially being able to look at it from the position of the end user."

It's perfectly valid to follow a gut feeling, but you need to have logic behind it and know how to justify it to your client. If you don't find it, ask for help— borrow someone else's eyes:

"At the studio there are people to bounce around ideas with or show them what I intend on doing and get their feedback on it. When I work on my own this is different. Sometimes I get stuck not knowing if whatever I did was good or complete trash. Fortunately I have a bunch of friends who are great designers, so usually I ask them what they think and get their advice. On some projects I also get friends involved and we work more like a collective. I enjoyed this method the most. It would be great to work in a collective with other designers where everyone does their work, but, if needed, we can work together. Sometimes I miss being able to just show something real quick on screen and get a quick re-sponse to it," says Axel Peemöller.

Once you start playing with the chosen concepts, some of them will turn out to be unsuitable for various reasons (an inability to visualize them well enough to present to clients, insufficient materials available for intended production, etc.). Sometimes even the greatest concepts fail at the first reality check, that is, once you try moving it from your head to the real world. Learn to give up on them quickly and work with the ones that can be accomplished. You cannot afford to waste much time.

Depending on the complexity of the project, you might want to start off with simple visualizations, models, or simulations of the material you are hoping to produce. This way you can avoid wasting weeks of work on something the client completely dislikes; instead, show the client the direction you will be taking in the form of a sketch and/or a mood board. A mood board is a fairly primitive visual tool that consists of images, text, and samples of objects in a composition. This is where a picture is worth a thousand words, as it allows you to describe abstract values or ideas, and helps you develop design concepts and communicate them to other members of the design team or clients.

Presenting Your Final Idea

Clients prefer to see that you have sweated over their problem, so most expect multiple solutions to be presented, even if a lot of designers swear by one and only one solution. Bringing more than three different ideas to the table could have the undesirable effect of appearing unprofessional (i.e., not experienced enough to know what's the right choice) or confusing the client (who is expecting your guidance and often has no idea why he has chosen a certain path as the preferred one).

Martin McGrath and Suzy Wood explain to us that at Wood McGrath they don't have a fixed strategy for that:

"We usually present more than one concept because we usually have more than one idea that we like. What feels appropriate for one project might not suit another. We approach all projects with honesty, openness, and collaboration in mind. Showing more than one solution can initiate an interesting discussion, and can open projects up to new possibilities. On occasions we have shown a single concept if we believe it is the very best solution, but equally showing more than one idea can sometimes enhance the refining process."Gui Borchert claims it all depends on the client and the situation:

"Sometimes it will be a requirement. Sometimes you really feel like you have more than one idea worth presenting, other times it may be interesting to show a range, and in some cases you feel like one is more than enough. What is really important is to only show something that you would be really proud to produce. That's a good rule to have."

Bear in mind that initial ideas need to be presented roughly. It's easy to get carried away and waste a lot of time on something that doesn't need that much of your attention at this point:

"In the concept phase I prefer to present rough ideas. By presenting the basic concept and the thought behind the design, there is a bigger chance for the client to get interested. Once you agree on the thought, you can focus and concentrate on the design and refine it," adds Axel Peemöller.

Show all the possible ways your solution can apply to life; if you're developing a visual identity make sure you apply that logo on everything from a business card to a bus. Make mock-ups of books or packaging; it will give your clients something to fiddle with and sometimes it will even help them like the concept, as not all people are capable of visualizing the feel of a certain designs from a picture on a screen:

"Most clients don't have a strong visual understanding, which means it's not enough to show them a direction, most prefer to see an almost finished design. Anything that helps the client to understand the design helps: mood boards, movie clips, songs, objects, scribbles, models.

"It hurts if you love an idea, you've already executed it, and you think it looks amazing but the client doesn't."

Although it is true that a good design should speak for itself, it still needs to be presented to the client. Yet, even though they are as proud and convinced by their work as they can be, many designers freeze once they have an audience.

Learn to tell stories. Putting together coherent sentences without a lot of ummming, errrrring means a lot. If you trust your work it will show, and a little confidence can go a long way. Show them your process and how you arrived at your idea, talk them through the design, explaining how it meets the needs of their users and business objectives. Be open and honest. Show them how hard you worked without being literal, and they will love you for your passion. More important, the communication will help them understand how you work and just how solid the foundation of your idea is.

Stop worrying. What's the worst that can happen? Your client might send you back to the drawing board, the plan B you prepared as contingency might fail, or you simply might never find a common language. Ask more questions if their feedback strikes you as cryptic or unintelligible; it might be important for the outcome of the project. Namely, the client could have insight into something you never thought of (especially if you have no experience in a specific market).

Think twice before indulging a client's taste at the expense of the project's quality. Your ultimate goal is to produce the best product possible, not stroke the ego of the client. One of the main problems you could encounter with your initial presentations will be finding the right person to present your work to. There is nothing worse than jumping through flaming hoops in front of a group of people who in the end just forward your work to a decision maker without any explanation. Make an effort to find thepeople who make the decisions and present to them alone. Use these magic words: "It will save everyone time and money."

If your presentations are foundering a lot, there could be a good reason for it. Perhaps you haven't been paying enough attention to the client or he failed to reveal information crucial to the project on time:

"It is hard to define what is the most valuable feedback or information. On one hand, it could be a simple 'I do not like it' coming from the client, or on the other a 'we cannot afford it.' Maybe the designer misunderstood the point completely?

"Regardless, there are only two viable options. Try to fix the existing solution or start from scratch, and I do not think that starting fresh is the worse option, as it often gives you an opportunity to make giant leaps forward, especially as you already know the material/content and special situations that arise from it," says Ruta.

