My Creative Process

Photo. Cropped self-portrait of Lara Lee arranging UI cards while sketching website wireframes for the "Why Me?" webpage design.

I always enjoy designing systems that are efficient and reliable—and designing a system for how I design creative projects is no exception.

Having a solid creative process allows me to focus on core goals throughout the project to ensure a quality service and excellent final design that pleases clients. It also allows me to plan around unpredictable events like art block or a surprising jump in the timeline. However, a solid creative process benefits clients too. The creative process clarifies the client’s role and what the designer expects from them at each step. Finally, the creative process helps both designer and client to stay on time and budget.

My creative process is simple and straightforward so it’s flexible for a variety of client needs.

Research

My creative process begins with a creative brief. A creative brief is a questionnaire designers give to clients to answer questions about themselves and their needs; sometimes it’s written document and other times, the questionnaire is completed casually over the phone.

I do a lot of my research at this stage to get some context.

I learn about the client’s industry to determine imagery and tone. I also learn about the client’s USP (Unique Selling Proposition) to position my client within their industry. Of course, I also learn about the client’s mission and values so that I can translate those into themes for the design, marketing, and copy. Finally, I learn about the client’s design needs.

Afterwards, I propose a technical strategy, creative strategy, creative styles and brand, and (project) management strategy.

How to Research for a Design’s Context

Client Context Design Elements

Researching

The industry

Influences how to design

Imagery, tone
The client’s USP
Brand positioning
The client’s mission and values
Themes
The client’s needs
Strategy
Photo. Close-up, angled shot of a mood board and typography print-outs for Lara Lee Design.

Lightbox & Mood Board

The second step in my creative process is also research-heavy, but this time I focus on the design itself. Here I learn how to visually represent the client, the client’s industry and USP, and the target audience by gathering inspirational pieces into a lightbox or a mood board.

A lightbox collects inspirational pieces into a thumbnail gallery. A mood board collects inspirational pieces into a collage, assigning more important elements a greater space in the layout and often allotting specific spaces to add color palettes or typographic treatments.

I build lightboxes in stock photo websites like Getty Images and Depositphotos. For mood boards, Pinterest is my favorite tool. As I refine the mood boards from rough ideas to finished concept, I incorporate the graphics into Adobe Illustrator CC packages.

How to Use a Lightbox and/or a Mood Board

Objective Subject Solution Target

To visually represent

The client

Experiment with

Mood, tone, theme, aesthetic taste or style

The target audience
Photos of people
The industry and the client’s USP
Graphics of related ideas
Photo. A blank piece of white paper lays on the desk beside sketches of website navbar wireframes.

Concept

Conceptualization, the third and most fun part of the creative process, combines the contextual and design research from the earlier two steps into the first design proposals. Now I assemble layouts from various pieces such as:

  • Typography
  • Tagline / type treatments
  • Colors
  • Photos
  • Vector artworks
  • Hand-drawn illustrations
  • Storyboards for planning motion graphics

This step can also be one of the longest: I continually refine the designs and piggyback new ideas to explore creative solutions.

A lot of projects can also span several tools and require judgment as to which is the best tool to use.

For example, InDesign allows the creation of native vector artwork but Illustrator has more advanced shape and path building tools. Sometimes I build a vector artwork in Illustrator and copy-paste it into InDesign to import it (thus permitting simple edits right in InDesign and eliminating the need to maintain and store another Link). Other times, especially where complex gradients and color blends are involved, the vector artwork retains integrity only as a native Illustrator file and must stay an InDesign Link instead.

Another example is using Photoshop’s more refined RGB channel editors to achieve true grayscale images rather than applying a simple desaturation blend in InDesign. One result provides greater visual depth and contrast; the other keeps file size small, especially useful for web projects.

Photo. Close-up of view of bullet journal notes for a Production / Project Management meeting.

Review & Edits

Client feedback is not exactly a specific step in the creative process, but rather present throughout.

I share my work at various points within each step to ensure all needs and goals are met before the project advances to the next step and gets even greater detail. Client feedback grows even more crucial as the designs evolve and clarify.

During these points, the client receives a PDF version of my creative work, which although non-editable, is a widely-accepted format that retains the design’s integrity. I encourage clients to make edits and add comments to the PDF then return it to me. Once received, I can import their commentary directly into the Adobe CC software as a checklist to track the editing process. With another update, I send another PDF.

Presentation

The final step in my creative process finalizes the design concepts reached in the earlier step. I make the design production-ready.

I check fonts and font hierarchy, swatches and color blend modes, expanded and/or clipped artwork, and bleeds and alignment. By this point, the design system is clear. Font pairs, color palettes, image and type treatments, calls to action, type scales, and more appear consistently through the design’s various layouts.

Sometimes the design system is further documented in formal Branding Guidelines that the client can then keep for their creative teams and print and web vendors to use going forward.

The final production-ready product the client receives varies based on the project: logos come with Branding Guidelines and various versions and image formats; documents come with Press-Quality PDFs marked for bleed and trim; websites come with either an Admin login or zipped home directory of the web documents and graphics.

My creative process is full of best practices lots of great designers do, but…

What Makes Me Unique?