How Graphic Design Is Really Made

I'll never forget the day my best friend, a graphic designer, complained about how her clients thought she could pull designs out of thin air in minutes "because artists sit around making things up!" Her frustration revolves around truth--too many people don't really know what entails artistic creation.

In college, I saw this misconception (about the hard work that goes into graphic design) stump a lot of freshmen design students. If you are a student, this post is to give you a glimpse of the process behind client-based graphic design. It's meant to give you a glimpse of what you're in for so you can meet it head on, and it's meant to inspire you.

As you'll see, there is a lot of work, but there is also so much fun and creativity behind the scenes that few people ever see. So prepare to buckle down, but enjoy every minute too. As for the communications majors, art fans and design clients reading this blog, here is what we designers really do when you contract us for a project. We don't sit around staring in space as we wait for inspiration; instead we crack our knuckles and furiously busy ourselves for some magic.


All projects start with the client meeting, but it's once the designer leaves the meeting that the hard work and the magic begins.  In the case of these examples, my boss requested an icon logo for their farmers market.  My next step was to research other farmers market logos online to get a feel for what has already been done so I can create a unique design.  I wrote notes, jotted down thoughts and impressions and constructed a brainstorm bubble. Then I busted out those sharpie markers and started sketching all the ideas that were popping into my head.


I learned this process in college and a professor once called this sketching stage "visual vomit" because the point it is to get everything out, and it's not all beautiful. You'll sketch ideas that are just mediocre or down-right bad, but if you do enough, you'll find a few rough diamonds in all this mess, and those are the sketches you'll develop into roughs.


These days, roughs are usually generated on the computer. I'll make better drawings of my two or three favorite sketches, scan these drawings into the computer, and vectorized them in Illustrator.  From there I wrestle with the elements, creating variations and constantly refining them until I have a finished rough ready to present to the client. This is almost like a second stage of visual vomit as you are trying to get as many different options out of your head so you can pick the best one.
At last, after all that creativity behind closed doors, you have created the finished roughs ready to present to the client. Usually the client has suggestions for changes and if so, there is another stage of development called the semi-comp.  The design is usually done at that stage, but if there are more changes, it is industry standard to conduct one more stage, called the comp.

It is only during the final presentations and production that the public first sees the fruits of your labor without ever seeing all that development behind it, and hence the misconception that artists pull art out of the air.  It's an understandable misconception, but hopefully now you will have a better appreciation and understanding of the process behind graphic design, whether you are a client or aspiring designer. Best of luck with your future design adventures!


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