The Design Formula

How many design firms out there trumpet their process? They come up with fantastic diagrams – award- winning diagrams even – of how a project is born and nursed through its infancy, reared, and finally let loose into the world. There’s usually all sorts of talk about research and mood boards and brainstorming. There are those in the world that also claim a proprietary method of creating design solutions. Process was recently featured in an article by David C. Baker in the January edition of Communication Arts. So, clearly the design profession has process on the brain.

So what is this process we all use? And how in God’s name could it be proprietary? I ask these questions because Mr. Baker’s article rightly suggests that we look for patterns in the way we work, and then try to repeat those things that are successful. If only it were so easy.

Step 1 Research

The biggie. Entire industries are developed for this. Interviews, competitor concepts, the nitty-gritty of a client’s industry, knowing your audience, and this, that and the other thing. What is truly the process here? Mostly asking the right questions. Generally these can be narrowed into two categories, making for a short interview: What do you want to say, and who do you want to say it to. Okay then. Got my answers to those. Off to the bar for wing night! Which leads us to...

Step 2 Brainstorming
This is where the rubber meets the proverbial road. We take all we have learned about clients, and those that will soon be the adoring audience, and start to craft visual ideas and messages that will resonate with them. This is done through a plodding and pragmatic process of staring at the television, doodling during unrelated phone calls, sleeping and arguing with each other over the proper direction.

Eventually we see the forest through the trees and find many paths down which to stroll. Now then, if I am able to somehow trademark the acts of watching sports via cable television, sleeping, doodling and arguing, then America truly is paved with gold.

Truth to Power
Okay. So, there are some missing steps I suppose. There’s the money part. That can be a deal-breaker on occasion. There’s delivery and all that as well. But let’s be real about our “process.” The diagrams and the rest are lingo for an industry whose job it is to not speak lingo at any time, under any circumstance. It’s businessese to make up a word. All of that is something we do to make clients feel like we’re working. We’re not just drinking beer and slamming down chicken wings. We’re hard at work, by God. But the clients you want to work for understand that the process is this: Listen, find out the truth about them, and then scream it out loud. If you want to walk that down to the patent office, go right ahead. Give it a fancy name if you want. Call it the “Precision Success Model 2.0.” There is no magic shazam button. No magic question. There’s a conversation, and the truth. Occasionally it takes 20 minutes to get there, sometimes a month. But when done right, it’s worth the trip.