Last week I agreed to coach Alexander Schmid and to review some of his work.

This week we sat down for a two hour work-session and went over the process of design and how to make his design workflow more effective and efficient when working with business clients.

The Starting Point

The above image is Alex’s concept and design of a key visual for a perfume bottle.

I quite like the design and shape of it. The concept is very appealing to me. I like the contrast between something high quality and premium and something industrial.

The weakness here is the presentation. The composition is centered and symmetrical. At the same time we have two visually equal objects in the shot, which means we have no subject. The color palette is monotonous and also lacks contrast to highlight the subject. The form and shape is lost in the overblown bloom of the lighting as well, with very little contrast between the two.

Why You Need a Process

When thinking about design, we often do things automatically. Either because we learned it a particular way in school, or because we have been repeating the same model over and over until we internalized it. When asked it is often hard for us to verbalize why we do the things we do, and how.

This is supremely unhelpful when working with clients. Clients didn’t study design, they can’t follow your workflow.

Simply, you don’t want to be a black box. Behaving as a black box isn’t trustworthy because it’s function and decisions are not transparent. And the first step in any business relationship is to generate trust, because people hire who they trust.

Additionally, a process gives you a recipe for repeatable and consistent results. Consistency is highly valued by business clients, because it’s safe. Nobody want to lose money on something that might be hit-or-miss.

Businesses can’t afford to take un-calculated risks and leaps of faith.

And for you as a designer, the process helps you to stay efficient and effective while working with the client. It compartmentalizes the decisions into bite-sized chunks that are adjustable and correctable quickly without redoing whole designs from scratch, wasting both your clients and your own time.

Let’s also be clear that I am talking exclusively about the design process here, not the general brand strategy. Ideally you would want to run Discovery before you design to uncover the client’s pain-points, but that’s a topic for another day and a separate can of worms.

As you can see, personally I love to talk about process.

The Framework

Now to be clear I obviously didn’t invent this framework, it’s based on a few prolific books as well as other resources, but I adjusted it and made it my own.

You can develop your own too. Just start thinking about how you design, what decisions you make and why, parsing it through what is helpful to the client. Write it down and you will eventually distill your own way of thinking into a framework similar to this.

Personally I work in four steps:

  1. Analysis
  2. Concepting
  3. Prototyping
  4. Production

The purpose here is to create convenient break-points for decisions from the client. Every step of the way should be collaborative, not insular and siloed. Whenever you present a finished design to the client without consulting every step of the way, you always run the risk that the design isn’t what the client wanted, and you will have to start from scratch.

With this framework you are able to work together and sign off on steps that are crucial for the design and arrive at a shared vision.

Step 1: Analysis

After you presumably had a Discovery Meeting with your client, and found out about their needs and challenges, you should analyse what was said and put it into a goal-structure.

For example, in this case, I simply singled out the most important aspects of what we established during our first meeting and what it must achieve to communicate clearly.

  • Premium Look
  • Contrast between pristine perfume and artisan/industrial setting
  • Bottle design unchanged
  • Wrench motif

Then I created a word-cloud with concepts that were fitting for the piece. Some are objects, some are feelings, and some are general concepts.

Then I selected for the words that communicate the goals strongest.

And put them into a keyword matrix that communicates the contrast of the desired piece with clear opposites.

And lastly I picked which of the set to pick for the subject and which to pick for the surrounding visual supporting elements.

This step in the design workflow has a few immediate benefits.

First, I used less than half an hour to structure my thoughts on this and distill the essence and goals before even opening Photoshop. Second, I can present this to my client in a short 15 minute call/presentation to confirm we are still on the same page. Third, I have a fixed set of keywords that I can use when looking for inspiration or design elements later.

Step 2: Concepting

Now lets look at this visually and search for some elements that express the keywords and goals.

I just did a quick google search for some of the concepts and elements that are connected to the goals and created a Moodboard of the environments that would fit the piece.

With this in hand, I can again go to the client and ask for feedback.

Is it more of a rusty cluttered workshop, or an architect office? More heat and sweat or cold and precise? Are we even going the right direction here? If not I can scrap this moodboard and make a new one. It’s one or two hours of image searching tops.

Let’s say the client picks one (or more) of these as representative, and in our session it was the anvil image on the top left.

Now we can fire up Photoshop, Blender or whatever your tool of choice at the moment is.

Prototyping

Prototyping is the step in your design workflow where you try to get results quickly. You want to present a rough sketch of the idea you have without investing too much time on details. It’s also ok to cheat by compositing a lot of the image, the client doesn’t care what tools were used, they only care about the end effect: an engaging asset or brand expression.

So I picked up the anvil and roughly positioned the items on top of it (provided by Alex). The benefit of using photos as your design basis if you are weak in composition is that the photographer already did the heavy lifting for you. He already picked a pleasant perspective and composition. You are merely adding to it and adjusting it to your purpose.

Ok, I like this general idea and composition, now lets composite this in Photoshop and create an ad layout with dummy text so we (and the client) know where the copy can be placed.

Of course my image selection was already made with copy space in mind, but the client isn’t trained to see it as I do, so we should showcase the possibility.

This is looking quite good so far, but it doesn’t tick all of the necessary boxes, the concept calls for a bit more contrast, grunge and tactility. The tongs area also interfering with the bodycopy, so we will ultimately need to do something with that as well. Lets try a vignette to highlight the product and let the environment fall into the background.

Ok, better. I am now feeling confident enough to present this to the client as a concept that he can sign off on or destroy. Typically I would present at least two or three concepts here to get a sense of what the client prefers more. Maybe the client wants to move the copy somewhere, or knows that there will be more than I have suggested here. Moving the copy to the right for example could be devastating if this was the final piece we worked 30 hours on, since it would require to change the entire composition.

Yes the dust looks too much like snow, yes the reflection on the anvil is totally unrealistic and fake, but we aren’t there yet to spend countless hours polishing this for release, we need to establish if this is what the client wants.

This took no longer than an hour to composite roughly into a sketch that is supposed to convey the mood of the final KV.

If the clients signs off on one of those, we move on to production.

Production

In the production stage we pour our heart and soul into the piece and polish it. It’s the time to show off your obsession with details and your skill.

The client basically approved this concept in the prototyping stage so there is little to no risk you will waste your time.

For the purposes of presentation, and because we are both busy people, during our work session we didn’t polish this concept to absurdity. We merely improved on it a little bit, especially on the dust particles and anvil reflections.

Conclusion

When working with business clients we are not artists. We are designers and visual communicators. We are experts in our field, ready to advise, guide and express the desires of the client.

Our work must be fit for purpose for the client, it needs to serve his needs and fit within the business goal. Our need to make something in our vision or image is not even a secondary concern. The process leading to a result must be collaborative, guided by the expert, but informed by the business need.

If we stick to the process, we eliminate risk, ambiguity and miscommunication.


Also published on Medium.

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