Design Process Guide: Research & Sketch Before You Design

Design Process Guide: Research & Sketch Before You Design

Having a design process that ensures you are able to replicate past successes is imperative. Not only is this an excellent method for designers and creative firms to remain profitable, manage client expectations, and avoid the dreaded rework, but it is the first piece of the foundation needed to ensure your clients get a major return on their investment. At Propr Design, our process, which has been developed over 16 years and is constantly being improved, is iterative and research-heavy. Here is a look at our process, some ideas behind it, and why it starts with researching and sketching.

The Process

Why Research?

“Research is the scholarly pursuit of new knowledge, discovery, or creative activity in an area with the goal of advancing that area’s frontiers or boundaries.”

Goal of Research & Sketching

The goal of adhering to the early steps of our process–research & sketching–is to ensure high-concept creative/ design.

Qualities of High Concept Design

  • High level of entertainment value High degree of originality
  • High level of uniqueness (different than the original)
  • Highly visual
  • Possesses a clear emotional focus (root emotion)
  • Targets a broad, general audience or a large niche market.

“High-concept is a type of artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise.”

In other words, high-concept design is easily sold to clients and stakeholders; your design choices are quantifiable and dependable. This helps ensure client satisfaction and a successful project.

Iterative & Agile

Iterative: Our process is nonlinear. At the beginning of any project, we should lean heavily on research and then sketching, but at times we should test out our digital concepts, particularly logo concepts. But never show refined concepts to the client without their consensus and buy-in of the concepts; thus, showing low fidelity work first is preferred.

The reason we take small steps with our work and with working with our clients is to prevent rework. Rework is the scourge of any project and can kill your project’s profitability.

Agile: Agile project management process is known for being interactive, non-linear, dexterous, and focusing on the user while helping you get to optimal concepts and then deliver work that is purposeful, meaningful, quantifiable, appropriate, and easily sold.

Agile is typically used in development. However, I have come to the conclusion that its principles of taking iterative and incremental steps work extremely effectively with managing your and the client’s expectations, eliminating surprises and the unknown, keeping the client fully engaged, and getting to delivery with a successful project on time and on budget, with NO rework. If, at any time during the process, the client bucks, it is usually because the project was not scoped out properly. If that’s the case, you return and re-scope, getting more money and better-aligning expectations, or part ways with the client.

Why Reword Sucks

Don’t Lose With Rework: My study and understanding of rework and my determination to prevent it at all costs lead me to much of my design process as well as how I manage clients’ expectations.

What is rework? The term rework became popularized in a book called Rework, written by the founders of 37Signals (Basecamp). Its basic message is, “ASAP is poison.” Rework is unaccounted for redoing, correcting, or rebuilding.

Rework is typically the result of a poor or non-existent project process. The symptoms of this are frustration by both the project team and the client. A properly composed Project Charter is a reliable tool to ensure all expectations are managed properly. A project charter outlines all the key stakeholders, the project process, the deliverables, risks, challenges, current situation, goals, and metrics for success/completion. Since defining and sticking to my project process, including using a project charter, I have eliminated all rework, I have done my best work, and I have happy clients. However, you will, and I have run into unreasonable clients that won’t work out no matter what you do. They want free work and want to screw with your process; these are the ones to avoid, fire, or, as I prefer, stick strictly to the process and scope and deliver, but never speak to them again.

Components of Design Research

Competitor Analysis: An assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of current and potential competitors. This analysis provides both an offensive and defensive strategic context to identify opportunities and threats.

Design Research: is about understanding real people in the context of their everyday lives and then using what we learn to inspire our work.

Design Inspiration: the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative. Creative inspiration comes from 2 or more sources; if it comes from less, you are stealing. Don’t steal.

Pre & Post Research: Research should be done throughout the project process, including before the final design (mainly identity work) is delivered to the client. It is important to ensure originality in your work, even if you did due diligence. Often the inspiration for our work comes from our sub-consciously, where something we’ve seen in the past comes through. It happens, so be sure to research your work to help prevent any awkward scenarios.

Tools for Design Research

Your Client: Your client is part of the project team. Source from them by way of interview and/ or questionnaire important information on who their competitors are in their market and how they compete, who their neighbors are on their block (literally and figuratively) vying for your visual attention and trying to stand out from the crowd.

Pinterest: Pinterest has emerged as an excellent tool for research and research collaboration with clients and project teams. Creating Pinterest boards for each project is an excellent method of researching and collecting great examples of work, and all members of the project team can contribute, helping keep people engaged. Pinterest is an excellent tool to help get visual concept consensus from all stakeholders as well as amass quality visual inspiration.

