Guide to the graphic design process
Find out what to expect when working with a graphic designer and stay on track for a successful project with our step-by-step guide.
Step 1) Write your brief
The design process starts with a brief. The brief is the foundation stone for the whole design project. The brief should cover the what, who, how, and most importantly why of the piece of design work.
What – what is it? A poster? A brochure? A social media graphic? If you don’t know for sure yet, that’s all right, as your answers to these other questions will help the designer suggest formats that might work well for what you want to achieve.
Who – who is the product aimed at? For example you can think about different audiences in terms of their relationship to you, such as current customers or new potential customers; in terms of their interests and motivations; in terms of social groups and demographics, such as ‘students’ or ‘new parents’; or in terms of their role, such as a stock buyer or reviewer.
How – how will the item be used? e.g. A one-off poster campaign around campus? A booklet distributed as part of a campaign pack? A graphic shared on Twitter? Signage in a public area? Think about where and when the product will be used, seen, or read.
Why – what will this piece of design work help you achieve? What is its purpose? Why do you need it?
Tip: If you’ve already got an idea of what size and format you would like your product to be (for example an A5 size booklet with 16 pages) let the designer know if there’s a specific reason for this, or if it just feels right. If you don’t know yet that’s fine!
Tip: If your target audience is ‘everyone’ or ‘the general public’ that doesn’t tell the designer what they need to know! Try and prioritise all the different groups that your product is aimed at.
Tip: Your ‘why’ is often to get your target audience – your ‘who’ – to do something.
What else to include in your design brief
The brief is also where you can share other useful information with the designer, including:
- Problems you may have encountered before and feel weren’t fully resolved, or potential conflict in the brief. For instance, ‘we want to make the most of our history, but also come across as contemporary’; or ‘we want this to be right for secondary school students, but also accessible for teachers and older audiences’.
- Practical information about your budget, the likely print run, and your schedule for the project. When do you need the finished product
- Would you like your designer to source photographs or illustration as part of your project? Let them know in the brief.
- Any thoughts you have about what the look and feel of the product should be. Think about words that describe the ‘tone’ or character of the work; for instance, scholarly, friendly, formal, dynamic, inspiring, inviting, modern, established. How should the product ‘feel’? Luxurious, functional, contemporary, traditional?
- Examples of other similar pieces of design work from your organisation or other organisations that you think work very well – or don’t work at all!
If you don’t feel confident writing the brief you can have a conversation with the designer first and they can send you notes about what you discussed.
Make sure you get your brief signed off by everyone who needs to approve it in your organisation before you send it to the designer. Some things will change as the project goes on, but it helps to make sure that everyone is agreed on the really important bits – what, who, how, and why – at the outset.
Tip: If you are including examples of work take a minute to think about why you like or don’t like them, or why they work or don’t work.
How do they make you feel? What do they remind you of? What do they make you think of the organisation that made them?
Think about the colours, the texture, the layout, the typeface. Don’t be embarrassed if you struggle to find the right words, the designer can help you.
Step 2) Have a conversation
After the designer has received your brief they will have more questions and things they need to clarify. They might already have ideas and examples they want to share with you and see what you think. And you will probably have questions too!
If possible sit down together in person and have a conversation, if not put aside some time for a phone or screen call to talk through the brief together and check that you are both on the same page.
It is also very helpful for the designer if at this stage you can supply them with some sample text from the product and a selection of images.
Step 3) Agree your schedule
Discuss your project schedule with your designer and agree the key milestones and deadlines.
Think about anything that might affect the progress of the project. For example are there any points where you will be unavailable? When will the final text and images be ready? How long will you need at each stage to make sure everyone who needs to can see and comment on the proof?
Tip: Build in some extra time on the schedule if you can, to allow for any unforeseen problems. In particular, gathering comments from colleagues can take a lot longer than expected.
Step 4) Review and comment on visuals
After you have had an in-depth conversation about the project the designer will send you some initial ideas, often referred to as visuals, design routes, or concepts.
