On the Concept of Process

I’m going to start this discussion of by revealing a secret about my own design work: I don’t have a process. At least, I don’t have a rock solid, time tested step by step formula that I follow for all my projects. That’s not to say that I shoot from the hip or fly by the seat of my pants, to use a couple of cliched old sayings. I certainly take the time to think things through and to be both thorough and methodical in my work.

I just don’t follow the same steps every time.

There are a couple of different reasons for this. The first is the nature of the project. Using web design as a primary example, there are some projects which just lend themselves better to being done primary through a combination of my code editor of choice (Coda) and the browser, using Photoshop only to create really simple graphics. For other projects, however, I just find that it’s better to start mocking things up in Photoshop.

Of course, depending on how I begin the project, the follow through will also be different. If I start in the browser, development will progress in one way and if I start in Photoshop, it will develop in a slightly different way.

I am also impacted by my continuing education. I try to be as active as possible in the design community and am always picking up on new concepts, tricks, ideas and methodologies when it comes to both design and development. This continued learning invariably effects my thinking, which may alter my approach and ultimately change the process for a given project.

As this learning is an ongoing journey for me, I find that every time I start a new project, I am coming at it from a slightly different angle. As such, I don’t think I’ve ever used the exact same design process for any two projects in my entire career.

I’ve been pondering that notion a lot lately, and it’s got me thinking about the whole concept of the design process, and the possible advantages and disadvantages of formulaic and/or free-form processes, which is what I want to look at over the course of this particular article.

Formulaic Process

The formulaic process is exactly the sort of thing that I typically haven’t done. It presents a clear, step by step methodology that is intended to be followed from conception, through execution and all the way to the final completion. It’s organized, often based on extensive experience and may have the impressive support of numerous satisfied customers. For example, with the increasing rise in the popularity of e-commerce, many online organizations are expected to maintain confidentiality in regards to private customer financial information. Any organization that stores or transmits information from credit, debit, or other payment cards are required to receive a Report on Compliance (ROC) that verifies the organization as compliant with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard. Designers should be aware of PCI audit standards and their focus on security management, policies, procedures, network architecture, software design, and other critical protective procedures.

As such, the formulaic process can look like the obvious choice. So, let’s consider it.


A Road Map – One obvious advantage of the formulaic process is that it can work very much like a road map for design. You’ll never have to figure out how to start or approach a new project. The formula will tell you. It means that you’ll always know exactly what your next step needs to be. This can be a huge bonus when it comes to productivity and time management, helping to minimized idleness.

Team Work – A formulaic process can also be a huge benefit for team based projects. When the process is clearly and carefully defined, each team member can be assigned work (according to their skill set) to help accomplish a particular part of the process. The formula will not only help with the delegation of this work; it can also help ensure the compatibility of the work as it moves between team members.

Predictability – Which leads to the benefit of predictability. With a formulaic process, things should be more or less predictable. When work moves from a designer to a developer, the developer should know what to expect from the files he or she receives. The same is also true of code that may pass from a front end coder to a back end programmer who is responsible for deploying everything through a CMS.

Predictability also comes into play in terms of timelines and turnarounds. If you’re using the same, formulaic process over and over again, you should start to develop a pretty good understanding of how long things should take. This, in turn, can help you effectively manage the scheduling of your projects.


Boredom – Doing the same thing all the time can get tedious, even if it’s something you’re passionate about. Tedious work quickly becomes boring, and in my experience, there’s nothing better at sucking the life out of your work than boredom and monotony.

Boredom can also be something of a creativity killer. It’s kind of hard to be really creative when you’re sitting there, twirling your pencil and wishing that you could be working on something different and exciting.

Square Peg/Round Hole – Of course, every project is going to be somewhat different, and those differences may demand equally different approaches. A formulaic design process certainly runs the risk of placing constrains on a project, actually establishing limitations that don’t necessarily fit the particular scope of the project. It’s kind of like the old notion of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It just doesn’t work.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, of course, but it’s certainly something that needs to be considered.

