Developing a Creative Process

Having a creative job has its ups and downs. When you’re able to patiently nurture your creativity with mood lighting and inspirational trinkets, taking all the time you need to carefully refine your ideas before presenting them to your client, you should consider yourself very lucky. But when it’s 3 a.m. and you need to finish a set of comps before the start of business in six hours and the only ideas you’re having are colorful excuses to explain your total lack of creative thought, the frustration can bring you to your knees. These are the times when having a concise, clear creative process will save you, allowing hard work, experience and intelligence to get you through the job.

The Need for a Process
You probably already have a process you follow when creating any new design from scratch; you may have just never “formalized” that process or thought about it in a lot of detail. By picking apart the way you already do things, possibly modifying your technique a little, and creating a repeatable plan for the generation and execution of new ideas, you’ll improve your consistency, your ability to plan and time your work, and perhaps even raise the quality of your best work. You’ll ensure that your work is not only artistically great, but commercially viable as well, communicating more effectively and in a more sophisticated manner. By focusing on your process, you’ll have a chance to analyze what works, what doesn’t work and what you should emphasize in order to get the most from the good ol’ right brain.

What is a Process?
Your creative process is a series of steps that you repeat every time you need to create. Simple. The trick is to make the steps fluid and flexible enough to allow you the room you need to create well, while still being structured enough to help you through when you’re having a hard time. An effective process should allow for serendipity—happy accidents are responsible for lots of great design (probably more than anyone cares to admit). A good process should also have room for moments of creativity—flashes of brilliance—mingled with long bouts of mental chaff. Your own process might be a very rigid step-by-step approach, or it might be a loose progression of stages you go through, or it could be anything in between.

Developing Your Own Process
First, examine what it is that you do, or at least what it is that you’re expected to do on a particular job. Were you hired primarily as a “visionary” who the client is expecting to reel in come production time? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, are you more of a craftsman, hired to build something conservative and simple, but to build it really well? These two extremes, and everything in between, have different creative needs and therefore different creative approaches.

A good process will allow you enough flexibility to work with varying levels of creative freedom and varying expectations of “creative muscle”. You should also be able to modify your approach slightly to function in almost any medium, with almost any style, and within a myriad of other constraints that might be placed upon you. By focusing on one aspect or another of your process, from research to planning to execution, you can guide your own thinking toward your creative goals without having to significantly modify your overall approach.

When thinking about how to develop a process that will work for you, think about how you’re most comfortable working and how things tend to happen when you’re really clicking. Think back to your best moments—what form did inspiration take? Different people are triggered creatively in different ways, and it’s important to know the types of things that set your own mind in motion so that you can structure your process around those things.

Creative Process: A Sample
Here’s my process; sometimes it takes months, sometimes minutes, but I always stick to the same basic guidelines.

Research—Describe the design direction you think is most appropriate, using precise adjectives and phrases.
First, think about what you already know about the project from initial client meetings, documentation you’ve received, etc. Use this knowledge to come up with a few adjectives and phrases that you think describe the general “vibe” you’re looking for with your design. For example: “This piece needs to be modern and cutting edge, but sophisticated. Aloof. Vibrant and animated, but serious. Expensive. Older folks trying to feel young.” Use your own words, things that evoke feelings, images or ideas in your own mind.

Then, ask questions: What kind of message/client/brand/product is this that I’m trying to communicate? Who is my audience? Are they interested, or is it a “hard sell”? What am I trying to tell my audience? Is there a message? Use logic to refine your direction and make sure your work is appropriate.

Finally, look for ingredients. Inspiration can come from anywhere—media, your own past work, the junk on your desk, your surroundings. Look for things that fit  the adjectives and phrases you’ve established.

After you’ve gone through these steps once, re-describe the direction with better adjectives, ask more questions, look deeper (if possible) into your ingredients pile and repeat again and again until you start to form a mental picture of what you’re trying to design. To dig deeper, find more work by artists whose style makes sense to you. Or gain a broader sense of a particular period in history, be it art history or otherwise.

The tangible outcome of the research phase might be a list of informed and refined adjectives, or it might be pages of notes, piles of books, thoughts in your head, or any combination of these. This is a part of the process that’s very time-flexible; it can take minutes or months. Having a personal library is crucial here if you’re up against a tight deadline.

Plan—Sketch possible ideas, given the necessary elements.

This should be a relatively mechanical process to start, building to free thinking as time and the project merit. Draw the elements’ basic shapes, and then work through permutations of arrangements of those shapes. While the computer is (obviously) an indispensable tool for many (if not most) aspects of design, it can limit one’s thinking when planning page layouts and structure. I always recommend sketching with pencil and paper, generally at a small scale.

During the planning phase, you’ll want to be thinking about some other issues in addition to basic layout. You might also be experimenting with various other design choices at this point, contemplating what typefaces might be appropriate, what sorts of imagery you might use and how the visual language of the piece will relate to the goals you settled on in the research phase. In Web design, how the page will actually function and move, what animation will be present, how the interface will feel to the user, and what the potential technical issues (and solutions) might be should also be considered in these early stages of design.

The more time you’re able to spend in this phase, the better. This is when you can be hanging out at the beach, jotting down ideas on your lunch receipt and still be doing your job well. I like to spend at least a week or two whenever possible just thinking about a project and sketching sporadically before I move on to the next phase, execution.

Execute—Using the research you did and the plans you formulated, concretely visualize the final piece.

Now it’s time to start moving pixels around (even if you’re designing a printed piece, it still spends most of its life as pixels). This phase is where personal work habits allow for the most variation in typical processes. The goal, depending on the particulars of the job, is to create a concise visual exploration of options that fulfill the objectives laid out in the research and planning phases. There should be as much variation as possible between different possible solutions to allow for future refinement of ideas. Start with the “knowns” such as layouts from planning sketches, logos, imagery that’s either required or desired, and permutations of necessary elements such as menus and copy. Block these pieces in, add more detail, refine placements and treatments (changing typefaces, relationships, color, etc.), and continue to develop.

You might begin five or six different pieces based on your sketches, making “passes” through the complete set and refining each piece a little bit with each pass. Or, you might begin a single piece, develop, build, and refine it to your satisfaction, then begin the next piece with new ideas and objectives. The goal should be maximum variety and exploration of visual solutions, using each solution as a starting point for further development.

It’s important to “know when to say when” during this final phase. By leaving each piece just slightly unfinished, you ensure that the development of the design will continue beyond these initial comps. If you really don’t think it makes much difference what color a headline is, leave that up to the client. Giving them a design decision to make (with your supervision, of course!) will make them feel involved in the process and possibly save you from spoiling parts that you feel strongly about. Even if you don’t give the client choices or obvious tweaks to make, you should always remember that this is an initial creative step, not the production of a finished piece.


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