My “Deeper Meaning” Design Process
The design process can be a bit mysterious sometimes. I like to think that what we do is magic. We take words on paper describing how a client wants their brand to be seen and then *poof* we show up a few weeks later with a beautiful design that illustrates their story. It sure does seem like magic sometimes, but believe me, I didn’t spend my 4 years in college just learning how to pull ideas out of thin air. No, there’s some serious strategy and problem solving that goes on behind the scenes and I want to give you a little glimpse of that. But even more, I want to show you how I incorporate designing with a deeper meaning because that’s design at its best – when there’s a tangible, heartstring-tugging meaning at the center.
So let’s get into it! I’m going to quickly go over some important things to know about design first, then jump into my process of a real branding project that I did earlier this year for a store/cafe called Always Summer. I’ll be showing you how I created this brand from start to finish, but I’ll mainly be highlighting the parts that I think are most important and meaningful. If you have any specific questions about anything you see, leave me a comment or shoot me an email and I’ll be happy to go in more detail for you.
But first… why does design need to have a deeper meaning, anyways?
One of the biggest misconceptions about design is that the goal is to simply make things looks good. Of course, you want your business or product to look good, but you need more than that. There’s a quote that I found a few years ago by Jenny Arden, a UX designer from Airbnb that I think sums this up really well. She said, “Design is human. It’s not about “Is it pretty,” but about the connection it creates between a product and our lives.”
Basically, design without a deeper meaning is like a body without a soul. It might look pretty, but there’s nothing to connect with, nothing to make your audience feel special or like they belong. Design is less about how it looks and more about how it makes people feel. I felt like I needed to clear that up first because you’re going to see how this thinking guides my entire design process. I want to make sure all of my clients know that I never want to create something that’s “just pretty” for them, I want to give them something that means something to them and their audience. Only then will I feel like I’m doing my job right. Ok, now that my little design rant is out of the way, let’s get into how I apply this thinking into my process!
Step 01 – Finding the Deeper Meaning
First thing’s first, I always give my client a form to fill out that is full of targeted questions to help them reflect on their business journey so far, highlight their strengths, pinpoint the values that connect them to their audience, and dream about where their business is headed. I like to think of this as the “alignment before action” part of my process where we align the client’s intentions to create a clear vision of what the design needs to accomplish to help their business thrive. I ask a lot of questions, but here are a few of the ones that I think are most important:
- Why did you first start your business?
- At the end of your career, what do you want to be known for? What does success look like for you?
- What values drive your business? (I give a list of adjectives for them to choose from)
- Who are your competitors? List some of their strengths and weaknesses.
- What unique skills and talents do you bring to the table?
- Why are your clients/customers drawn to you? What problem do you solve for them?
- What defines your clients/customers? Think about their location, age, occupation, hobbies, values. What are some other brands or businesses that they love and why? (Can be in any industry)
- If there was nothing holding you back in your business, what would you do?
Step 02 – Outlining a Creative Direction
After reading through my client’s answers and checking out their competition, I start filling up a Pinterest board with inspiration. But before doing any design work, I take all the information that I have and put together what I call a “Creative Direction Presentation”. This presentation pretty much summarizes all the answers from the client’s questionnaire and highlights specific ways that we could use design to convey that “deeper meaning” behind their brand. This is a really important step of my process because I want to make sure that we’re all on the same page with the visual direction that we want to move in before I start designing anything. There have been a few times when I’ve misunderstood something about the client’s audience or goals, jumped the gun and started designing a concept that wasn’t at all the direction the client wanted to go in, which in the end wastes both mine and their time, so it’s crucial to catch that and clear things up now before I actually starting designing!
Above are some pages from the creative direction that I presented to the ladies at Always Summer. Here’s a quick overview of what’s included:
- Brand goal – I sum up the main goal of their brand in 1-2 sentences. Typically I use the same format for every client, which goes something like “A branding experience that makes customers/clients feel ___________, ___________, and ___________ – an identity that is ___________, ___________, and ___________.”
- Audience – I write a short paragraph that pinpoints who the target audience is, what matters to them and why they are drawn to the client.
- Keywords – I pull some of the adjectives that client picked in questionnaire that define their business and create a list for us to reference throughout the project.
- Visual Inspiration – I create a moodboard of gathered images that are numbered and organized into categories (type, layout, collateral, illustration/pattern, and occasionally photos of their product/work/audience).
** I like to include the brand goal and audience pages at the beginning of every single presentation that I present for the rest of the project. It forces us to re-read our goals before we look at any design concepts and acts as a nice reminder to make sure whatever we’re creating is aligning with those goals.
Step 03 – First Concepts
With the Creative Direction Presentation as my guide and my client’s approval, I start working on first logo concepts. This part of the process gets pretty messy as I let my creativity run wild. I want to create as freely as possible, testing out any idea that comes to me. Typically I’ll start with 2-3 general ideas or certain characteristics of the client that I want to focus on, then as I start cranking out ideas things may start to branch out a bit. Here’s a peek at what this looks like:
For Always Summer, our driving themes for their brand were the carefree spirit of summer and natural, organic textures found in their products. Their current logo had a bird and they wanted to see if we could update that, but were also open to trying new things. My first round of concepts was mainly centered around the bird mark and test some strong typography styles. Below you can check out the first round of concepts that I presented to them.
