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a person sketching ideas on paper and Post-It notes a person sketching ideas on paper and Post-It notes

The Enduring Power of a Good Design Process

By Elevate

June 27, 2016


Recently I had the pleasure of traveling through Italy, one of my favorite places in the world. I always feel so inspired there, I mean, how couldn’t you? I started thinking about the artists who shaped the history of Italy, and what we could learn from them — not particularly from their oeuvres, but broadly from their creative process and the way they designed. I decided to focus on one in particular whom my grandfather and great grandfather are named after: Michelangelo.

Lesson 1: Research As Much As Possible

examples of research, past and present

Michelangelo loved to sculpt the human body. One of his most famous sculptures, the statue of David, is regarded as one of the greatest sculptures of all time. Before beginning the work, he spent years studying and even dissecting the human body, which later enabled him to grasp the perfect proportions we see today.

Before starting a project we need to really know who we are designing for. Understanding the context of our design is critical — who its audience is, what we want to communicate to that audience, what its subject matter is and when and where it will be seen. We accomplish this by researching, asking questions and physically immersing ourselves in the context.

Lesson 2: Plan Your Designs on Paper

examples of planning, past and present

When Michelangelo was preparing for a new project he would create a bozzetto, which is Italian for a sketch or the sculptural equivalent of a sketch which is made from clay instead of marble. He would then work through several iterations to help himself visualize and think through his ideas.

This lesson is very important for designers today. Twitter icon It is hard not to jump directly into a design right away — especially because we are so used to using computers as our main source of visual creation. Sketching your ideas on paper first will help you to release your creativity and train your brain to better visualize your thoughts in order to find a conceptual plan. It gives you the flexibility to generate iterations, ignite experimentation and experience continuous improvement.

Lesson 3: Find Focus through Iteration

examples of iteration, past and present

If you look closely at Michelangelo’s works in the Sistine Chapel, you will see a stark contrast between the panels painted first and those painted last. Michelangelo’s first couple of panels were very detailed and complex. As he continued to design and paint, he realized that people standing on the ground looking up at a 68-foot-tall ceiling would not be able to appreciate the fine details. So he altered his newer designs to communicate their stories with only a couple of figures, at a much larger scale.

In my process, I continually pause to reevaluate my work as it moves from a sketch to a design comp and finally to a functioning developed prototype or working product. I evaluate and iterate at each phase because, as it changes form, more context and complexity is brought into the design that needs to be considered. With this process, I can deliver a refined and thoughtful design that will provide an effective and enjoyable experience.

Lesson 4: Trust the Process and Yourself

statues by Michaelangelo

When I first started studying the Renaissance, one of Michelangelo’s quotes struck me, and has motivated me ever since:

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.… Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

As designers, we sometimes go through creative ruts of feeling stuck or unsure. We have to remember that we are here for a reason. Greatness is hidden in each and every one of us. We know that we have the skills, resources and time to get the results we want, but how do we push through and actually begin the project?

I have found that setting up a good design process has helped me get my projects going. It gives me an organized plan that helps me feel self-assured and allows me to create the best possible solution.

The process needs to include:

  1. Researching and understanding the context
  2. Analyzing te research findings to determine a strategy
  3. Sketching to explore and ideate
  4. Iterating and refinement

But every designer is different, so finding what process works best for you is key. Think of your next project like that block of stone: there’s a finished product inside, but it just needs you to carve it out.

What I find especially fascinating about all of this is that the foundations of design and the processes designers go through are centuries old. Even though the tools we use and the places our designs are seen are specific to our time, we as designers can learn a lot by studying the creative processes that were used throughout history.

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