Thursday, April 04, 2013

The Design Process: Detective Work

Ever run into the situation where you get a project that seems to creep in scope ad-infinitum? How about a time where the client is never happy with your designs and progress, and you both become frustrated? Or what about a time everything seemed to be going along smoothly then all of a sudden the project has to be totally redesigned?

These situations can be frustrating. But, believe it or not, most of the time these can be avoided. With a little planning and a codified process you can actually enjoy more projects and get better clients. What do I mean by a codified process? Well, it is having a clear methodical way of working in place for every client, and being able to communicate this process.

In-house design departments as well as freelancers need to have a way to organize their work and coordinate well with their clients. Also, clients need to be aware of your process so that they will develop appropriate expectations. As a result, you will get a better client and a more enjoyable experience.

So, what's a good process? That depends on the type of design work you do! But there are some common practices experienced designers follow. In this segment we will look at the first most critical step: detective work.

Usually it's a good idea to meet with the client to discuss the project. But even if you can't meet them face-to-face, it's critical to gather the right type of information at the beginning.

Who, what, where, when, why, and how

This step is like a detective looking for clues. You must ask a lot of good questions and listen carefully to your client because you are trying to piece together what it is really going on. It's a good idea to have a set of standard questions. One way I would recommend to help formulate these questions is the 5 W's and the H approach. This consists of who, what, where, when, why, and how type of questions. Here's an example:


  • Who is the client? (Ask the client about their business if you don't know)
  • Who has final sign-off? (This may not be the client. Surprise!)
  • Who is the primary and secondary audience? (It's not everyone.)
  • Who does what? (Find out everyone's role and responsibility in this project.)
  • Who are the competitors or obstacles, pertaining to this project?


  • What does the client really want? (Sometimes a client may say they just want a website, but you may discover that they really need an email campaign.)
  • What is the expected outcome? (To sell something, to increase awareness, etc.?)
  • What will this influence the audience to do? (Buy something, lead them to a website, etc.?)
  • What prompted the need for this project? (Could be either prompted by a particular problem, or could just be part of an overall strategy.)


  • Where will this be distributed? (Over the web, in a library, on television, in a particular magazine, etc.)
  • Where are the various assets needed for this project coming from? (Photos, text or copywriting, web host provider, domain registration, etc.)


  • When should this project be completed? (Deadlines are good, even if the the word dead is in there.)
  • When should the designer and client meet/talk again?


  • Why does the client believe this project is the solution? (Presuming they have identified the purpose for this project.)
  • Why would the audience care? (Good to follow up with "How do you know this?")


  • How does this project fit into the business and marketing goals? (Sure, make money or whatever. But how does it fit in the process? Does it initiate it, work along side of, lead toward, or accomplishes a goal? How they answer this will help you know how to bring a bit of realism to the project.)
  • How does the client know if the project is successful or not? (How does the client measure success?)
  • How would the client prefer to be contacted? (Email, phone, chat, Skype, etc.)

These are only examples of the types of questions you can ask. The important thing to remember is that you must gather as much information as you need to understand the client, her dilemma, and what she expects from you as the designer. The next step is to synthesize what you have learned into a coherent plan that you and the client can agree on.

Photo courtesy altankoman of

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