For this “First Concepts” presentation, I only show up to 3 options. I used to show more, but over time I’ve found that typically only 2 or 3 concepts feel really strong and it’s never worth it to show an idea that you aren’t totally confident in. But the most important part about this presentation is the description I write for each concept that explains my thought process and the deeper meaning behind it. I’ve found that many clients’ first reaction is to pick which concept they think looks the best based on their personal preference, but that’s not always the best choice for their business. Taking this extra step to write out the meaning behind each concept helps them understand the process a little better and look at the design through their audience’s eyes, which is who this is really for in the end, right? Most of my concept descriptions follow this type of prompt:
“This concept is inspired by ___________. The typography is ____________, giving the feeling of ____________, while the illustration is _____________. This concept could be translated to (a pattern, packaging examples, etc.) to be used throughout your brand. Your audience would view this concept as _______________. “
Since I’m only showing 3 concepts, I like to go ahead and show a couple variations of each one with a mini-mark and maybe a tagline, just to give the client a more clear idea of how each concept could expand as a full brand. I also only show things in black and white at this stage. I’ve found that when you introduce color early in the process, clients might unconsciously pick things solely based on their color. So to avoid that, I just leave color out of it completely until we’re close to choosing the final direction.
Step 04 – Refined Concepts
After presenting my first concepts, hopefully the client is able to narrow it down to 1-2 that they want to move forward with and see explored further. With their feedback, I start the refinement phase, making tweaks where needed and creating more of the full brand with typography, color and mockups.
Again, I always have a description for each concept, but at this stage I usually shorten it a little since the client already knows the meaning. For this project, the client really loved the typographic style from concept #2 of the First Concepts, but wasn’t sold on any of the bird marks. So for this Refined Concepts presentation, I worked on finding the perfect illustrative mark to go with it. Both options had beautiful meaning behind them. The first used a hand drawn bird with monsterra leaves for wings, merging the freeing, summery, organic themes of their store. The second idea used a circular mark with a rope-like texture, meant to represent 3 things – the sun, natural woven textures found in the store’s products, and a never ending summer. I gave each concept its own color scheme, one cool, one warm, and showed it next to some stock photos from Unsplash and mocked up how it could look on a bag.
** I allow 2 rounds of this refinement stage for my branding projects just in case the client wants to explore things further or can’t decide yet. I used to allow endless revisions, but you can imagine how that could be a problem sometimes. If we do a second refinement presentation and the client still wants to work on things more, I simply track my hours for any extra work and add that on to their final bill. But because I’m so intentional about explaining the meaning behind each concept, showing the depth of it, I’ve rarely had to go beyond the 2 rounds so far. 🙂
Step 05 – Final Proposal
Once we’ve settled on the final direction, I put everything together in a final proposal to give us a chance to review and make any little last minute tweaks before sending the client their final files! This final presentation summarizes everything we’ve created together, including all the pages from the Creative Direction, main logo, sub logos, color palette with color codes, typography, illustration and mockups. My hope is that this presentation feels like the view from the top of a mountain for my client – they can see everything all together, the meaning is there, the heart behind it is obvious, and it gives them a deep confidence in where their business is headed.
For this project, we did end up having a second round of refinements to perfect the sun concept. The client loved the meaning behind it, but the design of the sun was a little too crowded so we took the second round to soften things up, which worked out beautifully and that’s what you see here in their Final Proposal. They also needed a large window decal design for their store, so we got to play with illustration a lot and add that mockup in at the end of this presentation.
Once I get the final seal of approval, I send of all the final branding files for print and web use! To do that quickly, I create a file in Adobe Illustrator that has an artboard for each logo/mark in every brand color. Since each is on its own artboard, I can export them all at once by selecting Export > Export As > then select JPG, PNG, or EPS and make sure to check Use Artboards. I’ll organize all those files in folders like Logos for Print (CMYK), Logos for Print (Pantone), Logos for Web (RGB). Then I simply share the folder with the client via Dropbox so they can download all the items.
So there you have it! That’s what my branding process looks like from start to finish! It’s a messy process, but at the same time, there is intention and a strategy behind every step. It’s a lot to take in, but I think the biggest takeaway should be this – the deeper meaning and inspiration behind a design should always be at the forefront. In every single step, in every presentation, the meaning should be highlighted and celebrated. It’s the heart and soul that makes the design special and I want my client to be just as excited to share it with others as I am! It may seem a little repetitive to state the meaning over and over again, but I think it truly helps my clients understand the design process better and makes them appreciate the concept even more. So whether you’re a fellow designer or someone who wants to work with a designer, I hope this behind the scenes look at how I approach things has been helpful for you! If you have questions or just want to swap process stories, I’d love to hear them! 🙂