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Creating a Workflow for Your Design Assignments

by Clara LaFrance | June 2, 2011

In the most recent post in our series comparing traditional and online art and design education, we talked about the fundamental skills you’ll learn in your beginning classes. As you progress through your program, you’ll take those skills further through challenging assignments. But another challenge can be managing those assignments with a workflow that helps you create your best work, build your portfolio, and approach professional jobs.

Let’s start with a look at the types of assignments you can expect.

Learning any art form is a process, a journey. If you learn to play the piano, you start slowly with scales and chords, then progress to simple songs to practice proper technique. Similarly, design assignments include technique studies to solidify your foundation skills and mock client projects to apply your skills in realistic situations.

In the last post, we explored some of the assignments you can encounter in your foundation classes, like working with the color wheel and understanding the anatomy of typography. These and other studies, including composition exercises and software basics emphasize technique. Good technique is essential to creating good design, and whether you’re in a traditional program or an online one, your first assignments are likely to focus on the tools.

Traditional students may, for example, wield an X-acto knife and paper to set letters in a range of variations. Online students, and many traditional students as well, will do the same in design software like Photoshop. I’ll admit that this exercise was not one of my favorites in my traditional design program. I printed my name dozens of times, cursed the combination of capital letters in my last name, stared at my initials “CPL,” and moved each letter by mere points over and over again. I occasionally wondered if anyone at the café was wondering what on earth I was working on!

In that class, the type kerning exercise was quickly followed by a large-scale poster project. After kerning the letters of my own name time many times over, creating a balanced typographic layout on an entire poster felt easy: I already knew what to do!

assignments workflow

This assignment challenged me to use typography to create a professional article layout.

That’s the next step in most traditional and online design programs: turning techniques into real designs. When the technique is second nature, you can devote full energy to unleashing your creativity in beautiful design work. But to create a design that suits the assignment’s (or client’s) goals, you’ll need a workflow that involves much more than creatively combining techniques…

A Design Workflow

  • Research. Research, research, research! Design does not live in a vacuum. Find out as much as you can about the topic, genre, audience, and so on. For instance, if your assignment is to create a poster for a classical music event in London, find out as much as you can about classical music, about the featured composers and musical groups, about the venue, about the concertgoers. Where will the poster be displayed? Who are you hoping to attract? In a traditional program, you might do some of this research on campus or at the library, while in an online program, your first instinct will be to look online for information. That’s a great start, but regardless of your program, also take time to get out into the “real world.” Visit a classical music venue, take photos around town for color and mood inspiration…
  • Sketch. Draw your ideas on paper, even if your final rendering will be on the computer. The sketch is a brainstorm session; be open to any ideas that come your way. Sketching on paper is looser and freer than it is on a computer, so you won’t be constrained by the functionality of software on paper! In a traditional program, show your sketches to classmates and bounce ideas off of them. Show your instructor during office hours. See what gets a good response and what doesn’t. In an online class, you can do the same thing in your online learning environment. Scan your sketches and send to your instructor or post to a discussion board.
  • Draft. Build a mood and start rendering designs. Think about what feeling you would like your piece to represent and use a mood board to explore color, typography, texture, and overall style. Then try it out by rendering two or three of your favorite sketches into draft designs.
  • Polish. Choose the most effective design, again with instructor or classmate input, and polish your work in the required software for the project. Remember to follow all of the guidelines set forth by the assignment, like size and method of presentation.

In a traditional program, after you research and create your pieces, you print and mat them as we discussed previously and hang them in class for a group critique. For an online assignment, you submit your digital files to the instructor, which include the finished piece as well as sketches, contact sheets, written summaries, or other elements the instructor requires.

You can expect to follow a workflow like this on every project as a design student, and later as a professional designer! In our next blog post, we’ll take a look at classmate interaction, which is an important part of growing your design and communication skills.

Clara LaFrance
Course Producer | Sessions College

Clara LaFrance is a freelance graphic designer when she is not pursuing her dreams as a circus teacher and performer. Clara has an M.F.A. in graphic design from Boston University.