Build a Better Design Process

by Dave Holston

Although it’s easier to blame your coworkers or clients when things go wrong on a design project, the truth is that most problems are related to breakdowns in process, not people.

That’s why it’s critical for designers to have a deep understanding of how they work. By considering a few simple tips, designers can turn chaos into confidence.

1. Visualize: The first step to a better design process is to understand how you are currently working. By visually documenting your process designers can see dependencies, roles and responsibilities, areas of frustration, and ultimately opportunities to improve their workflow and bring added value to their clients.

2. Refine: Where did things go smoothly? Where did frustrations occur? What was your client’s experience like during the process? Reviewing your process after each project will allow you to see areas that can be streamlined and improved.

3. Communicate: We communicate volumes to the people around us not only through our words, but by how we listen, our tone of voice, and our body language. By considering how we communicate, and being empathic, designers can build a foundation for rewarding and profitable relationships.

4. Collaborate: By including clients in the design process upfront designers can gain the trust needed to achieve success. This can make them more likely to act as collaborators and less afraid to try new directions.

5. Research: Before ideas can be born, a designer needs to prep their mind with information. The design research stage is critical to the design process. Focus groups, interviews and ethnography all provide a means for collecting actionable data.

6. Brainstorm: The ability to think in non-linear ways is essential to developing new concepts. Through the use of words, images and metaphor, designers can get beyond conventions and approach problems from unique angles.

7. Sign-off: After a major phase of a project is completed the client should be required to sign-off on the work. Sign-offs make project stakeholders accountable and provide opportunities to discuss refinements to the project direction.

8. Buy-in: A classic “swoop and poop” scenario – The client works with the designer over a period of time. As the project reaches its concluding phases, the client’s boss is brought in to review. He/She hates the design, and the project begins all over again. Without getting buy-in from key stakeholders you leave your self-open to time-consuming changes later in the project.

9. Schedule: A transparent schedule takes the mystery and nervousness out of the process for clients and designers. Schedules should include all the major milestones, and sign off points. To ensure agreement, scheduling should be done collaboratively with the client and the design team.

10. Measure: Developing criteria for how project success will be measured early on provides a goal post for project stakeholders, and can ultimately validate the importance of the designers work. Success can include basic project criteria such as meeting a deadline, staying on budget or delivering a quality product. But for most organizations there is often a bottom line goal that needs to be met.

Dave Holston has 25 years experience working in the fields of public affairs, marketing, advertising, communication planning and design management for some of the worlds largest organizations.

the design process itself is often to blame when projects go awry.
When things go wrong it’s easy to point fingers. However, most problems are caused by a breakdown in the design process. It’s imperative for professionals to understand how they design, and work to improve.


Quick Tips
Use waterfall methods or linear processes for projects that have well defined deliverables. Linear process is typified by its strict controls, and is used primarily to manage risk in the design development process. Each phase must be fully completed before going onto the next phase, allowing designers to catch errors when they are the least expensive and time-consuming to fix. This method requires that specifications for each phase be clear and accurately described.


Consider an agile process for projects that are more exploratory. The hallmark of the agile method is that it embraces change and circumstance, approaching the project knowing that it will require iteration as it progresses. This iterative model reflects the way most visual designers and design firms work, gathering data, building out quick comps (prototypes), going through several rounds of revisions, then creating a final design.

Dig Deeper!
1. Learn about the Starbucks design process!

2. Check out The Strategic Designer: Tools and Techniques for Managing the Design Process.

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