On the Concept of Process

by Matt Ward

on September 2, 2010

in Resources

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.

Advantages

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.

Disadvantages

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.

Advantages

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!

Disadvantages

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!

Conclusion

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!

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About Matt Ward