You’ve probably come across a few brands that seem to nail it with their graphic design, every single time. How do they make it look so easy, while you’re facing workflow bottlenecks and creative blocks?
The truth is, incredible design work doesn’t just *happen* for some people and not others. Every successful designer follows a tried-and-true graphic design process they know will help them achieve results — and you can, too, especially if you incorporate design thinking into each phase of your project.
We’re demystifying the creative process to show you exactly what works.
What Is the Graphic Design Process?
Graphic design is a critical visual communication tool marketers use to convey key messages about a brand that resonate with target audiences. It’s all about producing visual assets that are eye-catching, on-brand, and aligned with specific messaging. When it comes to user experience, the impact of well-executed graphic design cannot be overstated, as it directly influences how users interact with your brand.
The graphic design process, then, is what a designer follows to bring design ideas to life while serving a client’s end goals. This process often involves using tools like Adobe Photoshop to create and manipulate design elements, ensuring that the final design is polished and professional.
As a creative process, designing graphics involves equal parts of “creative” and “process.” In other words, a graphic designer will adhere to logical, step-by-step procedures all the way to completion. Creative ideation and original design work fit into this process. But they’re not the only skills or considerations that result in successful design. The graphic design process involves a great deal of communicating, critical thinking, and problem solving, too, and often requires access to unlimited graphic design resources to achieve the desired outcome.
The Graphic Design Process in 6 Steps
Whether you produce the graphics for an in-house marketing team, or you’re a graphic designer serving a big book of clients, you and your collaborators will benefit from a clear production and approvals process. No matter how skilled you are at creating visuals, refining your graphic design process can streamline cross-team workflows and help you arrive at a more successful end result, faster.
Here’s how to turn a concept into a compelling visual communication tool, from the creative brief to the finished product:
1. Build Out the Creative Brief
Before you get going with digital drawing tools, the first step in your graphic design process should be establishing the creative brief. Also called a design brief, this document will capture all of your client’s wants and needs and other key project specifications.
Anyone who wants to work with a graphic designer should be able to articulate what they’re looking for and what goals the design asset needs to meet. You may receive a complete design brief from your colleague or client. Or, you may be the one asking questions and filling out the brief.
Either way, your creative brief should address:
- Company information (e.g., mission, offerings, unique value proposition).
- Brand guidelines.
- Target audience.
- Asset type (e.g., logo design, UX design, eBook design).
- Purpose of the asset and how it fits into the overarching marketing campaign.
- Initial design concept or creative direction.
- Production-related design specifications.
- Delivery format and file type.
- Project timeline, with key milestones.
- Budget or cost of the design work.
Review the project intake form with all key stakeholders to ensure all the important details are captured and everyone is on the same page. It may take a few tries to make your brief as clear and comprehensive as possible.
When establishing the timeline, make sure you’ll have the final copy in your hands before you start designing. Any changes to the text could set you back significantly. After all, you don’t want to end up putting together a clever infographic design only to find out half of the data points will be thrown out and rewritten! Since form follows function, it’s essential to lock in any text you’ll be using before it ends up in the design asset.
2. Research the Design Ecosystem
Now that you know your creative mission, it’s time to start your preliminary visual exploration. During the research stage, spend time:
- Understanding the specific product or service you’re representing.
- Examining competitors’ design work.
- Assessing your brand’s market positioning and differentiating qualities.
- Exploring other visual content your target audience consumes, beyond your niche.
- Considering how you might apply color theory and design trends.
- Gathering inspiration images and building out a moodboard.
Research is an important part of what a graphic designer does. You’ll use your findings to inspire original ideas, solidify the overall design approach with other stakeholders and back up the design decisions you make later on. This stage is where the design thinking process really begins to take shape, as you start to synthesize your research into actionable design principles.
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3. Develop and Refine the Graphic Design Concept
Armed with your design brief and a wealth of information from the research process, it’s time to start building out the framework for what the asset will ultimately look like.
Depending on what you’re working on, the concept development and refinement stage may involve sketching out thumbnails, mockups or graphic elements. Larger and more significant projects, like an abstract or text logo development and web design, may require more fine-tuning and several iterations before moving into production.
