Starting Your Project on the Right Foot (and Keeping It There)

I’m not sure if anything is as terrifying as beginning a new design project. I often spend hours trying to find the best initial footing in a design, so I’ve been working hard to improve my process, particularly for the earliest stages of a project. I want to smooth out the bumps that disrupt my creative momentum and focus on the emotional highs and lows I experience, and then try to minimize the lows and ride the highs as long as possible.

Design is often a struggle broken up by blissful moments of creative clarity that provide valuable force to move your work forward. Momentum is a powerful tool in creative work, and it’s something we don’t always maximize when we’re working because of the hectic nature of our field. Obviously, every designer is going to have a different process, but I thought I’d share some of the methods I’ve begun to adopt. I hope this will spark a conversation among designers who are interested in looking at process in a new way.

Jump-starting a project

I cannot overstate the importance of immersing yourself in design and collecting ample amounts of inspiration when beginning a project. I make it a daily practice to visit a handful of sites (Dribbble, Graphic Exchange, Web Creme, siteInspire, Designspiration, and others) and save any examples of design that I like. I then sort them into general categories (publication design, illustration, typography, web design, and so on). Enjoying a bit of fresh design every day helps me absorb it and analyze why it’s effective instead of just imitating it. 

Many designers are afraid to look at too much design for fear that they’ll be tempted to copy it, but I feel a steady influx of design inspiration reduces that possibility. You’re much more likely to take the easy way out and rip off a design if you’re scrambling for inspiration after getting stuck. If you are immersed in design from a variety of mediums, you’ll engage your creative brain on multiple levels and have an easier time creating something unique for your project. Looking at good design will not make you a good designer but it will make you a better designer.

Design is design

Try not to limit your visual research to the medium you’re working in. Websites, books, posters and packaging all have their own unique limitations and challenges, and any one of those characteristics could be useful to you. Posters need to grab the viewer and pass on a small tidbit of information; packaging needs to encourage physical interaction; and websites need to encourage exploration. If you know the challenges you’ll be facing, you will know where to look for design that tackles those same problems.

I find it refreshing to look at design from the turn of the nineteenth century, when type was laid out on objects without thought to aesthetics. Many vintage packages break all sorts of modern design rules, and looking at that kind of work is a great way to spark your creativity. Pulling yourself out of the box and away from the rules of what you’re working on can reveal solutions that are innovative and unique. After a little finessing, the warning label text from a 1940s hazardous chemical box from could have the exact type and icon arrangement you need for your project. There’s a massive pool of design to pull from that doesn’t have the limitations the web has, and exploring those design worlds will help you grow your own repertoire.

If all else fails, start with the footer

The very beginning of a project is the most frustrating point in a project for me. I’m trying to figure out typeface combinations, colors and the overall voice of the design, and until I find the right solutions, I’m a wreck. I’ve found often that my frustration stems from trying to solve too many problems at once. The beginning of a project has a lot of moving targets, nearly endless possible solutions, and constantly changing variables. You’ll knock out one problem only to discover your solution doesn’t jive with something you worked out earlier — you end up designing in circles.

If you find yourself getting stuck at the beginning of a website design, try working out one specific element of the site and see what emerges. I’m going to recommend the footer. Why? Footers can easily be ignored in a design or become a dumping ground for items that couldn’t be worked into the main layout. But, at the start of most projects, the minimum content requirements for the footer are usually established. There needs to be a certain number of links, social media buttons, copyright details, a search bar, and so on. It’s a self-contained item within the design that has a specific purpose, and that’s a great element to focus on when you’re stuck in a design. Colors, typefaces, link styles, input fields and buttons can all be sketched out from just the footer. It’s a very flexible element that can be as prominent or subtle as you want, and it’s a solid starting point for setting the tone and style of a site.

Save the details

Designers love details. I love details. But don’t let nitpicking early on in your process kill your creative momentum. Design is an emotional process, and being frustrated or defeated by a tricky problem or a graphical detail you just can’t nail down can deflate your creative energies. If you hit a roadblock, set it aside and tackle another piece of the project. As you spend time engaged in a design, the style you develop will evolve according to the needs of the content, and you might arrive naturally at a solution that will work perfectly for the problem that had you stuck before. 

If I find myself working on one particular element for more than a half an hour without any clear movement, I shelve it. Designers often wear their obsessive detail-oriented tendencies as a badge of honor, but there’s a difference between making the design better and wasting time. If you’ve spent hours nudging elements around pixel by pixel and can’t settle on something, it probably means what you’re doing isn’t making a huge improvement on the design. Don’t be afraid to let it lie and come at it again with fresh eyes. You will be better equipped to tackle the finer points of a project once you’ve got the broad strokes defined.

Have a plan when you start and stop designing

We all know that creativity isn’t something you can turn on effortlessly, and it’s easy to forget the emotional process that goes along with design. If you leave a project in a place of frustration, it’s going to stay with you in your free time and affect you negatively, like a dark cloud of impending disaster. Try to end each design session with a victory, a small bit of definable progress that you can take with you in your downtime. Even something as small as finding the right opacity for the interior shadow on the search bar in the header of the site is a win. Likewise, when you return to a project after a break, it can be difficult to get the ball rolling on the design again if you set it down without a clear path for the next steps. I find that I work on details best when I’m returning from downtime, when I’m fresh and re-energized and ready to dig in again. Try to pick out at least one element you’d like to fine-tune when you are winding down in a design session and use it to kick-start your next session.

Content is king

I would argue there is nothing more crucial to the success of a design than having the content defined from the outset. Designing without content is similar to designing without an audience, and designing with vague ideas of content types and character limits is going to result in a muted design that doesn’t reach its full potential. Images and language go hand in hand with design, and can take a design from functional to outstanding if you have them available from the outset. We don’t always have the luxury of having content to build a design around, but fight for it whenever you can. For example, if the site you are designing is full of technical jargon, your paragraphs might need a longer line length to accommodate the longer words being used. 

Often, working with content will lead to design solutions you wouldn’t have come to otherwise. Design speaks to content, and content speaks to design. Lorem ipsum doesn’t speak to anyone (unless you know Latin, in which case, congratulations!).

Every project has its own set of needs, and every designer has his or her own method of working. There’s obviously no perfect process to design, and being dogmatic about process can be just as harmful as not having one. Exposing yourself to new design and new ways of designing is an easy way to test your skills and grow. When things are hard and you can’t get any momentum going on a design, this is when your skill set is truly challenged. We all hope to get wonderful projects with great assets and ample creative possibilities, but you won’t always be so blessed, and this is when the quality of your process is really going to shine.

About the author

Bethany Heck is a designer working in (famously hot) Columbia, SC at the fabulous web design firm known as Cyberwoven. She went to Auburn University, and she’s telling you this because it’s got the best design program in the country. She is resisting the urge to be clever in her bio. She runs the Eephus League of Baseball Minutiae (she’s really into sports) and shares her latest work on Dribbble.

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