Build a better design process

Build a better design process

Justin Kemerling's Layout avatar

I’ve been a designer for over ten years. In that time I’ve seen my fair share of design processes. They’ve included any number of things, from apps with my single user account to what amounts to a traffic department orchestrating job pouches between a variety of teams. I’ve Trelloed, Wunderlisted, Google Doced, and TeuxDeuxed. I’ve had checklists for launching a website and loading files for print production. I’ve completed creative briefs, sprints, and KPIs.

Each method came with its own merits and drawbacks.

There have been Monday morning standups, Friday afternoon touchbases, and even daily checkins. I’ve been part of a well-oiled machine with every cog turning in perfect process unison. I’ve also felt lost in a sea of indecision, process-of-the-monthism, and a healthy dose of square-peg-round-hole.

Why you need a better design process


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Ever been in a situation where someone higher up decides that everyone is going to follow some new process because that’s what so and so is doing and it’s supposed to be awesome? No one asks what’s working in the current process or why certain parts may be underperforming. This type of change is usually followed by scrambling, confusion, and overthinking to the point of paralysis.

Instead, I started asking myself as well as other designers I work with: “How do you like to work?” That’s the start to building a process that works.

I work with clients and collaborators on any number of small to medium-sized projects. The work includes logos, websites, posters, infographics, and animations for people in a couple different time zones as well as just down the street. There can be a good number of things going on at any one time, so just as important as the final deliverable is the process through which said deliverable is brought to life.

I love what I do for a living. As I’ve thought more about the longevity of this living, I’ve tried to understand at a more intimate level how I like to work. No one tells me how I should work these days. It’s all on me. In the last couple months, I’ve noticed a few things that I’ve honed into a process I can count on.

When someone asks what I’m working on aside from client and personal projects, it’s getting more common for me to say, “My workflows.” And I’m really getting into it.

This was not always the case. Fresh out of school, I just wanted to make something, and I didn’t care how I did it. Ideate in the shower or on the ride into work. Open the computer and just go, go, go. Whenever I happened to get to something I liked, then I’d be done. I tracked time at my agency job but still was a poor judge of how long things should take. Not knowing how to estimate made it hard to put a value on the design I was doing and wasn’t a sign of someone who was an expert in the field.

Now my workflows have become more of an in-progress action item in my day-to-day career. I know better how I like to work and how long things take me. I even have a better idea of when I’m the most productive and do my best work — simply because I’ve made my workflow a priority.

It helps to label the madness of design


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What used to be very nebulous, like the open sea, is now rather concrete. And that’s a good thing. What’s being done in my process is still design. I’m discovering, failing, and creating. But instead of being lost in the vast open space between problem and solution, I’m warmly guided by the simplicity that comes with labeled steps.

I give my phases of process each a label so I can reference and think of them as real things. I’ve got basically three phases of design on any given project. Anything fewer than three, and the design isn’t fully realized. Anything more, and the laws of diminishing returns set in. I can only go so far on something before it’s no longer work I enjoy.

Add detail to the ‘how’


Images courtesy of Justin Kemerling

I was asked recently how I come up with my ideas, specifically around poster design. It’s a very pure form of communication, the flat poster. And lately I have a very real, very consistent process for how I develop them:

Words first.
Then sketches.
Then onto the computer.
Which is always followed by laying flat on the floor staring up at the ceiling while listening to KEXP.
Then a walk with the dog around the neighborhood.
Then back to the computer.
Then nighttime at the computer.
Keeping at it, keeping at it, keeping at it. The music is loud.
Then sleep.
Then I pick it up in the morning to see where I’m at.
Refine as needed.

It can be difficult to really describe how, especially for such a creative process, but if I’m going to claim I do a variety of things for a living, I better know how they get done. “I dunno, I just kinda do design” was my old answer to the how question. Now I’ve added some details.

Free yourself from waiting for the lightning


Images courtesy of Justin Kemerling

After the estimates, scopes, budgets, timelines, and deliverables are all set, the real work starts. You can’t wait for lightning to strike. To set yourself up for success, you have to get past the idea of a muse. Instead, find your easiest way to start.

For me, it’s the Mood Deck. Based on the problem and the possible opportunities, I collect high-level comparables detailing a variety of directions the project could go. With that in hand, it’s easy to talk about specifics with a client before any making occurs.

There’s something about openly saying you’re good at creating something new that’s scary. When that’s said, you better deliver. Having a consistent starting point offers you a bit of comfort and familiarity in what can be the scary unknown.

Know you’ll get past a project’s low point


Images courtesy of Justin Kemerling

The late Hillman Curtis, in all his wisdom about process and making the invisible visible, would factor self-doubt into his work. There was always the point in the process where things seemed dire and no light was at the end of the tunnel.

This is true for me. I’m getting better at accepting it, that low point when I consider myself a fraud and all ideas are complete shit. It’s no fun, but it’s part of the process.

Knowing there will be a few dings along the way to the finest, most elegant design solution helps prepare you for a bumpy journey. A process will get you past the blank screens, the ideas that don’t quite come together, and that feeling of being in way over your head. It all comes with the territory — having a roadmap will get you through it.

You’ll never get to zero. And that’s okay


Images courtesy of Justin Kemerling

I’ve been fantasizing lately about a process of zero waste and maximum efficiency. Cutting out all the BS and the needless back-and-forth. No nonsense, nothing not needed. Just the core essence that leads to a perfect design.

But I’ve learned to understand and accept one very important aspect of any design process:  There’s no such thing as a perfect one. There just isn’t. When I finally started to grasp that fact, I was able to focus more on the design and deliver it in a process that consistently got the job done.

You know that the end result for every design project should be as right on and as perfect as you can get it. But the process, well. That’s something you should be crafting and shaping for years to come.

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