Advancement – Formulas are, by their very nature, firm and unchanging things, and while there is a certain noble strength in this, there can also be a significant disadvantage, in terms of advancement. Technologies continue to grow and evolve at an alarming rate, and many of these new technologies can have an important bearing on the way we go about our work.

New applications – or features in existing applications – can offer fresh and exciting ways of engaging with problems. Formulaic processes that remain unchanged and don’t make room for a certain degree of adaptation can quickly become stale and dated.

Free-Form Process

A free form process is the exact opposite of a formulaic process. It doesn’t rely on predetermined patterns or assumptions. It is natural and organic, taking things as they come and allowing the pulse of the project to dictate the course of its development.

It’s also the way I’ve typically designed, so if there seems to be a slight bias here, that’s probably why. I have tried to keep things objective, though.


Flexibility – Because the free-form process doesn’t follow a prescribed pattern, it can actually be vastly more flexible that it’s formulaic counterpart. If an approach needs to be radically changed part way through a project (perhaps switching from a simple Tumblr blog to a full eCommerce site), you can just go ahead and do it. No formulas are hindered and no rules are broken. The process is following the needs of the project, and as the direction of the project changes, the process just changes right along with it.

Modularity – For freelancers, independents and small teams, the modularity of a free-form process can be a huge advantage. Frequently, I’ve found that there are a number of different tasks that can be worked on independently of each other for some time before needing to bring them all together. So, if you are waiting for a client to get back to you with approvals for the layout of a site, you can start working on designing icons or other user interface items that may not necessarily be dependent on the the approvals you’re waiting for.

Working with this kind of modularity (which would be more difficult with formulaic process) can be really advantageous in terms of productivity, allowing you to effectively juggle various tasks, as required.

Growth – As already mentioned, technology is always progressing, and using a more free-form kind of process has the added benefit of allowing you to play and experiment with building those new technologies into your workflow.

It doesn’t have to be a new technology either. It’s impossible for any one person to become a master when it comes to HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, layout, typography, usability/user experience, accessibility, mobile considerations and a plethora of other issues all at once. Honestly, if you’ve become a master at any one of these things, you’re doing pretty well!

Using a free-form design process can allow you to openly experiment and get better in these areas. For instance, in one recent web project, I took my first foray into using @font-face, and spent a great deal of time experimenting and learning how it works. I’m also planning on doing similar work to learn more in the areas of mobile websites and accessibility!


Designer’s Block – Designer’s block sucks just as much as writer’s block, and I hate it when it happens to me because it’s an energy draining, spirit sucking phenomenon. I’ve always maintained that one of the best ways to deal with a nasty case of writer’s block is to just plow straight through and start writing, and I would imagine that this same concept would probably work on designer’s block too.

However, with a free-form process, this might be a little more difficult. A formulaic process presents a clear starting point that you can grab onto and just start powering your way through. Because a free-form process is a bit more open ended, this kind of forceful reaction can be somewhat more difficult to achieve, thus potentially making designer’s block somewhat more difficult to shake.

Lack of Focus – A free-form design process can also, potentially, suffer from a lack of focus. Just because it lets its path be dictated by the project itself, doesn’t mean that the path is always going to be straight. You may even find yourself being pulled down rabbit trails that take you nowhere, but which eat up minutes and possible even hours of your valuable time!

Slower – Finally, a free-form design process could also potentially be slower than a formulaic one, for a number of the reasons we’ve already touched on. Working with a new type of technology for the first time always comes with some degree of a learning curve, and taking unintended trips in fruitless and unfocused directions is certainly no recipe for speed.

Of course, in an ideal world, speed would have nothing to do with design, and we would have all the time in the world to get it right. That’s just not the case though, and when you have a client breathing down your neck, sometimes speed can become one of the most important factors in your process!


So what kind of process should you use? Formulaic of free-form? I really don’t have a definitive answer to that question, and quite frankly, I don’t think that there is a definitive answer. It’s going to vary from person to person and from agency to agency, which means that you are ultimately going to have to make that decision for yourself.

Hopefully, though, by looking at some of the advantages and disadvantages of each, you will be able to look at your own skills, aptitudes and situation and determine which is right for you. Maybe it will even be a bit of both! Whatever process you decided to use, just be sure to work hard at it and create the strongest designs that you possibly can!

