Four Key Steps to Better Design

Photo by Nick Haroldsen

We have all run into that project where the design gets so rushed that important steps to establish a great design get forgotten. Many clients undervalue the amount of necessary research it takes before the pencil even hits the sketchpad. The better we are with research, listening, and communicating, the better our designs will be; ultimately, giving more value to our work.

Most of the work I do is involved with creating/developing designs for companies with a relatively established brand. Designing for a new brand has similar design processes, but here I will focus mainly on research and designing for established brands. These four steps are key to creating a better design:

  1. Research the Brand
  2. Research the Audience
  3. Thorough Listening
  4. Communicating the Design

Research the Brand

I know I’ve been guilty of assuming that I know what the client wants before doing the proper research. I have caught myself needing to take a step back before jumping right into the design mode of the project. Without proper and thorough research, you will never discover the necessary things to not only make the design work aesthetically, but also enhance the user’s experience.

One time I was handed a design from a client who essentially said, “We need to save on cost, so will you please take our branding guidelines and this design (that the HR person threw together) and create a site for us?” When I first looked at the design, I could tell someone who didn’t understand good design put the layout together. I then proceeded to do some research on the client and their branding guidelines. The client didn’t even follow their own branding guidelines. Within the guidelines were specific standards on grids used for their website, it also contained strict color and imagery usage on the page; simple things were missed because someone didn’t take the time to research their own brand.

You will hear many times, “Think outside the box,” but in order to do that, one must first understand the box. The rudimentary rules of an established brand cannot be ignored. In order to understand the brand, it is important to do the necessary research: dig through annual-reports; learn the corporate values, mission, etc. Discover who the company is and what they represent. It is thorough research and understanding the minute details of the company that will help translate the communication across the campaign.

Research the Audience

Beyond searching through the branding guidelines, thorough research needs to be made on the corporate culture and clients. Learning about the clients and/or intended audience is essential to understanding the voice or tone to be communicated. It is important to keep the user’s experience (UX) in mind. Many articles are written on UX and catering to the needs of the intended audience. Discover and understand what works best for the intended user. If you don’t understand who will be using the site, viewing your collateral, or whatever, then you will not be able to cater to their needs nor speak on their level and fall flat in the design.

Thorough Listening

Research includes verbal discussions with people at the company. It is helpful that sound research on the company has been done prior to the discussion with company personnel. Having a good background on the company can lead to a more productive discussion on branding specifics and company culture. I have foolishly gone into meetings where no research on the company was made prior to the meeting. Many of the questions that were asked were branding questions that could have easily been found in their branding guideline manual. It was difficult to know what questions to even ask and it made us look and feel clueless and unprofessional.

When discussing project details with the client, it is essential that you really listen. At times the client may not be able to verbalize what they want. Other times they may be overly specific on what they want, but you know that their direction either will not work esthetically, or will not fit well with their brand nor communicate well to their audience. As you are sensitive to their feedback and utilize your expertise to deliver design that fits their brand, you will discover ways that will propel the design to greater levels than neither you nor the client could have originally conceptualized.

Communicating Your Design

Once all essential information is gathered through intense research, the design becomes much more natural. It shouldn’t feel forced or awkward since it is playing off of what has already been established and discussed in the research stage. Certain aspects of your designs may need explained as to how/why certain decisions were made; other times the designs will speak for itself as it fits well within their brand and/or messaging campaign. If you cannot communicate why certain things function or work better the way it was designed to, then you do not understand the brand or the goals behind the campaign. This lack of understanding can lead to uninformed decisions, which will ultimately stifle the design and even your credibility.

Most clients that I have come across appreciate my expertise, especially when I am able to confidently communicate with them how and why design decisions were made, how it matches their brand and goals, and how it will speak to their audience to reinforce their company brand. There is no better feeling when communicating with the client about the design, as when they say, “You really know us. You hit it right on the head.


We must take the time to understand the client and their needs. The key to successful design isn’t simply in the thumb-nailing, drafting, or production stage; I have found that great design is preceded by having a good understanding about all aspects of the company the design is communicating for.