How I Design Projects

Photo. Stack of red and white business cards with a singular card, displaying "Lara Lee", tilted toward the viewer.

As a client, you hire a designer based on many more conditions than just creativity—you hire based on his or her ability to solve your unique problem. So how does a designer ensure her (or he!) client that she (or he) is the best problem-solver? Behind the mind of every successful creative worker is a process. Graphic design operates like most other businesses and requires delicate project management techniques.

A strong, organized creative workflow gives both designer and client the tools and confidence to successfully complete a project, or many projects! A good workflow breaks down large projects into smaller, more manageable steps so you spend time efficiently and address needs properly. Naturally, this workflow benefits all parties involved. By establishing a process, each party understands how their role contributes to the success of the project, and what the expectations are for each. Milestones are measurable. Fail-safe systems in place (as much as can be, anyway). The workflow makes it clear to clients that the designer is committed.

I always want my clients to feel like my partners. Why wouldn’t they be? I couldn’t possibly be successful without them. I also want to make my commitment clear and give them confidence that one less problem will be on the plate.

So what is it like to work with me? Here is how I approach my graphic design project management:

Conducting the Client Questionnaire

When I meet a client, I first conduct a client questionnaire, also called a creative brief, to assess goals and needs. This helps the client to verbalize what he/she is seeking visually so I know what to do. After this discussion, I can determine the level of design innovation, evaluate client fit, gauge resources, and offer recommendations. To determine the level of design innovation, I ask, “Is this project a ground-breaking revolution, or a routine update on existing materials?” They require different approaches and resources. Challenges can be very rewarding but also very draining when I’m not properly prepared.

Officially Partnering with My Client

Next, the client and I finalize the protective legal agreements. Protect the professional interests of all parties involved, and publish an agreement on which both my client and I can agree. This gives the client the confidence that he/she will receive quality goods. It also makes me look like the expert professional I am. Finally it further causes my client and I to consider the long-term relationship resulting from the project, such as usage, reproduction, and display rights associated with the copyright. It’s also important to note that while a designer may display works they created in a portfolio as per Fair Use, an explicit, written agreement clears any doubts.

If necessary, I coordinate a team of freelancers and/or vendors to outsource specialized services outside my skill set, such as commercial printing or database development. I reach out to individuals I trust to determine availability, discuss compensation, and assign appropriate roles on the project team.

Researching Peers and Competitors

Using answers from the client questionnaire earlier, I analyze both peers and competitors and note the standard practices or potential challenges. Many industries have widely recognized symbols. These symbols are great to quickly connect with consumers, but I must also differentiate my client too so consumers understand why my client may give better service. Sometimes modernizing the symbols allows me to use the widely recognized icons without looking like everyone else. This stage is also important for conducting a quick survey of the logo landscape to ensure potential designs don’t look too similar to anyone else’s current logo.

I then assemble a loosely-devised project mood board using tools like Pinterest or Canva. Mood boards are great because I can explore key components of a design, such as colors, textures, and imagery, at a macro-level. This helps my client and I quickly identify their unique aesthetic without details that would be distracting and premature at this point in the creative process.

Documenting the Plan

I generate a creative strategy to explore with the client in the form of a project proposal. While documenting my creative strategy, I take these steps:

  • Generate a creative strategy to explore with the client
  • Write an Executive Summary that establishes exigence and clearly defines client expectations and my proposed solution
  • Agree upon a management style and modes of communication to exchange proofs and feedback
  • Determine the compensation rate, and when and how to collect payment from the client
  • Establish production deadlines, separating the project into interims defined by clear key milestones, and agree on the number of proofing rounds allotted before additional expenses incur

Designing the Creative Solution

I utilize several kinds of project management software to make it easy for me to stay on track, so my next step is setting these up to open a new project.

I either create, or retain and update a Secret Pinterest Board, if I haven’t done so already. This allows me to track sources of inspiration and examples of the client’s visual taste.

I also input the client into Toggl and track work hours. Whether or not I choose to charge hourly, hour tracking allows me to fine-tune my production and budget estimates in addition to helping me generate an accurate invoice.

Next is my to-do list software. I add the project to a List in Trello, and enter project interims as new Cards with sub-tasks as Checklists in each Card’s description; assign labels and due dates as necessary.

Finally, I can design! I assemble clearly-defined mood boards, usually a set of three to provide a nice range options that don’t overwhelm the client. If the client and I are already in sync with each other’s vision, I sometimes skip this step and move forward. However, I don’t skip this step when developing a logo or visual identity—it’s important to determine the values and moods the client wishes to evoke before committing to palettes, fonts, textures, etc. that won’t work in the next stages.

After exchanges of feedback, I formulate design proofs based on the three “themes” originating from the mood boards in the previous step—again, usually a set of three with some minor variations. These include B&W sketches and/or Wireframes, and once approved, the Color sketches and/or Static Mock-ups.

I polish the final selection, tending to details such as proportions, layering, swatch gathering, and asset management regarding stock photos, fonts, logos, etc. I then create the interactive mock-ups and begin any front-end web development. In the later stages, I devise the Branding Guidelines to dictate the rules regarding proper use of the design and create Master Templates as needed.

Presenting the Final Design

With three rounds of proofing complete, and the client’s enthusiastic approval, I hand-over final design materials to client once the final invoice is paid. Inside the final package, the client receives the final art and deliverables in the format requested, for example but not limited to: emailed .Zip folders and/or delivered CDs. Within these are any native files (such as Photoshop .psd, Illustrator .ai, InDesign .indd, or HTML file types) necessary to reproduce the final art faithfully and to modify it in future use. Finally, I decompress with the client and ask for feedback regarding the process. If appropriate, I then request a client testimonial.