Chris Stark

  • Personally, I fall somewhere in between. I tend to count mostly on the free-form process, because it feels so much more organic, and is just a more enjoyable process to me. It’s when creativity really kicks in. That said, I find that having a formulaic process is a great backup. It’s something that can save you, and get things moving again when you’ve got designer’s block. To me, having a formula to fall back on is a bit of a safety net.

  • Sam

    It’s impossible to follow the same process again and again. It depends on the type of work, the client and how you’re feeling that day 🙂

    I mix a bit of agile in there once and a while though.

  • Hey buudy! Anny here,It’s a great concept and useful as well for designers to choose a right process..

  • I do the same… free form. But I am eagerly trying to adapt to a system (even if it’s a small one). You mentioned you start in Photoshop (I do the same), but I read a lot of blogs where people actually start on pen and paper.

    I have forced myself to try that method but end up with a few chicken scratches. What’s your thoughts on sketching out mockups and design concepts? How do you get better at that?

  • Matt,
    Great discussion starter here. I’ve been involved in s/w and app development for over 30 years and have developed under both types of framework. Having said that, I have definitely leaned towards the Free-Form Process quite often. The challenge in the Free-Form development as you have identified is often one of schedule and the associated unpredictability. Many times my developments have been littered with those segways into cool features, techniques, or tools that get justified as “neccessary” because as developers we are often more focused on the development than the goal.

    I agree the answer often lies somewhere in the middle and while the processes you described often seem at odds, I believe there are methods such as Agile that can address the best of both processes if adopted concientiously.

    While Agile leans towards the Adaptive end of the Adaptive-Predictive continuum[1], Agile clearly makes room for the creative and adaptive nature of free-form development while superimposing a template of high level development planning. As Sam suggests, Agile can be “mixed in once in a while”, however a more intentional deployment of Agile can go a long way towards blending the two processes you described.

    Great discussion Matt!


    [1] ^ Boehm, B.; R. Turner (2004). Balancing Agility and Discipline: A Guide for the Perplexed. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley. ISBN 0-321-18612-5. Appendix A, pages 165-194

  • I wrote a little essay about web design projects. I came to a thought that using the usual project models (such as the computing project models) may be too “heavy” for a web project. These projects are more flexible and they don’t usually are as long as for example programming projects.

    Besides it’s design, and design is a quite organic process. Forcing it into a model may kill it. Yes, I prefer free form.

  • I can’t imagine not having a process. I think that its important to go through specific steps to do my best work.

  • Puge Teopengco

    As much as possible I want all my projects to have a formula or process but most of the time at the middle of each project it converts to free-form process. Sometimes because of my own adjustments also.

  • Xav

    Excellent article. The whole concept of processes has always played on my mind. For years I’ve been trying to come up with the perfect project process schedule. From initial contact from the client all the way through to documenting the final payment. And all I’ve learnt is that it is impossible to pre-determine or dictate how every single project will run :S

    My mindset now is that it would be better to nail down a formulaic process for as much of the admin side of projects as possible, but take each project as it comes and try to lead it down one of the several routes it might go – all of which are as close to set processes as possible. Kind of like having a set of different process routes if you see what I mean.

  • Andy

    For me it depends on the time constraints I’m working with. If I have enough time I avoid structure but usually, towards the end when deadlines are coming up, I structure things a bit more. The ‘creative strategy’ form on this page actually helps me quite a bit. http://sessions.edu/Design-Career-Center/Design-Tools/Freelance-Design-Contracts-Templates.asp?fmid=0

  • Excellent stuff,”sometimes speed can become one of the most important factors in your process!”

  • Very interesting – we follow a very itterative design process. We recently posted a short n sweet blog post about just that – check out the link below. We don’t really plan for where the design is going – we just throw stuff to the wall and see what sticks. Does anyone else follow an itterative design process like this?


  • great article thanx for sharing.

  • Took me time to read all the comments, but I really enjoyed the article. It proved to be Very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commenters here! It’s always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained!