Every freelancer has their own daily routine and rituals that help them feel productive and creative, whether it’s a morning cup of tea or a half-hour of sketching outside.
While little rituals like these vary from person to person, you’ll find that the work process followed by freelance designers is largely consistent across the board. Once that cup of tea’s been drained, every professional has a step-by step process for completing their design work to a high standard.
Here we take a look at the process freelancers employ to bring a design brief into reality for their clients. From building mood boards and mock-ups to assessing print proofs and consumer testing, these are the building blocks of any pro’s work process. Read on to discover how to make your own workflow smoother and more efficient every time.
Stage One: The Brief
When a client contacts you with a job in mind it is your opportunity to extract as much information from them as you can. No designer is a mind-reader, so it’s important at this early stage of the graphic design process to assess exactly what the client is hoping for, and for you to communicate what they can expect from you within the timeframe.
Step 1: Client Meeting and Brief Analysis
A client might get in touch with you over email or phone proposing a design project. If the client is new, they may expect an initial face-to-face meeting before proceeding to the quote stage. Agreeing to meet for a quick coffee will help you to assess whether the client is serious about commissioning a project. Take along portfolio items that are relevant to the project the client has in mind. This helps the client see if your style and approach will suit them, as well as give some food for thought in terms of the direction of the project.
Following this first meeting you can send the client a contract and quote and request a written brief. It’s very important to get these documents in writing, preferably as stand-alone Word or PDF documents rather than simply in email format. This will help set a professional tone from the very outset of the project, and allows both parties to refer to what was quoted or briefed if any dispute later arises. For designers a written contract is particularly important to have to hand, as it’s not unheard of for clients to change their minds about what they want later down the line. This in itself is not a problem, but you do need to ensure that the client is willing to pay for extra hours if the brief is altered.
You can provide the client with a design brief form for them to fill in, including sections on the details of the project, the deadline and their own ideas for the style or direction they would like for the design (if they have any). If they are able to provide information about their business’ brand ethos and competitors within their sector this is also very helpful, and access to brand guidelines, if available, is essential for brand-centric projects. Even simple brand elements, like a color palette or fonts, can be a fantastic starting point for developing your ideas.
Step 2: Market Research
Once you have a clear brief in place you might be tempted to dive straight into designing. But hold up! Market research is an often neglected stage of the freelancer’s work process, but one that’s really worth your time.
Do some online research into your client’s industry and their competitors. Can you spot common traits between brands in a particular sector? Do they employ certain colors more frequently than others? Do they usually opt for san-serifs over serif fonts? You’ll find that some industries will share design traits in common — tech companies love clean sans serif typography, for example, while building and machinery companies love the punchy color pairing of black and yellow. You don’t need to mimic these designs, but you should be aware of the mood employed by your client’s competitors.
Doing a little market research will also give you valuable context for your design. By spending just an hour or so researching, you can begin to think about how your design will stay relevant to the sector while occupying a unique niche in the market. You can also avoid any unfortunate duplicate logo scenarios (these happen more often than you think), which is a frustrating end to any logo design project.
Step 3: Mood Boarding
Designers have their own preferred ways of sourcing and compiling inspiration. If you like to have your inspiration in front of you while you work, a mood board is the perfect inspiration reference to have on hand. Some designers prefer to create a physical board using clippings, print-outs, sketches, and color samples. Alternatively, creating a simple grid-based board in Photoshop or InDesign is a convenient way to drop in images sourced from online. Mix with fonts and color swatches to create a handy reference that is ready for applying to digital work.
There are also several online tools for creating mood boards that are great for sharing with clients or collaborators. Pinterest is an oldie but a goodie, allowing you to create secret boards that you can share with clients. The images generated on the Pinterest home page are also more trend-driven than Google Images, allowing you to check out what consumers are pinning and buying within your client’s sector. If you’re working in a team, a collaborative whiteboarding tool like MURAL allows you to share inspiration and ideas collaboratively for a $12 per month fee.
Step 4: Sketching
Perhaps your mood boarding exercise has given you a spark of inspiration for your project, or maybe you’re still unsure of the direction to go in. Either way, this is when it’s time to step away from the computer, pick up a pencil and paper, and start sketching. There’s something intrinsically creative about sketching by hand; when you’re away from the screen you have no other distractions and your brain can really have the freedom to wander and explore the ideas that pop into your head.
