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The 12 Steps of the Design Process

The Graphic Design Process Explained: A Step-by-Step Guide

Graphic design
June 1, 2022
9 minutes

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Where does design come from? What is the logo design process? How is it possible that after days, if not weeks, of work, all that a graphic designer has to present is one simple visual? Let’s explain the design process step-by-step.

Nobody questions the manufacturers of physical products about their creative process. But somehow, creatives working in the digital sphere (designers, writers, even developers) are always grilled about their process and why something that looks like a matter of a few clicks or a bit of typing can take much longer to finalize.

What is the design process? Why does it take as long as it does? And what is the thinking behind it?

Strap on as we dive deep into these questions!

What is the design thinking process?

You may have heard the term floating around, but what exactly is design thinking?

In a nutshell, it’s creative problem-solving. It emphasizes viewing a specific problem in a broader context and providing custom-made solutions.

In the context of graphic design, design thinking ensures that each piece of design addresses a specific problem or has a clearly defined purpose. How about an example?

Everyone knows that you must be present on at least one social media channel to run a business online. But is it enough to just post anything simply to maintain your presence?

Without a strategy in place, you’ll quickly find yourself wasting time and resources. Implementing the design thinking process means that every social media graphic is created to push your agenda further.

And what’s the agenda again? As Simon Sinek famously explained, it’s the “why” of your business. In other words, the reason why you do what you do or how you are trying to address a specific problem for a defined group of people.

The design thinking process consists of these 5 steps:

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  • Empathize: Understand that certain people experience specific problems. Become invested in helping them.
  • Define: Figure out the specifics of the problem, such as scope, duration, and critical points.
  • Ideate: Generate some solution ideas. In graphic design, this is the creation of concepts.
  • Prototype: Create prototypes or drafts.
  • Test: In the context of graphic design, testing often means giving the drafts back to the clients and adding revisions. In some cases (e.g., landing pages), designs will be tested or presented to a peer group for review before revisions are requested.

As you can see, design thinking means you continuously repeat the process with new problems that you solve for clients. So, before we get into the specifics of the process of design, it’s essential to understand why we’re here in the first place.

The answer is design thinking, and every design process should start with this problem-solving methodology in mind. Recent research has confirmed that companies with a strong focus on design thinking outperform the industry benchmark by two to one.

So, if you want your design processes to be successful, get your design thinking mindset on. And if you want to have a smooth and effective design process, these are the steps to follow.

A 12-step guide to the design process

Now that you have the big picture, it’s time to get down to the details of the design process steps. No matter how simple or complicated a piece of design is, these are the necessary stages of developing a concept that fulfills the client’s needs and drives results.

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Step 1: Market research

If you’re a client wondering, “what is the design process, and why does it take so long” this is one obvious answer we can give you.

Despite what you may think, designers never start working on a project off a “creative hunch” or sudden epiphany. Before they even come close to opening up a design program, they have to understand who they are designing for.

And no, it’s not you, their client. Graphic design is made for a specific target audience, so they need to know about your buyer personas to deliver quality results. Of course, you can significantly speed up this part of the design process by providing them with your own market research findings.

However, they will still need to dig a little deeper into the graphic design side. They will look at what your competitors are doing and how you’ve previously communicated with your audience through visuals. Designers will then identify potential areas of improvement or significant trends in the industry.

Step 2: Get to know the client

Every business is unique, so it’s one of the most vital design process steps to understand what makes your design client different from their competition.

Usually, it’s a good idea to organize an interview. This is an opportunity for the designer to ask questions about your mission, vision, and values. Although it may seem like chitchat to you, it’s an incredible source of information for the designer.

Step 3: Define the problem

After they’ve grasped the big picture, it’s time to understand what you want them to do and why you need this design.

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Let’s say you’ve requested some versatile illustrations that you can use across the board. Pretty simple, right? However, here are some questions that your designer might ask you:

  • Where will the illustrations be used?
  • Have you used any illustrations before, and if yes, what were they?
  • Why haven’t you used illustrations before?
  • How can illustrations help your audience?
  • What problem(s) are you trying to solve by incorporating illustrations into your designs?

It’s possible that you haven’t even thought this through yourself. However, brainstorming on these questions together is one of the most crucial design process steps, as it can also help you create a quality design brief.

Step 4: Analyze the creative brief

You’ve done your part and provided the designer with all the information they need to start designing. So now they jump right into the work, correct?

Not quite yet. First, a designer needs to study the brief carefully to spot potential inconsistencies with the previously defined problem or the general direction of your brand.

Truthfully, it’s not the longest of the design process steps, but it is valuable for helping you to establish the optimal workflow.

Step 5: Set up a timeline & agree on deliverables

We’re almost ready for the creative part, I promise. But if celebrity marriages have taught us anything, it’s that setting up expectations is beneficial for everyone involved.

If you’re creating a contract with the designer, this is the time to do it. The contract should include any hard or soft deadlines and the key deliverables in the design process. You might also want to specify how and how often your designer should report on the ETA (estimated delivery time).

