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A Flexible Design Process

Lauren Clark

By Lauren Clark , Lead Interactive Designer

October 8, 2013

Design

The Elevate team recently attended “An Event Apart” in Chicago, a leading educational conference for web designers and developers. As ecstatic as I was when I learned I would be going, I was particularly excited to hear Jason Santa Maria speak. Jason is a brilliant designer from New York who, in addition to working on projects for clients such as the Chicago Tribune and WordPress, has a passion for teaching industry professionals about good design. Given the large amount of beautiful work he consistently produces, I expected Jason to give us details on the step-by-step process he follows when approaching a new design project. I was wrong.

Jason doesn’t follow a particularly defined process when working on a new project. And, much to my disappointment, he said there is no secret formula that he and the world’s most creative designers use to solve design problems. Instead, the themes of Jason’s presentation were flexibility and adaptability — being able to adapt to the context of each engagement by considering variables such as the client, the team members, and the parameters of the project. From Jason’s presentation, I gathered four guidelines for designers to keep in mind when starting any new job.

Sketch: Use your sketchbook to sketch through strategies and ideas, not just layouts and designs.

“Ideas want to be ugly.” I cringed when I first heard this. I don’t want my ideas to be ugly! But then I thought about it for a minute. If you’re like me, your best idea isn’t your first idea, and a lot of bad sketches get thrown out before you reach that “great idea.” To Jason’s point, all of the ugly ideas allow you to come up with new, more interesting solutions. “Sketchbooks are not about being a good artist; they’re about being a good thinker,” he said. Going through the process of sketching ideas helps you to think through what works and what doesn’t on a coarse scale, and can save you the trouble of fine-tuning a design that ultimately gets canned or heavily modified because its foundation isn’t strong enough. You have to make sure you think through big ideas before you worry about the visual details and exactly what the finished product will look like.

Be Nimble: Be willing to rapidly change your process as needed.

Flexibility — especially at the request of the client or your team members — is key in the design process. Instead of trying to figure out the best process to use across every project and rigidly trying to follow it, you should instead create a unique process for each individual project or task. Once the work starts, you should be ready to change the process or direction as needed without regard for “sunk” design costs. Instead of blindly following a plan because it was agreed upon as “The Plan,” you need to be continually reevaluating whether you are on the correct path or if a detour or redirection is necessary or would make more sense. Both process and the solution it leads to should be the result of creativity and collaboration.

Embrace Constraints: Structure and limitations, when used correctly, enable us to focus.

“Good design happens around good constraints.” Identifying a project’s constraints early on is important, and helps avoid unnecessary work (and costs to the client). Once you’ve identified the constraints, you should view them as helpful guides and not as complications. Imagine you’re searching a beach for a specific type of shell. Without constraints, you’re faced with combing the surface of the whole beach, and must shallowly explore lots of space. With constraints — the shell must be found in a tidal pool, for example — your search can be limited to a smaller area where you can search more deeply and fully dig out a few possible candidates. Constraints result in faster creation of more successful design solutions.

Communicate: Collaboration can help you find the best way to turn an idea into a realized story.

Coming up with an awesome idea is one thing, but sharing it is equally as important in the design process. The more you speak with your colleagues, the more perspectives you will gain (which will only strengthen your concept) and the faster you will figure out what information is either lacking or not needed in order to convey your idea. I’ve been told before, “If you can’t explain an idea clearly it’s not a good one.” Being forced to explain your idea to others is a great way of testing it early and avoiding that dreaded “back to the drawing board” moment later. You should get to the point where you’ve talked about your concept so many times that you could recite it while juggling bean bags and riding a bike. Figure out the best way of telling your story.

After reflecting on Jason’s presentation and his assertion that there is no one-size-fits-all design process, I now feel relieved. Jason rightly advocates for a flexible design process, and suggests designers keep in mind four key principles — broadly sketching through initial strategies, being nimble and willing to adapt, embracing constraints as a way to focus, and communicating early and often. Now I am going to approach determining and evaluating my process not as an inconvenience but as an additional exciting creative problem.

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