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Introducing The Design Method: A Philosophy and Process for Functional Visual Communication

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Eric Karjaluoto introduces The Design Method, which is a framework you can implement in every design project to achieve appropriate results. This blueprint helps you gain understanding, craft a plan, develop ideas, and ultimately produce and apply them.

Presenting The Design Method

The Design Method is a philosophy and approach that lends clarity to and facilitates your work. It helps you understand the situation and problem, and then allows you to determine what the design solution needs to do. The method walks you through an increasingly detailed series of stages. This top-down approach prevents fumbling around with styles, instead enabling you to shape your choices around what your design and client actually need.

Many design process philosophies exist. Some are rigidly structured and driven by rationalism; others take a more emotional approach and favor improvisation. Some rely heavily on observation; others encourage an approach in which designers and users collaborate closely. Some divide the process into seven stages; others pick six, and still others three—heck, I think they come in all sizes. In fact, crafty agencies treat the design process as a marketing gimmick and put great effort into creating proprietary names and pretty flowcharts illustrating how their “unique” process works. (You can likely imagine what I think of this last practice.)

It’s hard to say that any one process is better than the rest. Each has a place for some client, designer, situation, or discipline. The important point is that you employ a process that suits you and your clients, and work it consistently instead of just winging it and doing what feels good at the time. (I did that once, and as a consequence, I now have a tattoo of Selena Gomez and a puppy on my left thigh.) If you help clients communicate messages, ideas, values, and the like, you’ll find The Design Method to be particularly suitable to your needs.

The Design Method shares similarities with other processes, although it’s also different in many ways. It’s rational and ordered, overwhelmingly straightforward and logical, but it also involves using your intuition. It requires an involved dialogue with clients; however, it doesn’t ask them to perform tasks they are neither trained nor equipped for. It doesn’t assume that the initial specifications are the right ones; instead, it begins with research, observation, and questioning in order to evaluate what deliverables are most suitable. The method is rooted in how a studio works, not isolated theory. The result is process stages and approaches that work better in practice than in a textbook. You’ll find that this applied view shapes the process stages, recommendations for work habits and practices, and the language I use to describe this method.

The particular slant of The Design Method is informed by a communication design standpoint. The reason I mention this point is that some of the approaches used in product design, for example, aren’t directly transferrable to what brand, graphic, and communication designers do. Communication is key to our work at smashLAB regardless of the form it takes. We might build a visual system, website, content strategy, application, or signage system; in each case, we are helping to create or facilitate communication.

Certain design approaches are sensible on paper but difficult to incorporate in actual practice. The Design Method is applied and works well for designers who need to solve often ill-defined visual communication problems. In fact, this method has evolved at our agency over nearly 15 years of daily practice. We’ve experimented with several approaches in the past and learned from each of these tests, adding what worked to our process. We didn’t come by these learnings easily: By taking so much time to sort out this method, our agency has become increasingly productive and successful—more than that, our clients get effective work because of this approach.

To apply this design methodology, you must agree to follow the stages laid out later in this chapter. Don’t try to skip a step, get fancy, or make your process any harder than it needs to be. Just follow the process as intended; I promise this approach won’t lead you astray. Every day I apply this method, and it continues to delight me. Although The Design Method may seem, and actually is, deceptively simple, it has never failed me when I followed its well-ordered steps.

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