Gui Borchert thinks the worst that could happen is actually what happens before a brief is even assigned—working with the wrong client.

"Great work comes from great clients. Of course that isn't always the case, and we will always do our best to create the best possible work and sell it, but sometimes that becomes impossible, and that is when you have to decide how much you are going to compromise before it's not worth it anymore. I think the plan B is to understand exactly why the client wasn't happy and what needs to be different for the next round. Communicating is very important at that point, knowing the right time to listen and the right time to talk, and picking the right battles. And then afterwards put it all together, see what's left in the table, and evaluate what the right thing to do next is."


So, it all went smoothly. The client bought your idea, perhaps after a few corrections, and now you have to make it real. This may seem easy, but there are many traps that await you on the road to fruition.

Most of the time the task of fact checking and proofreading belongs to someone else, while your job is to make sure your design reaches its destination spotless. God is in the details, no matter which medium you're working in—print, Web, or whatever.

If you have two versions of a photo, the wrong one will make its way to the printer. Blueline proofs reveal previously invisible errors. This is Murphy's Law in all of its erroneous glory. If things can go wrong, they will.

"If we are at the point of sending our materials to print, then aesthetic dilemmas are the thing of the past and we are dealing with practical/technical issues." Ruta tries to think like a printer, determine what issues might arise and what could go wrong, because the printer has his own worries and he should not be burdened with his problems.

Do not be sloppy and do not expect anyone else to be your quality control. Check, re-check and then check your files again before sending them to the printer. This is still cheaper than reprinting the entire series.

The people at Paperjam have their own method of preventing disasters that can be avoided:

"A huge amount of our work is printed, so there is a studio-wide checklist that each designer must follow before a job goes to print: making sure the color profiles are correct, page sizes and counts are as specified, photos are the right resolution, and colour settings and fonts are included. These are the things that can turn a great job into a terrible one and a happy client into a stressed one."

If possible, have your printer make a test print. Verify that all the elements are in place, run it by your client, and, if everything is okay, proceed. Though hanging out at the printer's workspace, getting high off the fumes produced by the heavy machinery and chemicals, may not seem like the best use ofyour time, in more delicate printing processes your presence might be more than valuable. If something goes wrong you can notice it on the spot and shout those magical words: "Stop the press!"

Paying attention to detail is universal, but slightly different principles apply across different media. Before a website is launched, it must undergo thorough testing.

There is always room for improvement. Make sure you build things so they can grow without having to be rebuilt. This means that the structure of your website should be thought out and, if possible, modular, allowing expansion in other directions for the further needs of your clients. It also means that you should never launch a website on a Friday or in the middle of the night, for obvious reasons.

Evaluation and Reflection

After days/weeks/months of wrestling with a project, you've finally finished it. You might even miss the buzz and turmoil it injected into your daily routine. Are you happy? Relieved? Or perhaps feeling used and abused? Was it worth the effort, and did your design achieve its goal?

Sometimes you'll feel like raising your hands in the air with joy and shouting from a rooftop, other times you'll feel like a deflated balloon that just hit a wall, but if you want to stay in the race you won't have time for any of that because you'll already be knee-deep in your next assignment.

Even if you're in a rush to get new things done, try not to sweep this task under the carpet as soon as your client is out of sight. Evaluation is necessary at the completion of every project, allowing you to reflect on your mistakes so you don't repeat them.

Give yourself some time, let things simmer down, then address these two main points when trying to evaluate your work: what have you achieved with this project, and what has this project done for your client?

For you personally, ideally at the end of each chapter you'd find you've learned something from the work, acquired new skills, techniques, or grasped new concepts through the creative process. Each piece of work you undertake should build on your existing knowledge and understanding of art and design, leaving you better equipped for your next challenge.

Client-side results cannot be fully evaluated without feedback from the client. In order to develop a better and meaningful relationship, if possible, try to meet the clients after the project concludes with the purpose of gathering information about the performance of the product and the experience of working with your studio.

If you've been working in a team it would be desirable to go through the evaluation process with them, not only for pinning down things that went good or bad in production, but also for determining the way you function as a group.

If you're running a studio, you have a greater responsibility toward your employees; feel their pulse, see how they feel about what they've accomplished, and reward them.

"Working in a disciplined way is easy if you enjoy what you do," says Martin McGrath from Woods McGrath.

"Running a studio requires a great deal of dedication and commitment, so it is unthinkable that one would commit to doing so unless you're prepared to put in a lot of hard work."

There are times when, for various reasons, despite all the effort, the meetings and the blood, sweat, and beers, things just do not work out. David Woods from Paperjam has had some "jams" to share in that department:

"Invariably, with five years worth of work, there have been projects that for one reason or another have failed to leave our studio or have not worked as well as we would have hoped when they have gone out to the public. We do try to partner ourselves with clients who understand that we have their very best interests at heart, and that we really do know what we are doing, but this is not always reciprocated and this is probably where these jobs fall down."

He thinks there is sometimes a lack of understanding of what a design studio does, and the growth of desktop publishing packages has meant that most people believe design is just a matter of getting good at using computers, rather than learning an important skill:

"We have had brand projects that we were extremely excited about fail very quickly because the clients have not understood that a logo needs to be used on more than just a letterhead. We have seen logo designs used on two or three items and then disappear."

Don't take it personal, chalk it up to experience. Soon other projects will come, and you'll have plenty of opportunities to do things better. Everyone has to learn to deal with an occasional failure, and so will you.

We'll wrap it up with a piece of advice from Martin and Suzy at Wood McGrath:

"Work hard, be patient, and treat clients, contemporaries, suppliers, and associates with the respect they deserve. The work you make relies on good relationships with all of these people."

Source: field guide: how to be a graphic designer