Essential Steps of the Graphic Design Process

How an effective graphic evolves

Following established steps in the graphic design process can help you achieve the best results. As with most endeavors, organizing your approach and staying focused can help your most effective design emerge.

The Five Phases of a Project

Generally, graphic designers move through a few common phases in every new project:

  1. Gathering information about the project.
  2. Brainstorming.
  3. Producing preliminary sketches.
  4. Working with the client through several rounds of changes.
  5. Putting on the final touches.

Here's a deeper look at each of these steps.

When following these steps, be sure to finish each one before moving on to the next. Each step relies on the 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.

young designer discussing with custmer in cafe
Michael H / Getty Images
  1. Gather Information

    Knowledge is power. Before you do anything else, you must know exactly what your client needs, the breadth of the job, and payment details (how much, when, and how).

    When approached for a new job, set up a meeting and ask questions about the scope of the work. These should include:

    • Who is the audience?
    • What is the message?
    • How many pages will the piece entail?
    • What are the dimensions?
    • What is the budget?
    • What is the deadline?
    • 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 so you can refer to them throughout the design process.

    Many designers prefer to conduct this phase via email so that they have a "paper trail" both parties can refer back to. This helps prevent confusion and conflict.

  2. 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 on the project's creative aspects, it's time to move on to the business aspects.

  3. Create and present a proposal

    This should include the "business" details of the project: fee structure (flat fee vs. hourly), milestones, deadlines, responsibilities (both client and designer), project delivery, kill fees, etc. The exact parameters of the project are particularly important to delineate to prevent "scope creep" — the tendency for projects to expand beyond the original outline and budget. For example, a client might request an additional page for a website or a custom illustration for a brochure; specify how additions like this will be handled so that you get paid for all your work and are allotted enough time to complete it. Have your client sign this proposal so that it becomes your contract.

    Use one of the many design contracts available online as a starting point.

  4. Harness Your Creativity!

    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, the client specifically asks that your design fit into a larger body of collateral).

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

    • Brainstorm: Get together with a group and throw around ideas without passing judgement just yet.
    • 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.
  5. Sketches and Wireframes

    It's time to give some structure to your project. 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 before you spend 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, a quick handmade version of a package design etc. 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.

  6. 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.

    Although you might knock out the final design in one shot, it's best to present your client with at least two versions. This offers options and allows you to combine the client's favorite elements from each.

    Specify in your proposal/contract exactly how many unique versions you will provide. Too many options will lead to unnecessary work and can overwhelm the client, which may frustrate you in the end. Ideally, limit this round to two or three original designs.

    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.

  7. Revisions

    Let your client know that you encourage "mixing and matching" the designs you provide. They might 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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