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Sometimes we voice strong opinions on topics touching the design and visual communication industries, sometimes we dispense advice to students, professionals and clients. If you’re into that sort of thing, this blog’s for you.

The Creative Process

Illustration by Cory Michael Skaaren

The creative process is, simply put, the steps used to manage a project, outline goals and generate ideas. The correct creative process makes the management of any given project simpler, the objectives clearer for all those involved (including your clients) and, if used properly, something that will tangibly increase your productivity and client relations.  

I can think of more than a few Account Executives and Strategic Directors that are going to roll their eyes at this post, dismissing the ideas presented here as an unnecessary distraction between signing one client and cold-calling the next – which is, of course, an embarrassing reaction considering the business they're in.

BUT, knowing is the half the battle, right? So, let’s not waste a lot of time pointing fingers and placing blame. Let’s dive right in.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS WILL

Keep everyone on the same page
A well-thought out creative process not only breaks down complicated projects, but also educates the uninformed along the way. This gives you an opportunity to show your clients what you’re doing for them, why you’re doing it, and it gives them an opportunity to give approval at appropriate stages throughout the project, aligning visions and preventing later back-tracking. Let’s face it; an educated client is a happier, more satisfied client.

Clearly track and record all your work
Recording your work (i.e. research, mood boards, drafts, sketches, etc.) helps explain your rate and what the client is paying for. If used correctly, these records can actually be used as a selling point in new business pitches.


It should be noted that if you truly want to build a symbiotic relationship with your clients, I strongly believe it starts with having the proper information on hand to back up the decisions that you have made in the work. If you can connect the dots between conceptual ideas and tangible results, the client/designer relationship becomes a lot easier and more meaningful.


Keep your team and clients accountable for decisions
Nothing is worse than when something goes wrong, or when someone makes a mistake. Now, it’s impossible to guarantee an error-free work environment or project. But, when a mistake is made, you would be crazy not to want to know what happened and during what part of the process the mistake was made in order to prevent similar mishaps in the future. A good creative process is built around a step-by-step process that requires a sign-off from someone on the team (or from the client, depending on the circumstance) responsible for each step. These controls build in an extra level of accountability. If a project moves on to the next step without the proper approval, any team member throughout the process can tell simply by looking at what sign-offs were or were not made.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS WILL NOT

Make you more creative
It will, however, force you to ask the right questions along the way, which can only lead to a better product. People unfamiliar with the creative process think it's a magic bullet and that is an unrealistic expectation. Just remember the creative process will help you generate ideas, but it doesn’t promise those ideas will all be award winning.

Manage itself
Leadership is needed for the creative process to work. This means overall responsibility for a project is given to senior employees, allowing new hires or employees with less experience to learn proper procedures through a well-structured training ground. Competent leadership will go a long way in building a team that works well together.

Solve all your problems
This is the most common excuse employees will have for not using the creative process. All creative endeavors need direction if they are going to be effective (read: profitable) for your company. This process is not a magic cure-all. It has to to be implimented and maganged like anything else.

One size will not fit all
Another common mistake is thinking that the creative process is a rigid set of rules. We have to understand that every company and every project can vary greatly. Creating a process with broad enough steps to allow for interpretation is a must. This is why leadership is so important. Someone with a good understanding of how a project starts and is finished inside the company is needed to manage every project. Having someone who clearly understands the implications for how each step effects the next is a must.

Lock your company into one way of doing things
The best creative processes are flexible and allow for interpretation. They allow changes to be made on the fly depending on the project’s scope and demands. Good processes will make every project more manageable and easier for a creative team to navigate. Again, it’s all about leadership, understanding and executing as a team.

THE PROCESS ITSELF

The following is a step by step breakdown of the “generic” creative process. Remember this is just an outline. Your creative process can be more or less detailed depending on the type of projects or clients you work with. It’s also worth noting that I consider this a more modern version of the creative process as it mixes the steps of the more traditional “idea generation” process with important administrative and project management elements more suited for the modern design environment.

Step 1. Administration & Acceptance
This is an easy one. No one should work without a contract or clearly defined expectations around the project’s scope. Outlining who is responsible for what, and in what time frame, is a must. This is the time to get all legal matters handled. It is also the best time to outline how you and the client will work together, how often communication will take place, and at what interval decisions and milestones will be signed-off and discussed. It’s also a mental thing. What a designer is really doing at this stage is accepting that the clients problems are now your problems. In other words it's hard to solve a problem unless you have mentally (and in this case contractually) accepted there is one.

Step 2. Research & Defining the Problem
It goes without saying that you need information before you can solve any creative problem. The amount of research you will need to do, and the time it will take you to get it, will obviously depend on the size, scope, and budget of the project. But, this is a crucial step and should not be skipped.

Step 3. Ideation
One of the things that stuck with me since my school years was something a professor once told me: “It’s not the designer’s job to come up with the right solution, but rather to eliminate all the wrong ones.” That always made a lot of sense to me. And you can’t really do that without a fair amount of time and a great deal of exploration. One of the biggest mistakes designers make is that they “think” they know the answer to a problem without any exploration. It’s been my experience that your first 50-100 ideas are going to be terrible AND they are going to be the same 50-100 bad ideas your competitors have. Push yourself, be honest and keep sketching and exploring until you get that rush of adrenaline that lets you know you're on the right track.

Step 4. Judgment
If there is one step that is usually missed or skipped it’s this one. All too often in the modern age of “we needed this done yesterday,” designers try to impress the client with doing things quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that things need to get done in a timely matter, but never underestimate how powerful educating the client on how doing things right can be. If done right this can be another selling point and something that can make you or your company standout from the competition.  The judgment phase should really be used to take a step back to look at all the goals and requirements outlined in steps one & two. You have to have the ability to be honest with yourself and be willing to take a step back if the project demands it.

Step 5. Execution
If you have done the first four steps correctly, this step is an easy one. You simply have to build exactly what you proposed to the client as a solution to the definition of the problem that you outlined in steps one and two. The solution should be backed up by your research from step two. Proven by your exploration in step three. Defended by your examination in step four. And now you’re simply executing work that has been defined, researched, explored, conceptualized and questioned. All the while the client has been educated, informed and kept in the loop, and has made key decisions with you or your team at the right pre-scheduled moments.

Step 6. Feedback
The final step of any successful creative process is defining and understanding success. Eventually the project you and or your team just finished will be released into the world. You need to know how to measure that success and document it. If, worst case scenario, success is not met, how will you adapt to help solve the problem? Remember that design should be a solution to a problem not a catalyst for more of them.

CONCLUSION

In closing, I developed this version of the creative process because I believe in design as a universal way of solving problems. Although there are many ways of entering and having success in this business, we all deal at some level with the “currency” of creativity. Creativity at its core is the art of generating ideas and if you truly believe that, then you have to ask yourself, "What are clients really paying for?" I tell new clients in the beginning of the process that I’m giving them the final design for free. What they’re paying for is the time, research, experience and process I applied to the problem so that I could solve it. That’s what makes design valuable, not whether or not it’s “good” or “bad.” Those terms are too subjective to be of any use to us as designers. What we need to do is find appropriate solutions to problems. That takes time, and a proven well-thought out process. So if you’re not selling process, what exactly are you selling?