Getting a Handle on Design Workflow

By Steve Bain

workflowWhen approaching virtually any Web, graphic, or layout design project, there’s a common workflow you can use that will progressively and successfully steer you from the idea or concept stage through to delivering the final product.

Design workflow is a relatively logical process which starts by identifying a specific goal, continues by following a sequence of organization and production stages, and ends with delivering your product to the right market, at the right time, and in the right way. It’s a process that applies regardless of which tools you happen to use or which creative space you happen to work in. Whether you’re a seasoned graphic designer or just starting out, the brief journey I’ll guide you through next will help you get from A to Z, with the least amount of hassle.


Define your Purpose

Establishing a purpose for your design will give you an idea where you are headed, and will provide a way to know when you’ve arrived. Even before you visualize the great design you’re about to create, you need to answer a few questions to help focus your ideas. Start by jotting down a list of the goals you need your design to accomplish:

  • Will your design sell or promote a product or cause, provide information, or entertain a specific audience (or perhaps all these)?
  • Are you designing a single-use item, or will involve continuous re-publishing? How will your design benefit those who see it?
  • How will you measure your success?

Research the Field

Some experts say research is one of the most important precursors to any design. If the purpose of your design is to promote a product or service that competes with others, take some time to evaluate what your design will be up against. Define how your design will improve on what’s already been done. Evaluate your design audience and determine how your design will appeal to their specific interests or needs. List your audiences’ demographics such as gender, age, marital status, income, culture, literacy and so on-but don’t stop there. Define their preferred styles, humor, interests, likes and dislikes.

Create an Action Plan

With a clear mission and a targeted audience in mind, the next step is to determine how your design will be produced and how it will reach the audience.

  • Is this a print or Web product, or both? Decide on a budget and develop your plan to work within it.
  • Will your design be a purchased publication or periodical or is it a freebie?
  • Will it be sold into retail channels or accompany another product or service?

If your design is a purchased product, you’ll need to create a marketing plan which can be a rather involved process, and you’ll find the business section of most bookstores and libraries overflowing with resource material on this subject. If your design is a give-away, determine exactly how it will be distributed.

Develop a schedule if needed. If your design needs to be ready for distribution on a specific date, your design stages should be planned out and deadline dates should be set. If all the stages must fit within a recurring time frame, you’ll need to plan workflow dates based on time intervals. Either way, the time points must be realistic based on your available resources and budget.

Decide on a Format

Whether your design is a simple newsletter or a product package, you’ll need to choose a format as the first step in your creative process. Format involves how the design is bundled, such as its physical size, length, and folding and/or binding method. Especially for print, choose a format that fits within your budget, and consider any limitations such as manufacturing and/or distribution. Consider how your audience will use your design and tailor it to fit those needs. Be sure the material fits your design’s use. Should (or could) you use specialized materials (such as heavy or light paper, plastic, translucent, waterproof, or recycled material)?

As you consider your design format, be conscious of how the content you intend to use will flow and fit the available space.

  • Will your design require a complex layout, custom folding, non-standard stitching, hand-gluing, die cut holes, spiral binding, perforations, or other special treatments?
  • Will the reproduction process be entirely mechanical or does it involve manual intervention?
  • If your design is distributed by hand (by mail) or machine (by the Web), does it conform to limitations or restrictions?

Answering these questions will help you determine a format for your design.

Choose a Style

Your design’s style will determine how your content is expressed and how your audience interprets it. Your research will help you determine what appeals to your audience. Content, color and tone, image, typeface, material, and format all play a part in defining the style of your design. Be absolutely certain your design style caters to your audience. Keep in mind that if your audience shops at Tiffany’s, they may not be inclined to bargain hunt at Kmart (or vice versa).

With a style and format established, it’s also wise to create a physical prototype of your design with sample content roughed in. This will help you (and perhaps your design client) visualize the final product and serve as a template for the assembly and reproduction processes.

Choose Your Tools

Today’s design tools offer near limitless boundaries, and there certainly are many to choose from. What will you use to produce your design? Will you use a computer, or more simple tools? If a computer is used, what will your platform be and what software applications will you use? Choose software and a computer system with enough latitude to accommodate your future needs.

  • Will your layout software be compatible with your illustration or photo-editing programs?
  • Will your computer files be portable and/or compatible with other processes down the production line?
  • If you intend your design to be entirely digital, will you need to scan logos, illustrations and/or photographs?

If your design calls for illustrations and/or photographs, be sure they are prepared in the correct format for your final reproduction processes (i.e. ink colors, resolution, and size).

