Essential Steps of the Graphic Design Process

young designer discussing with custmer in cafe
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Following established steps in the graphic design process can help you achieve the best results. Rather than jumping right into the design when you get a new project, you can save yourself time and energy by first researching the topic and understanding exactly what your client needs.

Then, you can begin finalizing your content. This starts with simple sketches and brainstorming, which is followed by several rounds of approval on designs.

If you take the proper approach to your graphic design work, you and your clients will be happier with the final product. Let's walk through each step in the design process.

01
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Gather Information

Before you can start a project, you need to know what your client needs. This might sound obvious, but gathering as much information about your client's needs and goals is the first, most essential step of the graphic design process. When approached for a new job, set up a meeting and ask a series of questions about the scope of the work.

Aside from the exact product your client needs (for instance, a logo or a website), ask:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the message?
  • How many pages will the piece entail?
  • What are the dimensions?
  • Is there a specific budget?
  • Is there a deadline for completion?
  • Can the client provide examples of designs they like?
  • Is there an existing corporate brand that needs to be matched?
  • Will the piece be strictly print, digital, or both?

Take detailed notes, which you can refer to throughout the design process.

02
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Create an Outline

Using the information collected in your meeting, you will be able to develop an outline of the content and goal of the project.

  • For a website, including all of the major sections and the content for each.
  • Include the dimensions and technical specifications for print or web work as well.

Present this outline to your client and ask for any changes. Once you have reached an agreement as to what the piece will look like and have received approval of the project's details, you can proceed to the next step.

Note: At this time, you should provide a proposal to your client as well. This will include the cost and timeframe for the work and any other "business" details. Rather than discuss that here, we are focusing strictly on the design aspect of the project.

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Harness Your Creativity!

Before moving on to the design itself, take some time to think about creative solutions for the project.

You can use the client's examples of favorite work as guidelines, but your goal should be to come up with something new and different that will stand out from the rest (unless of course they specifically asked to fit in).

Here are a few ways to get the creative juices flowing:

  • Brainstorm: Get together with a group and throw around any and all ideas.
  • Visit a museum: Get inspired by the originals.
  • Read a book: Something as seemingly insignificant as a color or shape in a graphic design book could spark a completely original idea.
  • Take a walk: Get outside and watch the world; nature is the original source of inspiration. People-watching can generate a host of ideas, too.
  • Draw: Even if you don't draw professionally, doodle some ideas on a page.

Once you have some ideas for the project, it's time to start creating a structured layout.

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Sketches and Wireframes

Before moving into a software program such as Illustrator or InDesign, create a few simple hand-drawn sketches of the piece's layout. Showing your client your basic ideas without spending too much time on design is a good way to find out if you are headed in the right direction. Quick sketches of logo concepts, line drawings of layouts showing where elements will be placed on the page, or even a quick handmade version of a package design can generate the client feedback that's so important in nailing down a direction you both agree on. For web design, wireframes are a great way to start with page layouts

05
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Design Multiple Versions

Now that you've done your research, finalized your content, and gotten approval on some sketches, you can move on to the actual design phases.

While you may knock out the final design in one shot, it's best to present your client with at least two versions. This gives them some options and allows you to combine their favorite elements from each.

Quite often, you can agree on how many unique versions are included in a job when writing and negotiating your proposal. Too many options will lead to too much unnecessary work and may overwhelm the client, which may frustrate you in the end. Ideally, limit this round to two or three unique designs.

Tip: Be sure to keep the versions or ideas that you choose not to present at the time (including those you might not even like). You never know when they'll come in handy for future projects.

06
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Revisions

Be sure to let your client know that you encourage "mixing and matching" the designs you provide. They may like the background color on one design and the font choices on another.

From their suggestions, you can present the second round of design. Don't be afraid to give your opinion on what looks best. After all, you're the designer, and the client is paying you for your expertise.

Even after this second round, you can usually expect a couple more rounds of changes before reaching a final design. Remember: The design isn't about you; your client is paying you to translate their message into something tangible. Provide your expert opinion, but don't let ego cloud your mission.

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Stick to the Steps

When following these steps, be sure to finish each one before moving on to the next. Each step relies on information you'll gain from the one before it. Working for a client is a collaborative process that can go off the rails easily without a plan.