Every designer has their own preferred method for sketching, and with practice you’ll soon find your groove. I personally like working on a large sketchpad (at least A3 in size), with a fine-tipped ink pen. I tend to sketch outside or at least away from my office to give me a break from any distractions. Give yourself a defined slot of time to simply sketch and resist temptations to go online or check emails. Don’t worry about refining your sketches or making them look good; at this stage your focus should simply be on generating lots of rough ideas. If you have thoughts about mood, branding, or colors, write them down as annotations on the page. Aim to fill up a few pages of your pad with lots of diverse ideas. Don’t dwell on a single concept for too long — once you’ve explored one idea in a couple of sketches, force yourself to move onto something different.
Step 5: Concept Refinement
When your time is up, step away from your sketchpad and take a break. You’ll come back to your sketches feeling refreshed and ready to assess them impartially. If you’re working collaboratively, grab one of your teammates to review your sketches alongside you. It’s worth asking for outside opinion: You might be attached to a particular idea, but they might find something special in a different sketch.
Take a pen and circle the three ideas that you feel have the most potential for development. Even if you’re not completely sure about one or even two of these ideas, you should always refine at least three concepts. This gives the client plenty to think about and helps create a better, more thoughtful design by the end of the process.
It’s time to refine your designs, but don’t move back to the computer just yet. Take a fresh sheet of paper for each of your three sketches, and redraw out the designs by hand. You might want to bring in colored pens or paints, and spend a little longer cultivating the details of the designs.
Once you have a trio of refined sketches, you can digitize them. At this stage, you don’t want to spend undue time refining the three designs digitally. After all, two of your designs will end up on the drawing room floor after presenting to the client. Focus on digitizing the bones of your three designs, whether that’s through simplified vector versions of logo designs in Illustrator, or drafting quick poster layouts in InDesign.
Stage Two: Presentation
When you’ve got your trio of refined designs, it’s time to touch base with the client. Designers are often hesitant to reveal their ideas to clients before they have been perfected, but checking in with the client at this stage will actually save you a lot of heartache and time down the line.
Step 1: Three-Concept Presentation to the Client
There’s an art to presenting your ideas to clients and, believe me, it’s not always simple to do. If you find presentations a little nerve-wracking, your best approach is to simply be prepared. Present your three design concepts in a nicely composed document — Adobe InDesign is my go-to software for producing high-quality presentation documents. Set out the document on landscape A4 or Letter-sized pages, making it easy for a client to print in-house, and keep the pages simple and free of clutter, allowing your designs to take center-stage. You can send over the presentation on email, or bring a few printouts with you to a meeting.
Step 2: Client Review and Further Refinement
Many designers struggle to hear criticism about their designs, even if it is constructive. Keep in mind that the client knows their business inside and out, and while they may not know what is best in terms of design for their brand, they will have a fine-tuned sense of what has worked for them in the past.
You may have a strong attachment to one of your designs, and there are techniques you can employ to subtly push your client in the right direction, such as placing your favored design at the end of your presentation (to ensure a lasting impression) and being open to suggestions about adjustments.
Presenting your ideas to the client might seem scary, but remind yourself that both parties want a good outcome to the project. It’s very unlikely the client won’t warm to any of your ideas, and if you’re open to suggestions, there’s always opportunity for a lukewarm idea to develop into something fantastic. With the client’s backing you can make headway on refining the approved design. This might involve a few days working on your software of choice, reviewing drafts at various stages, and seeking outside opinion from collaborators and even friends or family.
Step 3: Final Review and Edits
It’s likely you’ve spent the last few days completely absorbed in refining your design. As every designer knows there’s always room for improvement and it’s a wise idea to periodically print out your drafts, take a break from them and review them with a fresh eye. It’s amazing what you can spot when you’ve had a half hour break away from your work. Suddenly it seems completely obvious that a piece of text needs some kerning improvement, or your choice of colors is a little too brash.
When you’ve produced a near-perfect draft of your design, it’s once again time to touch base with the client. They may have lots to suggest, or very little, and it’s up to you to decide if the amount of edits required is covered comfortably by your original quote. If not, you should consider asking for the client to pay for extra hours. This is also the right time to outsource help for issues that are not design-focussed, such as copywriting and copyediting.