Regardless of the scale of your project, it’s important to present your initial concepts to the rest of the team. A good graphic design rule of thumb is to pitch 3 ideas:
- Provide exactly what the client asked for.
- Offer your interpretation of what you think they’ll like, based on everything you know.
- Pitch a new concept or idea that could still meet the brief.
Have your client or colleagues pick one of the three, and continue refining it. Ask for feedback about your general approach and the rough framework for your project, to see if anything is missing or should be tweaked to better support the ultimate project goals. This way, you won’t spend all your energy and time designing down the wrong path.
During this stage, you might use Adobe Illustrator to create vector-based graphics, ensuring that every visual element is scalable and versatile for the final product. The rough sketch you start with will evolve, and through brainstorming with your design team or design firm, you will develop a comprehensive visual language for the graphic design project.
4. Create the Design
Once all stakeholders are in agreement and you have all that you need to proceed with the design, it’s time to execute the project.
During the design stage, a graphic designer will be expected to implement best practices related to the use of color, typography, the hierarchy of information and positive and negative space. They’ll also put technical skills to the test, using the right graphic design software and other applied productivity tools to get the job done in the most efficient way possible. For instance, Adobe Creative Cloud offers a suite of applications that can streamline the graphic design workflow and provide an array of tools for different design needs, whether it’s UI design for an app or package design for a new product.
Before sending off your design, conduct a self-critique and examine your work with an editing eye. Are there any design elements that seem out of place? Does your visual hierarchy support the goals outlined in the creative brief? This is the time to make any edits of your own — but this isn’t the end of the revision process.
5. Collect and Implement Feedback
The feedback stage involves a series of smaller steps that ensure quality control and perfect alignment with your stakeholders’ vision.
Depending on what type of team you’re working with, this part of the graphic design process may look something like this:
- Submit the design work for internal review.
- Make any requested changes.
- Present the updated design to your client or other decision-makers.
- Explain how your design decisions align with the creative brief and the direction you agreed on.
- Gather feedback from all stakeholders.
- Confirm your next steps.
- Make the requested changes.
- Present this new version to the rest of the team.
From there, rinse and repeat until you’ve reached the final version and there are no outstanding change requests.
The feedback stage is also where web developers and other stakeholders can weigh in on the usability and effectiveness of the design, ensuring that the final product isn’t just visually appealing, but also functional and user-friendly.
6. Finalize and Deliver the Design Assets
Now that you’ve gotten final approval from all stakeholders, you’re ready to deliver the assets in the appropriate formats. Package them up so they’re ready for production and can be easily implemented into whatever digital or print format your recipients need.
Your creative brief should articulate what deliverables you should share. For instance, you should make sure to send the asset in the correct file types and sizes so no changes are needed later on. Helping your recipients avoid the hassle of modifying the files or asking for further support can make for a better design experience for everyone involved.
How Following a Graphic Design Process Drives Results
Graphic design and marketing go hand in hand — and generating marketing results isn’t easy without a solid strategy in place for communicating across teams and producing visual assets that meet your specifications.
Once your creative brief is approved, this serves as both your instruction manual as well as your contract for this particular design project. It’s a tool you as the designer can use to keep your efforts on track. If you ever feel stumped, you can turn to this resource.
Additionally, using a design brief and following an agreed-upon feedback and revisions process helps with managing the expectations of key stakeholders and collaborators. If there’s any question of whether or not you delivered on time or on brand, you can point back to the goals and specifications outlined in the creative brief and show how you met them.
Listening closely to client feedback and making the necessary updates can help you become a better graphic designer. For instance, you might think of clarifying questions to ask during the design brief stage. And you’ll get better at translating abstract feedback into actionable design edits.
Graphic design is a critical component of your marketing strategy, so following a consistent process is the first step toward success. By adhering to this process, you’re more likely to achieve a better design that resonates with your audience and fulfills the project’s objectives. Whether you’re taking a graphic design course or are a seasoned professional, remember that each step in this process is an opportunity to refine your skills and deliver a final product that stands out in the crowded marketplace.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Dec. 15, 2023.