Graphic Design Process – The Basics – Part 1

If you are anything like I was in my first year of art school, you might find yourself clueless on how to start your first graphic design project. You might also find yourself heading straight to the computer to start your project. If either of those sounds like you, this three-part blog series titled, Graphic Design Process – The Basics, will hopefully help you both save time and create better designs.

The first, and most important, part of any design project is the planning stage. Behind every great design is a lot of planning, research, and strategy. If you start designing without any sort of well-thought-out plan, your design is going to fall short. The planning stage consists of (but not limited to) mind mapping, topic research, developing a creative brief, and creating mood and style boards.


Mind map

A mind map is a visual display of information with hierarchy and shows relationships between words and thoughts. They are often created around a single idea or concept to assist in creating new connections to things you might not otherwise think of. Although there are ways of doing this digitally, I find it best to use a pen and paper. I like to use a sheet of 11x17 paper and either a pen or marker. The idea here is to get as many words and ideas onto the paper as possible. The reason I use a pen or marker is so that I can’t erase what I wrote down. If you wrote something down, it’s best to keep it there even if you changed your mind. You might find that that word or idea might lead to something else even better.

More often than not, you will not have a concept developed for your project. This is the reason you’re creating a mind map in the first place. A common mistake graphic designers make is assuming their topic and their concept is the same thing. This mistake will have you creating meaningless and amateur work. I will go into more detail on developing a solid concept in a future blog, but for now, you just need to know that a concept is a unique angle in which you will present your topic. The topic of your project should be in the center of your mind map and the words you build off of that will help you in developing your concept. Once you’ve completed your mind map (and I mean until your page is full and there’s no more room to write), you should select your top 3–5 words or ideas.


You thought that since you decided to be an art major, you wouldn’t have to hear the word “research” again in your life, right? Wrong. Research plays a key role in graphic design and it’s a step you can’t afford to skip. Skipping this step will have you designing without any idea of what’s been done before, what the topic is, or any visual inspiration.

I suggest spending some time researching your topic in general. You don't need to be an expert on this topic; however, If someone in your class asks you a question on your topic, you should be able to come up with some sort of answer. After you’ve completed your general research, you should spend some time researching your 3–5 words or ideas. These words or ideas might not mean much taken out of context, but doing a quick Google search will help you get a slightly better understanding of these words.

Creative Brief

The creative brief is a great way to help guide you through your creative process. This is a document that every design project should start off with. It discusses the project goals, target audience, the problem, and your proposed solution, as well as a variety of other pieces of information. To prevent this blog from being ridiculously long, here is a great article from AIGA about Mastering the Creative Brief.

Moodboards & Style Boards

Once you have completed your creative brief, you’re ready to start creating your moodboards and style boards. What’s a moodboard? I was shocked that I did not know what a mood board was until I learned it in my 2nd year at design school. Hopefully, by learning what they are and how to utilize them, you will be able to gain an advantage over your fellow classmates.

A moodboard a poster/visual representation (essentially a collage of photos) of the mood or feeling you want your project to convey. Using the 3–5 words you derived from your mind maps, create a moodboard for each word or idea. To do this, collect a variety of high-quality photos that represent your word well. It’s important that all of these images support one common mood so that it reads as one mood when you place all of your photos onto your moodboard. A moodboard is typically no smaller than 11x17. Most of my moodboards are done in 13x19 (the largest size most large-format inkjet printers will print), but I have had some moodboards be as big as 15x20 (which you can either tile or have printed by a print shop). 

Moodboards are a big enough topic on their own. Keep a lookout for a future blog post that will go more in-depth on creating an effective moodboard.

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