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How To Approach New Design Projects

Staring at a blank page can always be a little intimidating, even for skilled designers. But this is the starting point of every new design project.

As you go through the motions creating more work you’ll learn to develop your own routine for approaching projects. But if you have no idea where to start then this post is for you!

I’ll cover some of the early phases of design like planning, sketching, executing & organizing. Once you can build your own creative routine you’ll have a much easier time crafting projects from scratch that dazzle and amaze.

Brainstorming Ideas

The very first step of any project is the idea phase. Whether you’re designing an iconset, a print flyer, or a website, you need ideas to get started. Maybe you already have some in your head!

But I typically work to gather inspiration first from as many sources as possible. Try looking around the web for similar projects, or related designs, or anything that’ll get you thinking on the right path coming up with new angles.

This post has plenty of sites you can browse for ideas but these are my favorites for design inspiration:

  • Dribbble
  • ArtStation
  • Behance
  • Reddit

You might even create a folder in your project workspace to save screenshots or pictures of ideas you like. This way you can always refresh yourself on what you want to achieve.

But try to come up with concepts, ideas, and big picture stuff first. Think of the overall experience, or the overall “big picture” of what the project should look like. From there you can delve a bit deeper into the specifics.

dribbble homepage

Your big picture vision doesn’t need to be crystal clear. It should just provide a direction to follow.

Then you can start lasering into details by sketching wireframes, mapping ideas in words, or jumping right into Photoshop(or Sketch) to start designing.

This early process can be super messy because you just want ideas. I recommend working on paper and jotting ideas as they come, then refining later.

But don’t let this messy attitude flow into the rest of the project! At some point you’ll want to collect everything you’ve done, organize your favorite ideas and place a greater focus on them going forward.

Crafting & Refining

Once you’ve brainstormed a few cool ideas it’s good to bring them to a semi-completed state before gathering input.

This can mean a high fidelity wireframe for a website, or maybe a more detailed mockup for icons or something similar. Graphic designers may create sketches of their ideas to pitch to clients. The same goes for print designers and identity designers.

But whenever you’re starting a new project you always want to clean up your ideas to present. Early brainstorming is the messy phase where you just throw everything down on paper. The refining phase is where you sift through the dirt to find hidden gems.

sketchpad wireframe

Once you start to visualize your idea it should match up to your “big picture” concept. This is how you know you're on the right track.

Also keep in mind that just because you like an idea doesn’t mean the client will like it. Be prepared to get shot down. In fact, have a few ideas prepared for this very reason!

If you present 2-3 refined ideas it gives the client a way to point you in the right direction. They might not love any specific idea, but maybe one sketch feels close enough that they can tell you what they’re looking for.

Organizing Your Work

This may be one of the more dreaded aspects of a design project but it’s also vitally important. If you can’t stay organized then you’re just asking for headaches.

Be smart about how you organize your files and folders. It’s easy to end up with tons of resources and have no idea how they all fit together.

Instead be proactive and get an organizational system in place before starting. This way you know exactly where certain drafts go, how to date/name files, and where your current working directory is located.

I like this example from 99designs where they cover a sample folder hierarchy for professional work. You can obviously iterate on top of this to change names & structures, but try to find a template you can work with for all your projects.

99designs folders

The subject of organization is deep and there’s no single correct way to do this. Try to find what works best for you and stick with it. The key to keeping organized is consistency.

Also these articles can help you find some more ideas for folder structures & organizational habits.

Gathering Feedback

I think the biggest mistake newer designers make is lack of communication with clients. You should ideally communicate your creative process every step of the way to make sure they like where you’re going.

This is why feedback is crucial when you’re starting a new design project. You might think it’s a good idea to just wait until your design is finished, then get feedback on the end result. And many times this is okay.

But you should be willing to connect with clients more and gather feedback during the early stages. This way you can be sure you’re creating something the client actually likes.

managing a calendar

Of course, I realize not everyone is designing for a client. Many designers just do spec projects to improve their skills or for fun.

In this case you might try contacting other designers for critiques. Do you have any social accounts with designer friends? If not, get some!

Twitter is always a great way to connect with designers. Send a quick tweet about how much you like their work & if they’d be open to critiquing your designs. Or you could post on Reddit with subs like /r/design_critiques.

Just try to get feedback on your initial designs first. As a designer you should have some trust in your work, but be willing to listen to others and change your opinions when necessary.

reddit design critiques

Also be willing to compromise on your initial ideas. Remember that new projects are the easiest to change in the early phases. This is why early feedback is so valuable.

Don’t think of comments as negative or positive, but rather as ideas that should be addressed.

If you get lots of compliments on your color choices then address those colors as accurate. If you get lots of criticism on your font choices then address that by trying other styles.

Use feedback to improve your eye. This will not happen right away but over time you’ll notice drastic improvements with each new project you start.

Moving Forward

These are merely my own tips for starting new projects, but everyone has a different outlook on the creative process. When you don’t know what to do it’s best to follow someone else’s style & adapt it over time to suit your needs.

Always shoot for your ideal “big picture” end result for every project. This end result will change over time and you’ll learn a lot about how you design.

But if you can envision what the final project should look like, even from the early stages, then you’ll slowly learn how to bring that vision into reality while improving your design skills in the process.

Jake is a freelance writer, designer, and illustrator. He currently writes articles on user experience design for web & mobile. You can see more work on his portfolio site and follow his tweets @jakerocheleau.

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