Running the Design Process Solo: A Primer for Small Businesses

From generating new ideas to choosing top-tier solutions for your brand, find everything you need in this simple primer on designing for small businesses.

As a small business owner, good design can sometimes seem hard to achieve. Some of that is down to simply not having the time or skills to make good design work for your business. Other times it’s because seems less critical in comparison to more traditional business metrics, such as cost per sale, customer satisfaction, or new client acquisition.

However, the simple fact is that without good design, you have no way of presenting or marketing what you do in the best possible light. It may not be easy to quantify when you miss opportunities due to bad design, but that doesn’t make it any less of a fact. Presenting your product, service, or any aspect of your business poorly will ultimately have a detrimental impact overall. For example, a badly organized or designed website will put off certain online customers, and clunky packaging design can affect repeat sales. Likewise cobbling together a mediocre social media presence may lead to fewer customers opting to find out more about your business.

All that said, hiring a designer to work with your business may not be an option, or it may simply be too expensive right now. That leads many small businesses to run the design process in-house. Today we’ll delve into how the process works so you can start creating better designs for yourself.


Following the Creative Process

While design is absolutely a creative endeavor, it is still a process. What’s more, this process is fairly well-established and companies of every size adopt it. Some terminology may differ from one company to the next, and some steps may be reversed or slightly modified in different places, but the process is more or less the same everywhere.

You may have been led to believe that creativity is a messy and disorganized undertaking. However, the irony of creativity is that the more structured you are in your approach, the more creative you will ultimately be.


Designing With the Double Diamond Model

Over the years, there have been many efforts to describe the graphic design process. And, although new and shiny diagrams and terminology come and go, essentially they all derive from or refer to the double diamond model.

As the name suggests, the model is made up of a set of actions that are doubled, or performed twice. Although the model is made up of four distinct phases, the first and third phases and the second and fourth phases follow similar approaches, hence the doubling. With the first and third phases, you are looking to widen your understanding of a problem, and with the second and fourth phases you are looking to narrow the findings you have made. So, when you draw the process as a diagram, you end up with two diamonds that diverge and then converge.

Given the repeated nature of the model, it is short and easy-to-follow. It doesn’t take much time to grasp, and your designs will improve relatively quickly as a result.


The Double Diamond Model’s Four Phases

Before we jump into the individual phases, it’s important to note that the two diamonds, or each set of phases, work to accomplish a different thing. In the first diamond, you are looking to establish the problem, or work out what it is that you want to design; this is the research section. In the second diamond, you are looking to develop the solution, or work out how that thing should be designed; this is the design section.

1. Discover

Image via Efetova Anna.

In the first phase, your goal is to gather as much information about the project as possible. This will allow you to make the best decisions further along in the process. At this stage, as much as it may sound like a cliché, there really is no such thing as a bad idea. After all, this initial phase is not about coming up with solutions. Instead it’s about defining problems, and the only way that you can do that is by ensuring you consider every single idea, concept, design, or thought that makes sense for your project.

Even though you’re running the process in-house, it’s still worth thinking about writing a creative brief as a reference point for you and your team. This will serve as the cornerstone of the project and allow you to understand the parameters that you’re working within, and give you a reference point should you get offtrack later in the process.

As well as a brief, it’s also worth thinking into what your competitors are doing. Without understanding what others in your industry may have done already, you may end up designing something that a competitor has already created, or coming up with a solution that is very similar to something already out there. Simple web searches and social media trawling are your friends here.

Finally, once you understand the thing you’re trying to design and the competitive landscape where you’re designing it, it’s time to generate some basic design concepts! Organize your ideas by conducting brainstorming sessions and creating moodboards so that you can group together themes and directions.

2. Define

Image via Alia Images.

In the second phase, your goal is to put all the great ideas you’ve come up with through a proverbial sieve, so that only the golden nuggets remain. Understanding what won’t work is just as important as understanding what will, so don’t discard the ideas you’re not keen on. They can serve as a reference to where your parameters lie.

A good way to start this process is to use simple sticky notes to divide the ideas into two groups—those that you want to follow through on and those you don’t. As well as the sticky notes, creating basic sketches, prototypes, or models allows you to interrogate your ideas in more detail without committing to full and final designs.

At the end of this phase, you should have defined the problem you are trying to solve, and have achieved sign-off from all the major stakeholders in your business. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to start designing!

3. Develop

Image via Olena Yakobchuk.

In the third phase, the goal is to take your problem, idea, or concept, and work out the best design solution to bring it to life. Much as in the first phase, now is the time to throw open the gates and gather as many design solutions as possible.

This is where the meat of the design happens. So, flex your creative muscle to work out which of your ideas will become the final design. Wherever the design ideas take you, remember to keep your brand guidelines and existing aesthetics in mind. It’s great to explore as many design solutions as possible, but you will likely need to observe some parameters.

Also, this is a great time to bring in anybody in your team who hasn’t been involved in the process so far, but would have a bearing on the outcome. The last thing you want to do is design something beautiful only to find that your manufacturing team can’t build it, or that materials you’re suggesting won’t work in your given scenario. If you’re a company of one, share your ideas with a layperson such a friend or a relative, as they may be able to provide additional insight.

4. Deliver

Image by fizkes.

Now that you have your final design, your goal in the fourth phase is to test it and launch. Even with the most critical thinking or most diligent creative eye, it is still possible to discover unforeseen issues during testing. As much as it could be tempting now that your design is complete to skip this phase and head straight for launch, don’t. It’s better to go back a couple of phases on your terms instead of being forced to do it because a customer noticed an error in your design.


Non-Linear Designing

One thing to bear in mind is that the double diamond model does look quite linear, with a solid start and end. However, in reality the design process is anything but. Although this serves as a framework for how you can conduct design in your company, it’s worth noting that as you move through the phases, you may find that you need to circle back to earlier phases and move through the process again. This is entirely normal, so don’t fret if you cycle through the process multiple times within one project.


Conclusions

The double diamond is a fantastic model for understanding how to develop your designs in-house. It’s a flexible and enduring model that works no matter whether your business is a team of 1,000, or just you. By following the phases within the process, you can ensure a greater level of success in your design projects, which will save untold resources, and allow you to concentrate on the fun part—the design itself!


Cover image by GaudiLab.

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