Collect and Compose Your Content

Getting good content into your design is another critical step in the process. Quality content can endure a poor design, but even the best design will suffer from poorly prepared content. Hire experienced professionals if your budget allows. Establish use of writers’ guidelines in the form of a style guide or style manual for the written text. For visuals, use only quality and properly prepared photographs and/or illustrations. Be sure the content you use will survive any legal challenges such as copyright infringement. This should include releases from writers, photographers, and/or illustrators in written legal agreement form. If you don’t have these yet, this is stage where you’ll need them.

If you’re creating a design for a regularly published periodical, develop a formula to control the content mix based on the length of the publication. Balance regular news, reviews, columns, and editorials with special features. A formula will also help balance the actual content your audience is after with potential advertising.

Illustrate Your Message

A picture can be worth a thousand words, and illustrations often communicate more effectively than pictures. Good quality visual elements will provide graphic relief in a layout, enhance a design, and offer design flexibility. Use pictures or illustrations that arouse your audiences’ curiosity and/or provide visual simulation. Consider the value in using information graphics such as maps, charts, and/or diagrams.

If your budget doesn’t allow for custom illustrations or photography (and you haven’t the talent or time to do it yourself), consider using a stock image or clip art service. Charts and diagrams nearly always need to be custom prepared, but generic royalty-free maps can often be purchased in digital form. Avoid the trap of decorating your design with silly graphics. There is nothing more obvious and unprofessional than using an unrelated graphic simply to fill a space.

Putting It All Together

This next stage can either be a mechanical or a creative process, depending on the type of design you’re creating and its mission or purpose. It’s also where the design steps you’ve completed so far factor together. Using the tools you’ve selected, apply your style choices to your content. Use your format parameters to create a content space and begin your layout. If you’re not performing the layout yourself, be sure to hand over your design’s prototype, specifications, style, format, and your schedule guidelines to the layout professional. The layout process should be flexible without straying from (too far) from the design objectives you’ve established. Once the layout is complete, read, measure, and proof the final product. Then, read it again or if your budget allows, hire a professional proofreader and incorporate any corrections.

Hire a Printer

Although you can search out a prospective printer at virtually any stage in your design process, at this point you’ll have all the information you need to answer any possible questions a print vendor may have. What they’ll need to know is the exact size, length, color, stock (print material), binding, and quantity, plus any special processes such as stuffing, gluing, trimming, folding, cutting, bundling-and any other information you can provide to them. It will save time if you can provide a written description and an actual proof of the design as a sample of the final product. Ask the printer to provide a quote (a price they’ll stick to based on the information you provide) in writing. Quotes from at least three printers is usually enough to provide a good range of prices.

Before you commit to a printer, ask to see samples of their work. If possible, contact their previous customers directly and investigate the print vendor’s track record for providing customer service, quality printing, and adhering to your deadlines.

Prepare, Print, and Check Your Final Product

With a final layout prepared, you’re nearing the final stages. If your design is being printed and the printer you hired requires final output of the layout and/or color-accurate proofs, you’ll need to provide these (perhaps using a service bureau) although many printers do offer this service. During printing, you may be required to approve color inks on site -a step known as press proofing – to ensure the printed ink colors match you’re the specs of your design. Match ink colors to physical color swatches based on the colors you’ve designed with.

With the reproduction processes complete, take time to proof random copies of the final product before it goes into distribution. Proof the content carefully and investigate any quality-related printing issues such as ink coverage, density, registration, and so on Finding content, layout or printing errors at this point is not the most convenient time, but it’s much less costly to reprint errors than it is to catch errors after your design has gone into distribution.

Distribute Your Design

For some designs, the previous step is the last. For others, it may be just the beginning of a long and involved process. There are so many ways a design can be distributed these days; following a single defining checklist to cover all bases likely wouldn’t help. But if you’re planning a distribution method, consider that mailing, emailing, and/or Web publishing are often the most common and efficient ways. If your design is being mailed, you may need to hire a mailing service and provide them with mailing labels and/or a mailing list. Investigate the possibility that your design product may be eligible for a preferred postal rate.

This brief checklist by no means comprehensive for all types of design, but it will help you grasp the various stages in a logical sequence. Adapt it to your own design situation and you’ll find it an invaluable guide.

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Steve Bain is an award-winning illustrator, graphic designer and author of numerous design and illustration books including multiple editions of Fundamental Illustrator, QuarkXPress The Complete Reference, CorelDRAW The Official Guide, and Looking Good Online.


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