Thursday, November 16, 2006

On Research

One of the beautiful things about this stage in the zen kitchen's development is that I'm starting to see more interesting projects coming in - while there's still a good share of basic web production and ad layout, I'm starting to see more and more projects that I can really sink my teeth into - I've just completed one branding project, and am in the process of two others and a sustainability brochure. On top of that, I'm seeing more clients coming from eco/socially responsible backgrounds, which has been one of my goals since starting the zen kitchen almost a year ago now. Overall, I feel more accomplished and more creative than I have in years.

But a recent experience got me thinking really strongly about the creative process and the steps involved, and reminded me somewhat harshly of one of the biggest challenges that professional designers face: clients who visibly don't understand all the steps that are involved in coming up with great work. They think that you can just throw things together after a couple of hours (sometimes even a few minutes) of thought, and it will somehow magically be brilliant, because they think that's what it means to be good at what you do.

This is the thing: any significant creative venture, whether it's a website, logo, brochure, or new product, requires appropriate time spent doing research - learning about the company or product you're promoting, figuring out who their best customers are and brainstorming the best tactics for reaching them. Skip out on that, and you end up guessing your way through the entire project - sometimes you get lucky and you hit on something really great, but more often your designs end up falling flat, and do nothing for your client. And when that happens, the chance of that client coming back to you is significantly less than if you take the time to research the company and its customers, and use that information to come up with a design that speaks to them.

So often when speaking to clients - and sometimes even when speaking with people who work with creative professionals for a living (much to my dismay) - I find people who mistakenly believe that design is something that only happens on the computer - you talk about the project a little bit, jump right in and start designing away. In my experience, my best designs have NEVER happened that way. More often, I spend the first major chunk of time working on a project (which varies depending on the project's budget, but it's normally between 4 and 8 hours minimum) looking for everything I can find about the company and what it does; looking at competitor's sites and figuring out how the company I'm creating for can distinguish itself; talking to people who fit the target market to find out what they really need from the client's company. Then I start brainstorming - throwing words, ideas and quick doodles into my sketchbook, then filtering through those to find a few ideas that really fit the project's creative brief. Then, and ONLY then, do I head to the computer. Once I've done the appropriate research and sketches, I can turn around most concepts pretty quickly - if I haven't done research, or spent any time in my sketchbook throwing around ideas, it often seems like nothing will come out of me no matter how hard I try. It's incredibly demoralizing - like a permanent state of creative blocks.

Mind you, some jobs don't really require that much research - something where the layout, fonts, images, etc. is already predetermined, for example, really just requires you knowing where to find things and where to put them. Most production work falls into this category. But well-done research is essential to any truly creative project, no matter how small - skip it, and you're doing a disservice to your client, and to yourself.

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