How I Start A Design Project — Problem Definition

How do you start a new project? What are the first things you do when a client gets in touch and you’re beginning a new design? I’d like to talk a little about what I do in the first phase of a new design project.

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The idea for the post comes from a post Cameron Moll wrote discussing the very same topic about how he begins a project. I think it’s helpful for designers to share more of their processes. When we do we help each other improve, which is why I wanted to share the start of my process.

One of the things I found interesting in Cameron’s post is that the way he begins varies. I tend to start pretty much the same way on every project. Cameron also mentioned how he jumps into Photoshop sooner rather than later. He has enough experience to work that way. Again it’s different from my process. I can’t remember the last time I used a graphic editor to design anything and it’s been even longer since I showed a client a design comp or mockup.

I should point out that both Cameron and myself are probably defining the start of a project in a different location. I don’t know for certain, but I have a hunch what he’s calling the start is a later than what I’m calling the start. I’m pretty sure he does some of what I’m about to describe before opening Photoshop.

Thinking About the Problem Drives the Process

My process begins with thought. I don’t open graphics programs or even sketch most of the time. I think. I write. I make notes. I didn’t realize until finishing Monday’s post on simplicity, but what what I’m doing is following an approach where I’m seeking the essence of what it is I’m to design. I’m defining the problem I’ve been asked to solve.

It reminds me of Einstein’s quote.

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

I begin by asking my client a lot of questions. I’m trying to increase my understanding of what my client wants, who my client is, who my client’s customers are, what’s the business plan, and anything else I can think of to ask.

It’s all about defining the problem to be solved and finding the essence of the site I’ll design. It’s not all about me, though. Many of my questions are meant to get the client thinking as well, so we can both define the problem the same way.

For example a few months ago a client approached me wanting a site. The client didn’t provide lot of information. There was an idea for the general look and a few paragraphs of text, but nothing more. They told me about their business and I started researching.

I searched for sites with similar businesses and looked for what they did and didn’t do. After a few days I thought there were some things my client hadn’t considered and thought through as much as they might. I wasn’t sure if they’d really thought about who they were targeting and what their pricing should be.

The next week or two turned into a back and forth between us. I wrote up a long email with thoughts about their business. They liked some of my idea and rejected others. Either was fine with me. My goal was to get us both talking and thinking about the business specifically in regards to their site, so together we could get to the core and define the design problem they were hiring me to solve.

Another thing I do early on with every project is ask clients to send me designs they like as well as some they don’t like. I want to understand the visual style they prefer. I ask for explanations about both their likes and dislikes, though I don’t always get either.

I’ll usually get a few examples and I’ll look at them for patterns to help me understand what my client wants and doesn’t want. Sometimes it’s a typeface. Sometimes it’s a color. Sometimes it’s a small detail like a line or shadow.

Again the goal is to define the problem as best as possible with the client and to understand the essence of what it is I’m to design.

Turning Thoughts and Notes into Design

Everything I collect goes into an ordinary text file. I record everything so I don’t forget anything and I use the file as a brain dump for any thought that comes to mind. I add anything the client says about what they want no matter how irrelevant it might seem along with my own thoughts and research.

Sooner of later I reach a point where my notes need some organization and I get a little more focused and I look through my notes to discover things about the content such as:

  • how many pages of content will there be?
  • how many different page types are there?
  • what are the different content types for each page type?

I’ll add sections about possible visual styles based on descriptive words my client has used. I’ll create sections in the document for color, layout, type, and general aesthetics and add these descriptive words to them.

As I’m organizing I’ll look for patterns. Again I’ll look at all the different pages and think how many will need to be distinct templates and I’ll look for the different types of content that will be in each template.

More and more my notes get organized around the different decisions I’ll need to make. There will be general notes and notes about color and type, etc.

As I find the underlying patterns I being to remove whatever isn’t essential. I’ll probably hold onto these things in part of the file or in another file just in case. I’m not always successful in removing the unessential. Sometimes it’s my fault and sometimes a client insists on something that would probably be best left out. I’m trying though to reduce to 100% essential and nothing more.

By the time anything most people think of as design happens (sketching, choosing a color scheme, selecting typefaces) the client and I have a 2 way feedback loop going. We’ve started to developing a trusting working relationship, and we’ve come to agreement about what the site will be. We’ve worked together to define the problem they want me to solve.

None of this takes a long. A week, maybe two. During this time I’ve turned my one file into several files and I’ve started filling in those files with real type and color choices I can show clients. I’ll take these files and build a simple prototype showing these options so my client can choose. I’ll offer more feedback and be prepared to implement their choices in what becomes the working website.


The key thing about the start of my process is that it begins by thinking. It begins with questions and communication between myself and my client. There are times when my thinking will be visual in the form of sketching, but most of the time it’s me writing down words in a text file.

The goal of all this thinking is to define the problem and understand the essence of the site being designed. A secondary goal is to set up the 2-way feedback loop between the client and myself. Everything is geared toward agreement on what I’ll be doing and building a working relationship.

By the time “real” design work begins we’re both involved and invested in the project. We’ve spent our 55 minutes on the problem and can spend the remaining time on the solution.

A nice by product is that all the investment and involvement on the client side leads to happier clients at the end of the project. They feel ownership in the finished site and know they’ve contributed to how it turns out.

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