Stage 3: Technical Production
One of the most satisfying stages of a freelancer’s work process is seeing their work go from paper or screen to reality. As this stage often requires skills and equipment that only others can provide it’s essential you put the time into building your little black book of resources. Whether it’s a reliable print shop or a great-value web developer, much of a freelancer’s time is spent locating and contacting these key people.
Step 1: Sourcing Production
If you’re new to freelancing, building your little black book of helpful contacts is an essential step that will put you in good stead for tackling any client project with confidence. No man is an island, and often it will be more economical, practical, and time-efficient for you to outsource production rather than learning certain skills yourself from scratch.
Printing is one such production method which is simply impossible for most in-house designers to do themselves. You can search online for local print shops (which are great for smaller jobs, like brochures and posters) and more sophisticated print labs (which are better suited to high-end work, like magazines, exhibition materials or photography printing). Not all printers are created equal, and you may find that some are cheaper and/or more reliable than others, so shop around to get the best deal. If you end up doing print work regularly for clients, some print shops will allow you to open accounts with them, which offer prioritization when time is short and sometimes better deals on print jobs.
If you dabble in web design, it’s always good to have a reliable web developer on hand as well. Sure, you may know how to set up a WordPress template, but you’ll need coding expertise when launching websites or apps.
Step 2: Creating a Mock-up and/or Testing
Once you’ve sourced a printer or web developer, you’re ready to move onto the pre-launch stage of your design process.
For print design, this might involve creating a mock-up to discuss with your chosen printer. If you’re adding multiple post-print effects to your design, such as foiling, embossing or die-cutting, explaining exactly what you want to the printer in person is also a wise move. You can create a rough mock-up quickly from a home or office printer – it doesn’t need to be to size. Annotate it with instructions if required, and pay a visit to the printers to talk it over. Your printer will find this to be incredibly helpful, so don’t be shy about specifying exactly what you want done
After specifying what you want from the printer, you should request a pre-print proof, which should be provided for you free of charge. You can use this to assess whether colors are printed to your satisfaction, if multi-page documents have been arranged correctly and also whether post-print processes like trimming have been done well.
If you’re working on a website or app design, it’s essential to have a testing phase before launching. Your developer can help you do this in order to fix any irregularities that pop up. Clients will expect your website design to work equally well across all browsers and all devices, but it can be tricky to get hold of numerous tablets, phones, and desktops to test across. This is where cross-browser testing tools come in handy. CrossBrowser Testing tests your design across over 1500 browsers and devices, ensuring your design is optimized for every visitor.
Step 3: Time to Launch!
Whether you’ve received a box full of printed posters or pressed the ‘Publish’ button for your website design, the feeling of finally sharing your design with the client or the world is simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. All your hard work has condensed into this design, and you should take a moment to appreciate it. Give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back!
Once the design is completed, and all relevant files have been handed over to the client, it’s time to submit your invoice. If all has gone well you shouldn’t have any problems, and you can get yourself ready to move onto the next exciting design brief.
Step 4: Heading Back to the Drawing Board
Unfortunately, not all design projects have a completely happy ending. You may need to be involved in the project even after completion, depending on your initial agreement with the client.
This may be something as minor as fixing small faults in an app design that only became apparent after launching, or it could be as extreme as a complete reassessment of a design from scratch. Sometimes consumers simply don’t warm to a rebrand, or the client decides that a book cover needs revising to work in a different market.
The realisation that your hard work might not have led to the perfect design can be disappointing for both the designer and the client, but it’s something that every freelance designers needs to become accustomed to. What is truly important is the way in which you approach revisions. Heading back to the drawing board with an open mind and renewed enthusiasm can be difficult at first, but it really will show your client that you’re an adaptable professional, and will also lead to greater long-term development for you as a designer.
The freelance designer’s work process comes full-circle if revisions are called for, but this certainly shouldn’t be seen as a failure. By sticking to a failsafe work process, from analyzing a brief to presenting ideas to overseeing the production of your design, you can minimize the possibility of revisions on your designs, and create something you’re truly proud of.
All Images by PureSolution