Process This

by Jenn + Ken Visocky O’Grady

Sometimes simple but often complex, the “process” used by graphic designers and their respective studios varies widely.

Whether the project is print, interactive, or three-dimensional in nature, designers use an established set of procedures to create innovative solutions to communication problems. Many studios offer their methods as proprietary services, noting the value that process adds in the otherwise intangible medium of creativity.

The graphic design process, as traditionally defined, is modeled around the physical creation of an artifact: an annual report, a web site, a poster, a logo, a brochure, and so on. As such, the process is inevitably project-oriented as well as linear—it starts with research and progresses through concept development, prototype, production, and delivery. This method has its roots in the collective education of design professionals and it has generally served the need for simple and framed problems. However, today’s designers are charged with unframed communication problems of increasing complexity. As a result, the general approach to how we do our work needs to be redefined.

Recently, many designers have advocated for the use of an iterative approach. In this approach research does not merely initiate the process but rather augments, integrating systematic investigation into each phase of a project’s development. This is dependent on assessment, summative evaluation undertaken throughout the course of a project. This allows the designer to reconsider assumptions gleaned from preliminary research. Using this information, the designer may opt to make adjustments to a design either before, or in certain situations even after production. This process of constant re-evaluation creates solutions that are more focused on project goals and ultimately user needs.

While the benefits of iterative process have been well documented, it is important for designers to take this concept one step further and evaluate and iterate the process itself—not just the outcome. This turns the design process into a metacognitive model. Metacognition means to learn about learning, or to know about knowing. We can learn about ourselves, or our studio, by asking tough questions like “What did we do wrong?” or “What could we have done differently”—even when the outcomes have been successful. By actively engaging and documenting self criticism of both the end product and the path that was used to get there, designers are better able to learn from their own successes and failures and adjust their practice accordingly.

Because each project or commission has a unique set of goals, requirements, budget and time constraints, it’s important to find a framework that is flexible, regardless of project complexity.

Many design studios have developed proprietary design processes—the details of which they guard closely from the competition. But close study shows their similarities. Expand a search of process to include information literacy, design thinking, and applied research, even more models become available. The Design Council has a documented process model that they have researched and recommend—and that might work for you.

Which model you choose to use, or if you invent your own, doesn’t matter as much as the active and documented use of it. Regardless of the tactics employed, a comprehensive strategy will help clarify both the problem to be solved and the resources necessary to accomplish project goals. Process models, whether proprietary or in the public domain, allow the designer to pair the most appropriate research tactics with project requirements—without reinventing the wheel—and allow for a deeper understanding and a more efficient practice of design.

The Big 6 is an information literacy model that can be applied to design
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Process models abound! The Big6, based on an information literacy model, can easily be adapted for design projects.

Quick Tips!
1. Don’t just say you have a process, actively use it! Create a tool for you or your studio to use and put someone in charge of monitoring and evaluating each step.

2. Don’t reinvent the wheel! You don’t have to create a proprietary process for your studio. Try a couple of different ones that have already been established and documented. Find one that works well for you and learn from it.

Dig Deeper!
1. Learn more about the Design Council and the recently created Double Diamond Design Process.

2. Learn more about information literacy and the Big6

3. This parse is excerpted from A Designer’s Research Manual by Jenn + Ken Visocky O’Grady.

4. Read: “Waste Time” by Ian Dapot on Parse.