The Three Hats of the Design Process

Process can be a dirty word to some creative types. For designers, whose job is to turn amorphous ideas into physical existence, the process can be an artistic one. But even artists must admit, there is a method to the madness. In A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young describes “the production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords… the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled.” Just as luck rarely comes to the unprepared, great design never happens in pure disorder.

I love process. My leadership style is The Processor. Naturally, since the start of my career, I was obsessed with researching the best creative methods and refining my design process. Not only has this led to better work, but also easier collaboration because process allows you to repeat success and scale. My creative workflow is a series of thoughts and actions that I call the Three Hats of the Design Process. Why hats you ask? Different phases of the design process require you to outfit a different state of mind. I’ll be walking you through my design process with a series of activities (in bold) and questions (in italics) as we put on the three hats: Detective Hat, Artist Hat, and Scientist Hat.

1 / The Detective Hat / Investigate & Discover

At the start of the design process, the goal is to find the crux of the problem. Channel your inner Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew. Here, you are talking to people, learning about the challenge, collecting information, making observations, and filtering what matters. The problem must be “investigated in all directions,” according to Graham Wallas in Art of Thought.

Creative brief: Always start with a creative brief, a concise and clear document of the project’s goals and details. The brief is a device that enables you to work through the design challenge and (literally) gets everyone on the same page. I say “always” because without a creative brief, oftentimes projects go awry because everyone ends up with different expectations and missed marks.

What’s the goal of this project?
How will we know we’re successful?
Who’s our target audience?
What do we want to say to them, and how should they feel after?

Internal research: Conduct an audit and analysis of the current state of the client or project. Look at what design is currently being made. Interview key stakeholders.

What’s working?
What’s not working?
What are the leadership or employees thinking?
What’s the future vision?
What opportunities do we have to push the design?

External research: Conduct a competitive audit and analysis to see how others have solved this problem. Look at the immediate competitors, but observe different industries and the cultural landscape as well.

What are others doing?
Who’s doing it well and how are they killing it?
What patterns can I spot?
Should we zig, or zag from this pattern?
How is this relevant to the world right now?

Your arsenal: Your lived experiences and collection of inspiration is the most important piece to making unique designs. I’m constantly revisiting my visual archives and reminiscing on past experiences to find links to the current design problem. Since original ideas are really just remixes of pre-existing ideas, it’s important to be intentional about your information diet — the richer your input, the better your output.

Whew, that was a lot of questions. What else would you expect from The Detective? By the end of this stage, you will have a thorough creative brief and (if necessary) a document of research insights that will act as your north star as you embark on the next phase.

2 / The Artist Hat / Ideate & Concept

Once you’ve got your creative brief, you’re ready to kick off the project with the team and start making. The artist’s goal is to ideate as widely as possible to eventually create a clarified concept. Channel your inner Andy Warhol and Yayoi Kusama. Here’s the fun part (IMO). You’re brainstorming, mindmapping, sketching, debating, mixing, nixing — embrace the mess.

Mood board: Like the creative brief, this collage of images is a tool to get everyone on the same page about the visual direction of a concept. There are many approaches to creating a mood board, and ultimately it depends on what is useful for the designer and client. Remember, a mood board is a communication device. Usually, it’s best when the selected images create a unified mood and palette. Photoshop found imagery to a brand’s color to make it feel cohesive. Less is more.

Mise en place: You know in cooking shows where chefs have all of their ingredients prepared in neat little dishes? Then when they get to cooking, everything just flows because all they needed was within reach. That’s called mise en place, “everything in its place,” and it’s a trick I borrowed for design that helps me get into creative flow. Before designing, gather and set up all your ingredients, be it physical, like ink and brushes, or digital, like fonts and photos.

Make in mass: In the beginning, go wide and explore as many ideas as possible. Illustrators often use thumbnail pencil sketches to quickly try ideas. One of my design mentors taught me the digital version of thumbnailing —
“dirty mocks”, where you try an idea, duplicate it, change one thing, repeat. It’s a speedy way to test ideas. “Vectors are free” as Aaron Draplin would say. When you get stuck and think you can’t generate more ideas, you can employ a myriad of techniques to push your thinking to the limit. Set constraints for yourself (Busse and Mansfield, 1980) like use only one color, stick to analog, or pick images from a magazine. Combine two seemingly unrelated ideas to create a new one. Stress test your idea by putting it on a Photoshop mockup. The list goes on.

Step back: Literally step away from your project, go for a walk (or something of the like), and don’t think about it. Wallas calls this stage “incubation,” a phase where you let your unconscious mind work through the creative challenge. Instead of idling, Young suggests a more productive use of this time — multitasking (in a way) where you can “listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.” For me, I’ve woken up many mornings after having designed the solution in my dreams.

By the end of this stage, you should have a few solid concepts ready to present to the client. The presentation varies from creator to creator, project to project. An illustrator showing ideas to an art director may only need to email some refined pencil sketches. On the other hand, a design team at a corporation will need a polished, lengthy Keynote to pitch to several stakeholders. No matter the case, the key is to know your audience.

3 / The Scientist Hat / Experiment & Refine

Now that you’ve shared your concepts and have received feedback, it’s time to refine the ideas through experimentation and testing. Channel your inner Albert Einstein and Rosalind Franklin. The type of testing will depend on your design discipline, but all refinement boils down to this loop: iterate, get feedback, iterate.

The main reason why it’s essential for you to take off your Artist Hat and put on your Scientist Hat is so you can approach feedback with curiosity, rather than taking it personally. Giving and receiving feedback, especially creative feedback, is an art. Young puts it best when he said, “You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.” Feedback is a gift — that sometimes needs unwrapping. Here are some questions I might ask when receiving (unclear) feedback:

Is your feedback about X, Y, or something else (colors, imagery, etc)?
Is your concern X, Y, or something else (the market’s not ready, scalability, etc)?
I see where you’re coming from. What do you think I should explore instead?
Could you elaborate on your feedback?

Once you’ve refined your concept to a market-ready, user-tested, quality-assured design solution, ship that baby! But great design doesn’t end there. Oftentimes you will also need to consider how you’ll measure the success of the design, how you can maintain the design system (governance), and how to arm the client with everything they need to successfully implement the design (guidelines).

Throwing the hats away

Wear these three hats until you get comfortable in them. Switch them up throughout your design process until those questions and actions become second nature. But process is not a monolithic thing. Landor, a leading brand consultancy, claims that “habit is the enemy of creativity. To achieve great design, we must constantly challenge our perceptions.” Just as the production of Fords looks very different today than it did in the 1950s, the design discipline and our creative industry are ever-evolving. So when this process becomes dirty from overuse or obsoletion, throw the hats away — except the Detective Hat — and investigate a new process for yourself.


This article is officially published on The Design Loupe.

Conversation Questions

  1. How does the Three Hats of the Design Process compare to your own?
  2. How do you feel about process? Is it a dirty word to you?
  3. What was most useful or surprising to you?
  4. What is missing from this process?

Art Director & Design Writer on Branding, In-House Design, Tech. Currently: ServiceNow | Blog: thedesignloupe.com | Portolfio: emmalinh.com | Social: @_emmalinh

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