The Design Process: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Posted by Elizabeth Sweeney, Jun 05, 2014 0 comments

Elizabeth Van Fleet Elizabeth Van Fleet

Stop. Before you start thinking about the pretty wrapping paper you’re going to use for this awesome new website you’re about to give your audience, make sure you’ve done your research, organization, and started working with staff on content.

Why do you have to do that first?

Because to get good design you have to answer the hard questions; you have to know WHO you’re designing it for and WHAT message you want your design to send to your audience.

As Manager of Publications and Communication at Americans for the Arts, part of my job is to manage the design process for many of our printed and online materials. I work with a variety of vendors on a regular basis, and I was part of the team that decided on the design direction for our new website.

Now that you’re ready to start thinking about design for your new website, let’s break down the steps:

1)      Identify the team members who need to be involved in the design process. This could be one person, this could be the project manager and the CEO. Remember: design is so often mixed with feelings that the more feelings you have, the harder it might be to stay objective. The only rule here to follow is setting clear expectations of everyone’s roles and responsibilities from day one.

2)      Start collecting examples of website designs you like. Start sharing with team members and see what resonates with the most amount of people. Look at similar organizations—what are they doing that you want to do better? This is also the time to decide if you will use this process as a way to completely redesign your website, or if it just needs a facelift. Compile an archive of your organization’s previous design work as a reference for the designer – what is important to keep, and what can be tweaked?

3)      Gather your source material! Start collecting your best images to use throughout your website. If you don’t have any beautiful images to use, ask for help from partners or members who share your work! Feel free to download our Photo Release form as a guide. You can also check out the massive Creative Commons collection of copyright-free images to use - download the guide we created for more information on finding royalty-free images.

4)      You’ve got just a bit more work before selecting your designer (find out how to select the best ones in this blog post)! You’ll need to put together your request for proposals and design wireframes (which we discussed in-detail earlier in this blog salon), and have a strong idea of the types of pages you’d like to have and how they visually differ from each other. It’s important to be far along in the process internally before you call a designer – things can get expensive if you engage them too soon or before you come to consensus internally.

5)      After you’ve done some research and gotten estimates, select two or three design teams to bring in to meet with your internal team you identified in step 1. This design team is going to become an integral part of the process, so it’s important that you all jive together. After in-person meetings, select the individual or firm whose work resonates most with what you want and who feels like a good fit.

6)      During your kick-off conversations with the designer, you should determine what works the best for you in terms of sharing concepts and revisions. Typically, a designer will estimate for two or three concepts and two rounds of revisions. However, if you know your team, you might want to consider asking for four concepts—but do beware the danger of too many options! The urge to “Frankenstein” a design with aspects of each is something to avoid.

7)      If you’ve done all your homework, prepared your website mission statement, and had open and honest conversations with your designer and given them any branding guidelines to follow, the next part where you get to look at beautiful design should be easy. But it rarely is - even if you’ve done everything you could possibly do. Don’t get discouraged if the designer presents two concepts that no one likes. For better or worse, gut instincts matter. The rule here is not to design by committee. It might be easier, but put in the work to come to consensus rather than try to please everyone with visual compromise.

8)      Always re-iterate next steps, give constant updates, and over-share to avoid surprises both with your design team and internal team. Good design definitely can’t happen with people on different pages with different expectation of “what’s next.”

One of my boss’ favorite stories fits perfectly with this process - he was taking a ballroom dance class and his instructor told him to look into his partner’s eyes and say, “I’m sorry,” apologizing in advance for stepping on each other’s toes. Because it was definitely going to happen eventually.

I would recommend starting your design meetings this way. Sure, it might be easier if you were appointed Design Dictator and everything you said went. In reality, though, design is a numbers game about finding what’s appealing to the biggest audience (not just you).

Design is a combination of art and science - emotion and reason - and for that reason it is hard, hard work. Sometimes it will be impossible to articulate what you want to see or what you want to change. Sometimes it will be impossible to get two people to agree with each other. But if you gather the right team, with the right goals and direction, it will take what you imagined and improve it, just like magic.

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