Process, Process, Process
by Taylor Slattery | October 26, 2021
Beyond talent and creativity, the most important tool in a creative’s toolbox is a well-refined workflow. In the long run, with discipline, a designer of even moderate ability will outperform a talented designer, should they lack that same ability to produce work reliably and meet deadlines. The notion that true art takes time simply doesn’t mesh with reality when it comes to the design industry. Time is a luxury. While it may seem like the greater your star, the more willing clients will be to accommodate you, in practice this is not the case. No amount of talent will redeem a missed deadline, and without a plan to get from point a to point b, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
The moment you decide to accept pay for your creative work, you’re a professional. When clients hire you, they’re relying on you as a professional. It’s up to you to instill them with confidence and assure them they haven’t made a mistake in hiring you. They’ve come to you for answers—not for you to figure things out on their dollar. Your clients depend on you to meet your deadlines so that they in turn can meet theirs. Any delays on your end will have a domino effect on the rest of the pipeline, requiring timelines to be shifted for all parties involved. This adds unnecessary stress to your client’s lives and lessens the likelihood of future work or them singing your praises to others, regardless of how pretty the final product is.
In regards to your abilities, your clients knew what they were getting into when they hired you—they aren’t expecting Picasso-level genius from you. You can be forgiven for not having the most original ideas or being the most creative, but only if your work is delivered on time.
Most creatives have creativity in abundance, that’s why they got into this field in the first place. Creativity isn’t the problem, time management and intention are. In fact, the majority of the problems that plague student work stem from one of these two issues, and often both. In any form of visual communication, there are a lot of things to juggle: color, typography, imagery, layout, etc. Without a series of steps to reliably traverse each of these areas, you can end up wasting a lot of time and find yourself with a result that lacks any coherent sense of direction.
Though it may not seem like it on the surface, and often isn’t presented as such, these elements of visual communication do have a logical order in which they’re best approached. Without realizing it, students often skip around through various stages, trying out different typefaces or colors without first building a solid foundation to compare decisions against. The parameters through which their decisions are being made are in constant flux, with each change of color or type shifting the framework. The result is work that lacks a clear point of view. In contrast, a well-thought out workflow provides a roadmap to ensure each element has a reason for its being. By creating a stage for each element to be given its due consideration, and resolving each stage before moving on to the next, the result is stronger individual elements and a more thoughtful, cohesive product on the whole.
This is the crux of what a workflow is about. It’s a framework that allows you to devote the entirety of your attention to a single step at a time. A good workflow is logical and each step builds upon the last. You’ll find that as you progress through the stages from general to specific, the final design starts to reveal itself, with successive decisions coming more easily until finally, the completed project sits before you. In the early stages, much of the experimenting is due to a lack of a defined voice and personality for the project. By taking the time to nail down the direction first, the choices that are most right for the project become more obvious as you progress through the stages. This removes friction from the process, saving you time and headaches so you can focus on the fun part: being creative.
When we look at a work of good graphic design, with all of its elements coexisting in harmony, working together towards a collective goal, it seems as though their success is the result of serendipity. While color, typography, and imagery may seem like equally important elements of design, one will typically take precedence over the others. Which element gets the spotlight and which are relegated to supporting roles depends on the scope of the project.
You wouldn’t try to typeset a page for a book without having first decided on the type, and you wouldn’t have decided on the type without first understanding the message and tone of the work. Similarly, you wouldn’t fully typeset a book where images are the focus without first designing a layout that puts them front and center.
Your process needs to be flexible. Depending on the scale, The specifics of each project will change depending on its scope and having a process provides you with a framework that can adapt to these different demands. Generally, a good workflow will move from broad to narrow and from functional to emotional. This helps you to stay as objective as possible and make decisions that are best suited for the project.
For example, in graphic design, your primary job is to pair imagery and type to communicate a message. To do this effectively, you first need to understand the message that needs communicating, and who this message needs to be communicated to. This information will guide your decision-making in both the practical and emotional areas of the project. Whether or not your choices of typeface, imagery, and color are appropriate will depend on the content and audience. While a number of solutions may be viable, this information needs to be determined first to arrive at the best option.
Next, you’ll need to know the format of what you’re designing and where it will be viewed. Concerns relating to legibility will differ between physical and digital mediums and the distance from which they will be viewed, so the exact size of the finished product needs to be known before you can start work. Knowing the full scope of the project before beginning can also help you to design layout systems that can be adapted to a variety of collateral in the case of a brand identity.
From here, you can dive into the specifics of typesetting by adjusting things like type size, leading, and column widths to create a flexible framework with legibility at the forefront. With the typeface, grid, and layout complete, it becomes easier to experiment with different means of establishing hierarchy to find the options that best suit the needs of the project.
With the more technical aspects out of the way, now comes the fun part. Because of their inherently subjective and emotional qualities, imagery and colors are reserved or last. These elements are like the icing on top. As eye candy, they provide your work with flavor but without a solid foundation to apply them to, you end up with an overly sweet, sugary mess. Experimenting with colors or adding images prematurely can distract you from the more functional concerns of typesetting which contribute more to the project’s overall success and should be fully resolved first.
Having a rehearsed set of steps that get you from point a to point b in a predictable manner also provides peace of mind so you can approach your work more confidently. You can be sure that just by following the steps you will arrive at a deliverable product. This offloads the mental load of trying to balance too many things at once so you can focus intently on each stage, and tackle projects one step at a time regardless of their size.
Understanding which parts of your process are the most demanding of your time allows you to adjust parameters and plan for deadlines accordingly. This ability is essential if you plan to work in a professional environment to ensure you can complete tasks on time and reliably.
Unfortunately, the topic of workflow often doesn’t receive the level of attention it deserves, because to a professional, the steps become second nature and may seem obvious. But for those at the beginning of their careers, things sometimes need spelling out, especially for something so critical to professional success.
With so many different areas of specialty across the creative fields, it’s impossible to provide a one-size-fits-all workflow, and even within a discipline, the specifics will differ between studios, schools, and individuals. It’s best to look to the pros in your field and try to glean what you can from their process and adapt it to your own.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.
For creatives seeking a thorough training in illustration and graphic design, Sessions College offers accredited fully online illustration certificate and illustration degree programs. Contact Admissions for more information.