Even if they look a lot like the finished product the visuals are just an illustration of what the finished product might look like, so don’t worry if they’re not perfect!
The designer will need to know what you think of the different ideas and which one you would like to go ahead with.
Tip: Remember that quality design is about what will be effective as well as what looks good. Even if something isn’t exactly your taste it might be perfect for your audience.
Sometimes design can be counterintuitive, for example including some empty space on a page may make it more likely that someone will read it than if the page is full of text.
Step 5) Develop visuals further
Work with the designer to develop the visuals you prefer into the design that you would like to use.
If there isn’t one route that you are very happy with it’s ok to ask for something different, or to ask for changes to the route or concept you most prefer. The designer wants to work with you to make sure it’s absolutely right.
However please keep in mind that developing extra routes or concepts takes extra time, which might affect your schedule or the project budget.
Step 6) Agree the design
Make sure you get the preferred route or concept agreed by everyone who needs to approve it in your organisation before you give the designer a green light to work it up into a proof.
Remember that all designs should be in line with your organisational brand guidelines. Your designer will try and work within those guidelines, but if your organisation has a ‘brand champion’ who needs to check things over make sure they take a look before it is finalised.
Step 7) Send the designer all the content
Before the designer can produce the first proof they will need all the text and images you have agreed to supply them with, and a flat plan or detailed list of contents. Please proofread the text before you send it as making changes later will take time, which may end up costing you money.
This is also the time to let the designer know exactly what files you will need at the end of the process. Do you need PDFs or PNG files? What dimensions and resolutions should image files be? (This is especially helpful for making sure images are ready to use on social media or on your website).
Step 8) Give feedback on the first proof
Once the design route has been agreed and all the content – the words and images – have been received the designer will fully develop the concept and apply it to the item being produced.
If there is a lot of text (for example in a book or newsletter) it will take them some extra time to add all this in, making sure it fits comfortably on the page, that images are placed correctly, that pull quotes are in the right places.
When the item is ready for you to check the designer will send you the first proof as a PDF file or a printed copy. A proof is a visual representation of what your finished product will look like.
At this point the designer needs your feedback on the proof. It should be close to the finished article, so this stage is for tweaks and amendments rather than big changes or new concepts.
The more detailed feedback you can give, the better. If you don’t like something, or think something doesn’t work, try and explain why. Feel free to ask the designer questions. You might find it’s easiest to write or draw on a printed copy of the proof and send a photo to the designer – that’s fine!
If several people in your organisation will be giving feedback on the proof it’s very helpful if you can gather all of their comments in one place as it’s likely that more than one person will make the same point, or perhaps even make contradictory points that you will need to resolve (with the designer’s help).
You may need to go back and forth a little with the designer to decide what changes you’d like them to make. Once agreed, they will work through the list of amendments and send you a second proof.
Tip: The designer might ask you specific questions, please take time to answer these. They wouldn’t ask if they didn’t need to know, and they are trying to produce the best possible design for you.
Step 9) Second proofs
Similar to the first proof but even closer to the final product, at this stage only small changes and corrections should be needed. If more substantial changes are needed talk to the designer about how long they might need and how this will affect the cost.
Step 10) Sign off the final version
Once the last changes have been made the designer will send you a final proof, which represents the version that will be printed or published.
Make sure you check the final proof carefully. Any mistakes missed at this stage could be costly if the item is being printed, and of course it means waiting longer for your item to be ready. It’s often helpful to ask a colleague to check the proof as well, as they may spot something you have missed.
Step 11) Get your final files
Once you have signed off the final proof the designer will prepare the file as a high resolution PDF for print or a PNG/JPG file for social media or online applications.
When you receive a high resolution PDF it will have a lot of white space around the edge and two lines in the corner of each page. The lines are called ‘cropmarks’ and the big margin is to show where the ‘bleed’ will be.
Don’t worry about these as they won’t be visible in the finished product, they are just to provide important information for the printer.
Tip: Even if the final proof looks perfect it will be too low resolution to print from, and will be missing printers’ marks.