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This is always true.

In nearly every project the basic outline of the design process is the same (with degrees of variation in terms of how long each stage takes):

  1. Research: ranges from reading a brief to visiting a site in a foreign country and conducting ethnographic interviews

  2. Analysis: understanding your research or formulating insights

  3. Ideation: translating analysis into concepts

  4. Content assembly (this is the only one with a degree of flexibility as the Ideation and Sketching may be able to begin without content depending on workflow and tools)

  5. Prototyping: sketching, testing, material research and pricing the concepts for feasibility

  6. Editing: killing what doesn't work and promoting that which does

  7. Refinement: making the good stuff better

  8. Execution: the steps that it takes to make the work final and publishable (ready to sharing with the audience).

Every creative project requires these distinct phases. What changes from project to project is what those steps will look like and what the approval/check-in/proofing process will entail. But, basically there’s no deviation from this outline. Actually there is (like, all the time) but when you deviate from this sequence of steps you will feel pain.

It might look like:

  • Creative Block

  • Previously approved designs getting killed (by the same person who approved them)

  • Making work you’re unhappy with at the end (that the client DIDN'T ruin)

  • Failure to execute a technical process (like a drawing style) which results in the need to compromise the vision

  • Blown deadlines

  • Endless rounds of revisions 

Its worth nothing that all of these pain points are considered the status quo, largely unavoidable problems of being a designer. I felt the same way for a long time but I have grown to see pain as an indicator that I am doing something wrong in the process (or am I allowing someone else to do something wrong and it is affecting me). If you put your hand on a lit stove-top it will burn. This pain is useful—its telling you that your hand is being damaged and that you need to do something about it. It would not be reasonable to make up your mind that “this is just part of the job” and leave your hand there. Nor does it make sense to remove your hand from the stove, go into the next room and complain about it, then come back and put your hand in the exact same place. But that is exactly what people do with the design process, they feel the same pain over and over again, they talk about it over beers at the happy hour but they never ask, “What is the pain trying to tell me?”. Instead they go and do the next project in the same manner that they did the last 7 and then wonder why they’re burned out.

The next obvious question becomes “How does altering that foundational process cause pain?”. Here’s a few of the ways it goes down:

If you skip Research and Analysis then you lose the inputs for Ideation (the kindling for the fire of creation if you will) which is the easiest route to creative block. 

Jumping straight to execution is the other main route for creative block. Most people don’t even know they’re doing this but what it will look like is trying to design something for which you don’t have the requisite research or content in order to actually make something (all my retail designers out there can relate). Or it could look like trying to make something “good” as soon as you start. The Ideation, Prototyping, Editing, and Refinement stages will actually validate your work so that by the time you get to Execution it is, indeed, good. When you try to start at “good” you put undue pressure on yourself AND don’t let the stages of Analysis or Editing do their job.

I have worked on too many projects where my own concepts required me to learn or revisit a technical skill in order bring the idea to life and too many times I was not able to either get my skills to a satisfactory level OR the technical process didn’t yield the results I’d hoped for. This can be avoided, first, by strong Ideation that produces an abundance of workable concepts (abundance meaning 20, not 3), second, by making sure to have a Prototyping phase that gives time to make sure the vision can be reached. 

Blown deadlines and endless revisions can certainly be caused by other factors but a huge one is both the client and the designer not handling Content Assembly at an appropriate time and pushing it until the end. What ends up happening is that things that should have been handled early on (and that may have required their own design process just to get useable content) are assumed to be OK to “just update later.” Every designer has worked on a project where they designed a piece, got it approved, and then got the “real” content only to find out that it fundamentally doesn’t work for the approved design.
This ends up being death by a thousand cuts as the designer has to start making bad decisions on purpose in order to accommodate the non-negotiables of the content. I have an information signage system in a major American retailer that basically sucks because the client pulled an unintentional bait-and-switch with the content. Had I gotten the actual required content at the right time in the process—prior to Ideation—the design would have been different and would actually be functional today. (Worth pointing out that this was not an MVA project, we'd rather get fired than intentionally do dumb s**t.)

Its important to remember that a lot of what seems like clients being difficult is actually them also experiencing pain. No one wants to kill a design direction 3 weeks after they approved it. No one wants to be sending back 10 rounds of edits in a single day. And they sure as hell don’t want to spend the extra cash that comes with those problems. The same process stuff that is screwing you up is also screwing them up.

The last unprovable truism that is totally true is that every successful project (meaning “adequately executed to meet the goal”), no matter how rushed, will end up having all these stages. They just might all happen at totally inconvenient times. You WILL have to Assemble Content, it’s just that it might look like fixing a grip of typos at the printer and THEN having to reprint 2 days later because you didn’t catch everything. You WILL have to do Materials Testing but you may be doing it on-site the day of an install and having to come up with some impromptu hack to make the thing work. You WILL have to do research. You just might end up doing it over the weekend after the client said the thing that he previously approved “just doesn’t feel right.”

What’s worse might be the projects where you DO manage to skip a step. Where lack of ideation and a quick approval means you made something that you hope no one sees. Maybe skipping research led to a design that is so expected that your client fires you for what she assumes is total cluelessness. Or your mediocre execution led to print mistakes and the client ghosts you after that.

These stages are always there. The task is to look at back your projects and ask, “What parts of this experience suck?” and then to review the process and figure out what you’re skipping, rushing or doing at the wrong time.