So You Want to Hire a Designer: The Design Process

I recently started working with two new clients, both of whom had never worked with a graphic designer, design firm or ad agency before. In working with them, I’m finding a need to educate them on the design process.

So I thought I’d outline that process for entrepreneurs and small business owners so that they’d know what to expect if and when they needed to hire a designer. Note that this is a general outline, and every designer/agency will have its own process for completing projects.

Once you’ve selected a designer, determined the scope of your project and negotiated a contract and schedule (how to do that in a future blog), you’ll start by downloading your ideas to the designer (or account exec).

Typically this is a face-to-face meeting, but sometimes for smaller projects, or if you’ve been working with the designer for a while it could be over the phone or via email.

This is the time to get everything on the table – every idea you have for the project, every expectation, your target customer, your goals, etc. If you like blue and hate orange, make it known. If you love what the competition’s doing, let them know. The more information your designer has at the beginning, the more likely you’re going to get a design solution that’s on target, on schedule, and on budget. Not to mention one that you love.

This is also the time to provide the designer with any materials you might have for the project including digital versions of your logo, any photography or illustration you want incorporated into the project, copy, and any previously produced projects that the new project might need to coordinate with.

After the download, the designer will head ‘to the drawing board’ and begin creating ‘thumbnails’ or initial concepts. (Back in the day before computers, designers would sketch out rough ideas for clients to approve before creating mock-ups. Now that nearly everything is digital, only the terminology remains.) This typically takes between 2 days and 2 weeks, depending on the scope of the project and the schedule previously negotiated.

Once complete, the designer will present the initial concepts to the client. At this time the client will make comments, green light a project, or send it back to the designer for revisions, which could be major or minor. Again, allow between 2 days and 2 weeks for turnaround.

The designer will then incorporate the client’s comments, flesh out the design or concept and present the client with a finished concept or concepts. At this point the client may make edits and changes before sending the project into production. Typically these are minor, but sometimes the scope of the project changes or the company’s business needs change and it may be necessary to go back to the concept stage at this phase. Keep in mind that major changes at this stage may incur large surcharges.

Next, the project goes into production. Outside illustrators or photographers get hired, stock images may be purchased, and digital files are created. This will take anywhere between 2 days and 3 weeks.

Once initial production is complete, final files are sent to the client for review. At this stage the client should only have minor copy edits, or may want to swap out photographs. Keep in mind that any major changes at this stage (“I’d like all the products shot on red backgrounds instead of blue”) will likely be prohibitively expensive.

The client will then sign off on the project with any comments or edits they may have, and the designer will then implement all final edits. (This typically takes between 1 day to 1 week.)

The client will then have one more opportunity to check to see that all the changes that were requested were made before the project goes to press (print projects) or live (web projects).

Sometimes for print projects the client will also go to press checks, including ‘blue line’ (where the client gets to check that what was sent in digital format is what’s going on press, as well as checking that binding, folds and cutting are correct) and 1st and second ‘color’ (where, rather obviously, you proof for color).

Finally, the project gets delivered to the client. If the client is purchasing their own printing, the project may be delivered in digital format to the client, or directly to the printer. If the client has the designer purchase printing, the final printed pieces will be delivered. Likewise for web design – files may be delivered to the client for posting, or the designer may upload them to the server for the client.