1: Beginning

Creative Design Process

Working to a Brief

Working to a ‘Brief’

A book designer generally works to a ‘brief’ – a specific set of requirements for a particular project. The brief may be set by an external agency, or it may be self-initiated. The scope of the brief may vary in terms of how much creative input the designer can exercise. In some assignments the designer is provided with text and images, along with clear guidelines as to how these are to be set out. In other cases they may be provided with a brief outline of content and title and asked to ‘come up with ideas’ – to devise concepts for cover images, for example.

The role of the designer

The designer’s role is collaborative and communicative. The designer is responsible for the visual elements on the page, the structure, arrangement and layout of typography and images. The role can be highly creative, particularly when the role crosses over into art direction; where this is the case, the designer’s ideas play a major part in shaping the visual book form.

There is a clear distinction between:

  • editorial roles: an editor deals with all the text
  • designing roles: a designer deals with the images and layout. A designer deals with the arrangement of the text and images but never edits the text. Although errors in the text may be apparent, a designer never makes corrections without first alerting the client and the editor.

Depending on the publishing and production model used, the designer may
be largely responsible for aspects of the proposal, development and realisation of the book form and may oversee the control of various elements as the book makes its way through the production process, ultimately checking printer’s proofs and ‘signing off’ a project when it is ready to go to print.

Creative Design Process

Book design is related to graphic design and a similar working process underpins much of the creative thinking and evolution of any particular design job. The creative design process includes the following stages:

  • Ideas generation
  • Research
  • Development
  • Visuals
  • Presentation

But it is not a prescriptive process – key phases (eg research and development) often overlap and link quite organically. Design work generally follows a cyclical rather than a linear process, repeating the phases many times from a micro to macro scale and back to refine and ultimately conclude the design.

Generating ideas
The design process begins with the generating of visual ideas. In this early formative stage, be as wide-ranging and imaginative as possible in your ideas. ALL ideas are valid at this point, so don’t censor; this is not the stage to decide what is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ idea – at this point they are all just ‘ideas’ with equal
merit. Record your thought processes and ideas using (in no particular order):

  • Brainstorming/spidergrams/mindmaps: ideas expressed in short sentences, ideas can be triggered by previous, or be new, bizarre ideas are encouraged – good triggers, freethinking – the more the merrier, all ideas stated uninterrupted and accepted – none are rubbished. Concept maps like spidegrams can be used to explore concepts and the connections between them, these can be coloured, rearranged and reworked and redrawn to progressively clarify and then link, or deconstruct again to get new thoughts and angles. It may be useful to mix working with computer programmes like Mindjet, Inspiration or iThoughtsHD and work on paper.
  • thumbnail sketches: quick pen or pencil line drawings to give a reminder of a fleeting idea, and can give an indication of composition and art direction. For example, how does the subject sit in the frame? How is the subject lit? What particular attributes does that subject have? Often experimentation in digital form using Illustrator or Photoshop can usefully complement the work on paper to quickly explore different compositions and colour combinations from scanned sketches.
  • annotation in wiring or ‘sketchnoting’ on the paper thumbnails. Again it is often useful to scan in combinations and get printouts that can be scribbled over without overshadowing the original ideas.

It is important to let one idea flow fluidly, intuitively and organically into another to make unexpected links and associations.


Review and selection
Review your thumbnail sketches and analyse each one through a process of critical evaluation. Which ideas are you drawn to? Which ideas have ‘legs’ – possible interesting outcomes which are worth pursuing? Often the ideas which are strongest are those which have depth, or many layers of association. Perhaps you are intuitively drawn to a particular idea. Select several ideas/thumbnails which you would like to develop further.

Research and development

The form your research will take depends on the individual elements of your idea. It may be that you need to make some objective drawings, for example, to understand your subject better, and to consider aspects of composition. Other research activities include arranging a photoshoot to further explore your visual ideas, or going on-line to source material that informs your ideas. You can use both primary and secondary sources of research in this way. Research feeds into the development of your visual work, informing and advancing your ideas. Document this phase of the work accordingly.

This is the culmination of all your preliminary work. Work up some more developed visual sketches. These can be hand-drawn illustrations, photographs, and/or include typography. The presentation can be a little rough around the edges but should show the main elements of the design.

Present your ideas as finished visual images. Create digital files of your images, making sure these are a reasonable resolution – 180dpi is a good minimum, 300dpi is optimum.