Step 6: Create a mood board

Finally, we come to the step where a designer is “off to work.” Creating a moodboard helps a designer visually take in everything they’d previously researched and learned. They compile examples of design from your competition and graphics that match your style or needs.

Of course, mood boards are never a compilation of just one medium. Many designers also create physical moodboards where they can include textured materials, while others prefer to keep things digital and include materials such as videos or GIFs.

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In any case, it’s that final brainstorming step before a designer can grab their sketchbook or open up a design software and start developing the concept and first draft.

Step 7: Develop a concept

Ok, this is it. The designer will finally create a piece of design. Bear in mind that this will only be a very rough draft in most cases.

If you find yourself googling “what is the logo design process,” then this is the step to note. A quality designer will be able to tick all the boxes with different visual solutions. So, it’s your task to choose whichever you think is best or simply the one you like better.

Although there’s much more to it than that, design is subjective, so you shouldn’t ignore your gut instinct.

Step 8: Get feedback

If you feel a designer is incessantly bugging you with questions - there’s a good chance you’ve come across a terrific one.

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This suggests that they are eager to move in the right direction and avoid delays and multiple revisions later. As a result, the designer will likely be able to stick to the agreed workflow and deliver results promptly.

Of course, it’s not unheard of that even with clients and designers doing their part, a project is still overhauled entirely mid-way. But the chances of that happening are minor if you study the concept correctly and provide actionable feedback.

Step 9: Start designing

Hooray! The designer finally gets to work! So now you must be wondering: what is the design process like in a single working day?

Naturally, there’s no straightforward answer here, as it greatly depends on the person and project at hand.

With over 125k projects under our wings, here’s what we estimate our designers at our unlimited design company will deliver within 1 day:

  • 2-3 social media graphics
  • or 1-2 custom illustrations (more if they are not too complex)
  • or 2-3 display ads
  • or 4-5 pages of a brochure, e-book, report, or slide deck
  • or 1 GIF draft (2-3 sec)
  • or 1-2 flyers
  • or 1 logo draft
  • or the first draft of a landing page

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Of course, bear in mind that our designers usually work with 2-3 clients at a time. So if a designer is working exclusively for you, this output should be doubled.

On the other hand, freelancers probably deliver results at a similar pace since they usually manage a few clients simultaneously.

Step 10: Review

Before submitting work for the client to review, professional designers will establish a process of internal quality control and assurance.

In simple terms, quality assurance is determining whether a design meets the specified requirements.

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This can mean checking things like:

  • adherence to the creative brief;
  • observance of brand guidelines & fundamental design principles;
  • submission of all required file formats;
  • copywriting & spellcheck.

The latter isn’t necessarily within the scope of service of a designer, but it does show a level of professionalism that is usually expected.

Step 11: Make revisions

The designer has now submitted the first draft for review. The next step in the design process is for clients to provide their two cents and request revisions.

No matter how well you try to define design process steps, there will almost always be room for some tweaks. Luckily, if you have followed the proper course of the design process so far, the alternations should be minor.

In this case, the trickiest part of this process step is finding a way to communicate your views. If you’re not physically in the same room as a designer, moving something “a little to the left” might take several tries.

You can always record a video on a platform like Loom. Or, you might ask the designer to provide you with a format you can work with. For example, you might be able to leave comments on a PDF more easily, or even a source file of some sort if you have the necessary design program.

Ideally, you can find a way to leave comments directly on the design. Some platforms for collaborative design might allow you to do this.

Step 12: Deliver the final result

Twelve steps later and the design is finalized. The client has given their final approval, so all left for the designer is to pour themselves that well-deserved glass of wine. Not quite.

Wrapping up everything neatly is the last of the design steps, but one no professional designer will ignore. Usually, they should submit all of the source files and the ready-to-use file formats such as JPG, PNG, or PDF. All the files should be named appropriately, especially if designers submit older or alternative project versions.

An extra, albeit optional step, is for the designer and client to arrange a short meeting and discuss the project. This step is usually a necessary part of the design thinking process, as it paves the way for future collaboration and moving on to the next problem that needs tackling.

Final word

We hope this gives you a better idea of what a layered process graphic design is. If you’re a design client, remember a lot is going on behind the scenes for a single visual to be produced.

If you feel that the design is taking too long, go back to these steps and figure out what could have realistically been completed. Alternatively, approach your designer directly and inquire about the stage of the process that they’re at.

If you’d like to learn more about how our design company handles this process, check out this article. In it, we explain how we’ve automated design briefs and made the design process easier for our clients.

You can also discover more about our quality assurance processes that help us make sure each piece of design, whether the first or final draft, meets expectations and high professional standards.

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Danica Popovic

June 1, 2022

Having lived and studied in London and Berlin, I'm back in native Serbia, working remotely and writing short stories and plays in my free time. With previous experience in the nonprofit sector, I'm currently writing about the universal language of good graphic design. I make mix CDs and my playlists are almost exclusively 1960s.