What’s the process?

Processes. They’re a huge part of what we do as designers and we use them to add structure to our working day, says studio Mat Dolphin. But dissecting the steps each design project goes through, from brief to delivery, isn’t something we’ve done before. So we thought we’d give it a go

Processes. They’re a huge part of what we do as designers and we use them to add structure to our working day, says studio Mat Dolphin. But dissecting the steps each design project goes through, from brief to delivery, isn’t something we’ve done before. So we thought we’d give it a go…

Working on creative projects throws up a unique set of challenges – to say that every project is different is a bit of a cliché, but it’s ridiculously true.

The challenge presented by each project differing from the last is that, regardless of the fact they’re all completely unique, we have to ensure that each and every one is successful. Both for ourselves and our clients. This may sound obvious, but it’s surprisingly difficult to achieve.

Two initial ideas Mat Dolphin produced for a ‘live’ design project, London Love Wine. Further sketch work, a working design, final designs and LLW website are shown in this post

Every client is different, with their own unique requirements and expectations; their own level of experience in commissioning design work; their own individual interests at heart; with differing budgets and timelines every time.

What we’re being asked to do can be specified down to the tiniest detail, or incredibly vague and unclear. To have a single process for every single project to religiously stick to is incredibly straight forward and simple is theory, but not so much in practice.

Not long ago we were asked about the process we go through when tackling a new project. Our particular process is one that’s has been shaped over a number of years and will continue to evolve and change. So while this article is by no means exhaustive, it explains the main areas we cover for a creative project:

1. Listening

Generally, the first step of any design project involves a great deal of listening. What is actually being asked of us? For the vast majority of projects, we ask the client to fill out a briefing template; a simple set of questions which gives us the initial information we need to know.

Getting clients to give full and informative answers, rather than rushed, one-word responses can be surprisingly challenging at times, but it’s the first step in discovering exactly what’s being asked of us. If some points are still unclear we ask more specific questions, but actually listening to the answers is something that’s all too easily forgotten, and something we try and focus on as much as possible.

2. Criteria

When we’re satisfied that we know exactly what’s expected of us, we firstly ask ourselves, does the new work or project tick at least two of the following three requirements:

1. The project offers a brilliant design opportunity
2. The project will be financially rewarding
3. The project will likely get us good exposure

This is thinking we borrowed from the beautiful people at Studio Output, that helps us decide whether a project is worth taking on. If you’re only able to tick one of the three criteria, then you’re pretty much guaranteed that everyone involved will lose in some form or another. Having this simple equation has helped us avoid a lot of chaff.

So. At least two boxes are ticked (we’ve had a couple of threes, and they’re AMAZING!) and we can move on. We further ask ourselves – Are we able to do this? Do we have the skill? Do we have sufficient time? Is the client someone we can happily work with? Can we deliver (and surpass) their expectations?

It’s all too tempting to take on any sniff of a job that comes along but if it doesn’t seem like something we’re realistically able to achieve to the standards we’re happy with, it will inevitably cause more harm to us than good if we decide to get involved.

3. Money

The next stage is often the most awkward, but a necessary evil. Money. We could easily write an entire post about this topic but will attempt to keep it brief. To do the job, we need to get paid. It’s a simple fact but one that is never easy to talk about, especially with the person who’s paying.

The fact that every project is different from the last makes this part even more complicated. It would be much easier if it were the case but we don’t have a set price for a website, logo or any other creative project. There are simply too many variables.

Before the actual design work can start, we inevitably need to spend an amount of time talking to the client about how much we think they should pay us for doing what they’ve asked of us. Our costs are always dictated by the time we need to dedicate to the work, plus any costs we will have to pay for production, print, developers etc.

This amount isn’t always the same as the figure the client would like to pay, of course. Sometimes the money available is dictated by a strict budget, sometimes it’s an arbitrary figure based on what somebody reckons the job is ‘worth’. Sometimes a great deal of time and effort goes into providing a detailed quote which instantly gets dismissed.

Every now and then, our costs are instantly agreed upon without any sign of questioning. Whilst this is always a positive thing, it’s difficult not to wonder if we should have quoted more.

As designers, we’re generally a bit shit when it comes to talking about money. That said, it has to be done for us to survive. However, the sooner this part of the process pans out, the sooner we can come to an agreement that makes financial sense for both parties, and the quicker we can concentrate on the bit we’re good at.

4. Research

When we finally get on to the creative portion of project, we tend to begin with research. Do we know enough about the sector we’re working within? What can we learn about the audience this piece of design is aimed at? What can we discover about the ‘thing’ we’re trying to communicate?

5. The big idea

The answers to these questions can sometimes be surprising and are often largely informative to the next step of the process – coming up with ideas. Whilst it’s by no means a ‘rule’, more often than not, our design work is based around a single concept.

This concept forms the backbone of the design and is the thing that we can use to inform the rest of the work. Sometimes the idea is incredibly clear and easy to ‘get’, sometimes it’s more esoteric and abstract. But in one form or another, it’s necessary to give the design a single, cohesive direction.

