Whether you are a fashion designer, textile designer, graphic designer, website designer, architect, writer, painter, entrepreneur, you get it… almost everything starts with an idea.
Actually, in this case one idea is not enough as your first idea may not be your best idea. So the Concept Stage of any graphic design job is to generate and present those ideas - which I prefer to call ‘directions’ - and to do that takes the following three step process.
As a quick note, I differentiate graphic design concepts from digital design concepts such as websites or apps which are handled slightly differently, see more under Website Design.
So the Graphic Design Concept Process
This first stage is collecting information, making a quasi-scrapbook of everything that might help stem the right sort of ideas. These days it is more often than not done as desk research via Google, Pinterest, etc
Small rant….which Is why I believe we are starting to see quite an identikit design aesthetic as trends wax and wane. In fact for those worried about their jobs being replaced by AI, this desk bound generic approach is a sure way to aid that as ‘clever’ robots can easily research online and design in a ‘similar’ vein to the current trend. Companies like Netflix that create mass banner ads already do just that. So I would advise; keep your job, be original, moving away from the safe place behind your screen and get fresh ideas from an external location or two adding to the the imaginary scrapbook with photos taken on your phone
It is of course important that this research is firmly hinged to the initial briefing or design discovery meeting with the client.
Back at my desk, or if I have too many ideas starting to bubble up from the research I jot them down there and then or rush into a cafe. One time recently I even had to dictate to my ten year old daughter as I drove just in case the flow of inspiration got lost in the everyday.
Scribbling all the thoughts that have arisen from my research into my sketchpad I start to formulate ideas, these scribbles are both drawings and writing, and usually fill a couple of pages.
Start to circle any ‘good enough’ ones - they usually fall into idea’ categories’ ie, scribbles on the same theme, so group these as one and number them making sure there are at least five or more ideas that can be coaxed into concepts.
Personally I will now stop, take a break, then brainstorm one more set of ideas. This is not easy, the first set comes thick and fast and you feel have exhausted all avenues - so these need to come from somewhere else in your brain. A bit like meditation; clear your brain of all previous thoughts, don’t let them creep in, make space for new possibilities. Perhaps do this another day, I find when I am running works too as we all know staring at a blank sheet of paper has a habit of acting as a brain eraser! There is ‘nothing’ to begin with and then suddenly a gush of further ideas come through and they could include ‘the one’. Add them to the pot.
Great, draw a line under this process ready to move to concepts at your next working session, or I just grab a coffee, tidy my creative mess and get my laptop out.
For certain projects I will write up these ideas to discuss with my client before moving on to the concept stage where I will then only work up one or two directions. This is usually the case for campaigns or promotional material.
Stage One - for presentation
The dictionary says it is an ‘abstract idea’ or ‘plan or intention’ so the plan or intention is not to have any finished designs here - whether that be a logo, packaging, marketing flyer - but enough that your client can understand the direction.
I will start in black and white so that the colour does not immediately draw attention away from the concept, dropping in colour swatches and ideas of typefaces, these elements get further exploration in stage two then worked up in the Artworking Stage. Right now I want to get my ideas across, so using my digital tools, such as illustrator, photoshop or indesign. I will work up the scribbled ideas to a state that is (I hope!) visually understandable.
How many concepts to present to a client?
Branding: 5-10 concepts
Promotional material: 1-2 concepts
Packaging: 2-3 concepts
Brochures: 1 concept
Websites: 1 concept
When ready to present your concepts lay them out on A4 or A3 pages - give them space, let them shine - two more sheets of paper is not going to deplete the rain forest but will give each idea more of a chance. So one idea per page, which in some cases could include a couple of variations, centred nicely bathing in space.
Depending on size of project I tend to present the first ideas in person with print outs. Although this can be done via conf/video call too.
I agree that your design should ‘speak for itself’ but everyone is busy, and will not have opened their mind to the nuances of the concepts or remember the output of the design discovery meeting, but instead may stare blankly at some pages of colour probably thinking about their next meeting. So don’t leave this to chance.
Before you present reference each concept against the initial brief. What is it in that logo/flyer/packaging that embodies your client’s business, aspiration and goal? Go into every curve, colour and impression bringing these flat shapes to life with emotional resonance and present them with pride.
Stage Two - for feedback
One of the concepts may create a ‘bingo’ moment but more likely it channels a ‘direction’ to be further explored. So this three step process is carried out again with just the one ‘direction’ firming up the design and bringing in the colour and typeface elements.
What if it all goes wrong?
Off the mark
If a design discovery meeting, meeting has been carried out or a detailed brief provided, the design meets the goals of that brief and each aspect can be explained as to the relevance then it is rare not to have at least one direction that hits the mark on stage one presentation. However, if this is not the case then I recommend another meeting with the client (at a different date, as judgement can be clouded if they have just seen lots of designs they felt not representative) to go through the design discovery again. Now that we know what they don't like you will be surprised at the different angle that comes out. Take this and start the concept process once more - remember every challenge is an opportunity to improve your designs - so deep breaths, stay positive; managing relationships is just as important as the designs themselves.
Feedback loops are an area that can get extended way over budget, so be clear in your quotation how many feedback loops you intend to carry out for the price you have quoted. Of course you can be flexible; the project may be running smoothly or you are still in overall budget, but should a problem arise you are then in a position to discuss where it lies and if more money should be charge.
Costing a job
To quote for a new graphic design project based on the above process, look to cover the following stages:
Discovery workshop - to get to the bottom of what the visual aspect needs to embody
Concepts - some pages of loose ideas to discuss
Design - work up of one direction
(Layouts - for flyers, packaging, etc, adding content)
Feedback - up to two rounds
Final Artwork - required media files, colour and typeface palette
Abi Fawcus is a freelance UX Consultant, Website Designer, Logo Designer and Graphic Designer based in Woodbridge, Suffolk. Contact me for more information.