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The Fundamental Stages of The Design Method

Most design processes share a number of common stages and tasks. In The Design Method, all activities are organized into four broad stages, which I’ll outline in a moment. These stages are defined quite generally so you can grasp the core activities, and then shape presentation and details according to your specific needs. You’ll determine your own working phases and create corresponding documentation based on these steps. You might also develop small leave-behinds, booklets, diagrams, visualizations, videos, or slide decks that help your clients understand the way you’ll work with them.

Some methods have organized their work into a few broad stages, such as Reflect, Observe, Make, and then Repeat. Others seem to like alliteration, and use the groupings Define, Design, Develop, and Deploy. Still others sound more scientific, starting with Discovery, and moving into Interpretation, Ideation, Experimentation, and Evolution. Regardless of how you present your process to clients, odds are that you’ll be working through a few common stages. The Design Method is based on these stages, which from here on become this book’s area of focus. They include the following:

  1. Discovery. Gathering data and becoming familiar with the situation through observation and analysis.
  2. Planning. Identifying key needs and issues, and developing a strategy and actionable plan to address these concerns.
  3. Creative. Exploring conceptual options and potential design directions, and organizing these possibilities into a clear vision.
  4. Application. Implementing the approach and building out design elements along with testing, measurement, evaluation, and refinement.

The point of identifying these fundamental stages, and working within them, is to lend structure to your design process. But in actuality, these stages sometimes bleed into one another. Although Discovery starts the process, you never stop learning about your clients and their needs. Planning, too, is most exhaustive at the beginning of projects, but you’ll continue to plan smaller points throughout your project. The Creative and Application stages involve a cyclical set of tasks: You’ll hatch ideas, develop prototypes, run iterations, test your approach, and refine your design. Following these stages will help you mitigate whims that would otherwise leave you bouncing through projects at random.

Although the overlapping aspects of these stages may turn out to be murkier than you like, design isn’t that absolutely segmented. This lack of clarity has become even more prevalent in recent years and relates, in part, to how many design projects are now digital in nature. A digital setting allows you to assess results, adjust, and redeploy more rapidly and inexpensively than other settings in which changing and redeploying items increases time and cost. The management of American Airlines, for example, probably wouldn’t be keen to change its identity a week after launching its redesign. After applying the new visuals to all of its airplanes and branded materials, such a task would be substantial regardless of how the new treatments were received.


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The Design Method relies on four key process stages; however, the working phases you employ are informed by the kind of design you do and the project milestones you establish.

You’ll likely personalize the language you use to describe your working process and how you segment your work modes. That’s fine. Part of doing so will involve the kind of design you perform for your clients. Additionally, you may find it useful to determine the actual working phases, or service items, your projects require. Doing so will help you add detail to how you estimate, schedule, bill, and manage projects. You’ll have to do this on your own because no one else knows the size, type, or scope of projects you work on.

At smashLAB, we generally break down our working phases into: Discovery and Planning, Information Architecture and User Experience, Creative and Production, Technology, Content, and Deployment. The phases we use make provisions for interaction design projects and content creation, because they are a big part of what we do for our clients. Again, these working phases are more specific than the process stages described in The Design Method. Process stages and working phases are different in that the former identify broad actions, whereas the latter are used to estimate project requirements and correspond with billable service items in our time tracking.

For most designers, crafting visuals feels more like design than knowledge gathering does; therefore, you might be inclined to jump right to the Creative stage. Doing so is akin to renting office space before you’ve written a business plan—not a particularly wise decision. Once again, you need to understand the project situation and determine a sensible course of action. The Discovery and Planning tasks deserve your sweat first. Having worked through these stages, you can then move into Creative and Application, knowing that you’ve taken the right steps. For years, I made design the wrong way. To help you avoid the same mistakes, let me tell you why I did and how I remedied my clumsy ways.

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