Sketching initial ideas in layout pads before opening Illustrator or Photoshop is something many designers get quite pedantic about. It’s certainly something we do most of the time, but there have been exceptions. Whilst it can undoubtedly be an insightful – not to mention time saving – practice, it isn’t something we labour over if it doesn’t offer a reasonable benefit to the work.

So. We know what we’re being asked to deliver. We’ve agreed the fee and how the payment side of things will work. We’ve spent some time researching the necessary areas and come up with a stonking concept. Now all we need to do is design it!

6. Design

Whilst this part of the process is in many ways the most in depth, it’s also the part that there’s not really too much to talk about due to how changeable it is. More so than any other part of the process, the actual designing is more to do with experimentation, trying things that don’t work, discovering new ideas and stumbling on unexpected ways to solve problems.

The journey to get from the great idea to a finished design is the one part of every project which we can never really plan in any detail, as it’s so dependent on the brief. Whilst we know what we’re aiming for, where we end up needs to be left as an open-ended question for the design process to work. Apologies if this sounds a bit woolly and vaguely spiritual, but it’s simply the case. The design bit is all about ‘finding the answer’.

7. Rationale

When the answer has been found, the time comes to present our initial ideas to the client. There is usually more than one initial option to allow for some choice, and we always spend a fair amount of time explaining the rationale and thinking behind each of the designs.

This is the case whether presenting in person or sending over our work via email (we do a mixture of both). Explaining why we’ve done what we’ve done generally has no affect on whether the work is liked or not (and is probably ignored on a regular basis), but encouraging the client to understand the thought process and reasoning is something we feel is hugely important as it makes it clear than the decisions we’ve made are based on our research and knowledge, rather than personal preferences and taste.

8. Finalising

The amount of to-ing and fro-ing at this point can vary depending on a number of factors. Did we get it right and answer the brief in the best way? Was the client clear on what they wanted in the first place? Does seeing the work completed raise other issues that weren’t previously apparent? The age-old issue of ‘knowing what I want when I see it’ is something we navigate regularly.

As a part of the dreaded ‘money talk’, we always stipulate how many sets of amends we will allow in refining our work. Making this clear at the beginning of the process avoids awkward situations where waves of endless changes rapidly erode and eat away at the design time we had originally quoted. We will continue making amends until the client is happy, but charge at an hourly rate for additional changes beyond those originally agreed upon.

So, as a quick summary to the above, the brief needs to be answered sufficiently. The money side of things needs to be discussed and agreed. The research needs to be done. Brilliant, original ideas need to be generated. The work needs to be executed to the highest possible standard and presented to the client with a full, reasoned rationale. The inevitable back and forth to get the details perfected finally leads to job completion.

All that’s left to do is send the final invoice, high five and relax. Or is it?

9. Following up

The final part of the process is something we didn’t do for a long time. It’s simple and easy to do but, due to our own stupidity, it took us a long time to realise how important it is to make a point of following up each and every project. Contacting the client a couple of days, weeks or months after the project has been completed to see how things are going. Are they still pleased with the work? Have they had any feedback from others? Is it doing what they wanted it to do?

The answers to these questions can be useful feedback for us as designers and can help us to learn about what we could be doing differently. They’re also a useful way to continue the dialogue with our clients in a effort to nurture the working relationship.

Delivering a piece of work and wandering off, never to be heard from again isn’t a particularly good look and one that can be easily avoided with a quick phone call or email to check that, looking back on the project, expectations were met.

10. Ignoring all of the above

Now. The process we’ve outlined above is the ideal. Whilst every project we work on is different, we try and guide them through these steps and make sure that each of the boxes are ticked. However, things don’t always work out as per the plan.

People change their minds, briefs are amended, deadlines are moved, and new requirements materialise. Being adaptable is part of what we do and the goalposts moving are something everyone has to deal with from time to time. But, if we’re completely honest, it can cause our finely tuned process to get thrown out of the window.

Obviously the process is there for a simple reason – it makes things well ordered and easy to manage. In our experience, however, design projects simply don’t work like that all the time. They take changes in direction that nobody expected and throw up random problems that take creativity and inventiveness to solve. Try as we might, many of the projects we work on can’t be constrained by a neat and tidy process.

Of course, we’d like to think that regardless of the project, we stringently adhere to our strict process at all times, but it simply isn’t the case. We sometimes (often?) have to ignore our own guidelines and wing it. Does it make our job easier? No. Does it make for a more comfortable working day? No? Is it a necessary and unavoidable part of design? We’re not completely sure.

So we thought we’d ask you lot – do you work to a process? Is it anything like ours? Do you stick to it no matter what? Or does it all get forgotten about now and then? We’d be interested to hear your views.

Thanks for reading.

Mat Dolphin is a London-based studio run by Phil Cook and Tom Actman. This article was originally posted on their blog and is republished with permission. The images show the development of one of their latest project, London Love Wine, which will be covered on the CR blog next month. For more of their work see matdolphin.com and @matdolphin.

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