Books: Nothing inspires better than good design resources in print, like books and magazines.

Google: Researching for your project via Google is less than ideal. It is very difficult to get the search results needed to properly research your project. But once you have a design, a good practice to Google Image search your work to help ensure the design isn’t too similar to existing designs. However, using a Copyright attorney is the only way to limit any legal risk, and it is recommended that in your contract, you address this and put the responsibility on the client.

Competitor Analysis

Analyze: Identify the current and potential competition. Once the competition has been identified, assess the strengths and weaknesses.
Be sure to assess the following:

  • Brand Reputation
  • Website
  • Identity
  • Market
  • Marketing Materials
  • Packaging, Collateral
  • Customer Experience
  • Location


Are you looking to grow your business with a stronger brand?

Design Research

Empathize: Defined by empathy. As we know, design research is understanding people, their pain points, and how the design/product will benefit them. Be sure to define and understand the following

  • Who?
  • What do they want?
  • What do they need?
  • What do they feel?
  • Test your design.
  • Refine, optimize, and deliver.
  • Track the performance of your designs.
  • Further, revise, update, and improve if needed.

These points are very much aligned with our overall creative process.

Creating user personas is a helpful exercise and method for understanding your target people.

Design Inspiration

Be Inspired: What we see, do, experience, read, and learn all impact our work. Attempting to start from scratch in the creative process is a fallacy and likely impossible. We must have a starting point for our designs. That is why researching is so crucial to delivering top-notch work. Be inspired by books, conversation, film, your peers, your idols, the masters, and most importantly, life itself. Gather your forms of inspiration, identity what pieces are core to your project and refer to them and build off the ingenuity and imagination within them.

Good designers are well-read. Good designers are cultured. Good designers write well. Good designers are curious. Good designers are interested in many things. Good designers are humble. Good designers like to learn.

Pre & Post Research

Always Research: As we’ve seen, a logo fails, and other design mishaps happen too often. As a good designer, you must incorporate research into every facet and phase of your project. You want to ensure your work is original as well as not imply something inappropriate or weird that will damage your client’s brand as well as your integrity.

But do not shoulder all of the burden. Include in your contract language putting the responsibility to copyright or trademark your work on the client. They will pay a copyright attorney to handle the legal research and filing. But never let the client receive work that is questionable or worse.


Active the Right Brain: Once you feed your mind, it is important to start processing and working out ideas and concepts for the problem at hand. You do not need to be a skilled artist or illustrator to reap the immense benefits of sketching in your notebook. Do it. Do it all the time, and always run back to your notebook to work out some fresh ideas. Sketching is the quickest and most efficient method of working out ideas and evolving concepts., You’ll get to better solutions faster; you’ll move past weak or failed concepts quickly. And you will have an archive of your thought process, which is imperative to selling your work to your clients, as well as selling yourself to prospective clients or employers.

The first step in sketching is to pick up a writing utensil and put ink on a clean page. Then go from there. It is that simple. Designers and creatives of all ilks and levels have their own personalized methods, find your own through playful drawing and sketching in your notebooks. Enjoy it, and be amazed at what you can come up with.


Designing is OK: While we are not truly in the design phase of the project, don’t be afraid to test out some concepts in the digital realm. However, be careful not to jump into the machine too quickly. Your mind is where it all happens; the computer and software are just tools to help you execute your ideas. No great design happens in Adobe without properly researching, sketching, iterating, and repeating before you push pixels.

As Milton Glaser said: “Computers are to design as microwaves are to cooking.”

Let the ideas flow!

I like to say early ideas are like the cork in a wine bottle. Like the cork, they have a purpose, but also, like the cork, you have to get them out of the way to really let the goodness flow. Don’t stop at your early ideas; get them on paper, then throw them away, and brilliance can follow.


Bobby Gillespie


With 24 years of creative experience in leadership, planning, and executing performance-based branding and web design strategies, Propr and I help small and medium-sized companies and organizations grow revenue, attract new customers, manage and scale their brands, and improve marketing performance.

I’m also the author of Build Your Brand Like You Give a Shit.
Connect and follow me on LinkedIn.

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About Propr

Propr Branding and Web Design Best of Maryland Awards

Propr is a boutique brand strategy and creative agency. We help companies and organizations grow through high-performing brand strategy, graphic & identity design, messaging & custom WordPress website design & development. Performance and results drive our passion for service. Let’s do great things for your brand together.

Ready to transform your brand for consistent and better performance? Contact us today!

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