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How a fast-paced agency tuned their design process to a hum

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One of my favorite things about working at an agency is that we get to work on a ton of different projects at once. We love helping a non-profit one day, a large enterprise the next, and a startup the day after that. It’s also one of the biggest challenges—how do we ensure quality when we’re balancing so much?

At Clique, quality is particularly important because the majority of our business is inbound—we don’t do sales calls or conduct any advertising efforts. The only way we grow is through the quality of the stuff we make and the relationships we build along the way. Naturally, we spend a lot of time refining the quality of our work.  

Design process

Images courtesy of Clique.

Achieving that balance is tough—you’ve got to create the highest quality work while juggling a multitude of projects and ever-approaching deadlines. We’ve found that, if done right, having speed in our decision-making leads to better, more cohesive work. Users can sense the strength of a bold, confident idea; on the flipside, they can also tell when we’ve created something through committee and endless meetings.

No process is perfect—ours certainly isn’t—but over the years we’ve been fine-tuning how we work so that we can tackle disparate challenges, use them to grow and to test our assumptions, and ultimately still produce the best work possible. Here’s what we’ve learned.

1.Balance ownership with collaboration

To be successful as a team, our processes must allow for the delicate balance between ownership and collaboration. Collaboration takes time but can improve quality, while ownership increases speed and depth of understanding, but siloes the owner. The 2 don’t have to be mutually exclusive, though.

“Establish a design process that allows for collaboration and ownership simultaneously.”

Speed comes through accuracy. We strive for that accuracy by striking a balance between designers’ ownership over the complete vision of their work and feedback from multiple angles within the company—from PMs to developers, to marketing and UX analysts, and everyone in-between.

Related: Design teams have more fun collaborating with Craft Freehand. Try it out!

Our process has many of the same pieces others do…  

  • Discovery
  • Sitemaps and user flows
  • Wireframes
  • Designs
  • Front-end development
  • Back-end development
  • Launch

…but it also has its own nuances.

We give a high amount of ownership to our designers in the wireframing and design stages, while strategically injecting the rest of the team in working sessions and group reviews. They check assumptions, push boundaries, and occasionally even nitpick some pixel widths. Saul Bass, graphic designer and filmmaker, reminds us that design is just “thinking made visible.”

“The design process isn’t an assembly line.”

Ted Novak, one of our founders, adds, “Most clients don’t realize that every single design iteration, from first draft to final deliverable, has gone through the process where we sit as a team and review—it’s not an assembly line, but a result of internal collaboration.”

Design process

Too many opinions, and the design can become confused; too many meetings, and scheduling alone sucks up too much time. But too little collaboration means information lost, and designs lack direction. Too much “heads-down time” and the designers find themselves siloed from the rest of the process, handing off their work rather than building something better together.

By empowering designers to bounce ideas off each other and the rest of the team in a way that doesn’t force multiple people to work on the same Sketch file, we’ve found harmony between ownership and collaboration. Instead of having too many cooks in the kitchen, we have prep cooks, sous chefs, line cooks, pastry chefs, chefs de cuisine… you get the picture—different role, common goal.

Design process

2. Run with one concept instead of jogging with several

Many agencies present their clients with several initial concepts, then ask them to pick their favorite. This requires more time from the design team and often renders one low-effort design, one safe design, and one risky design.

We prefer to go all-in on one concept and throw it in the trash if it misses the mark. The former route can cause a client’s indecisiveness, which not only eats up time, but may also lead to a disparate concept without a clear vision if they “saladbar”(choose some elements from each design).

Ever hear the saying, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission?” We think that applies here. Do your best work first, then see if it requires revision.

3. Avoid “big reveals”—show your work often

Rather than designing the entire project only to hear that the client wants to take things in a different direction, focus on getting one page up for them to see. Then use their initial feedback to build out the rest.

We call this “responsible prioritization.” For example, when designing a new site, we generally present the home page and an important secondary page for our first iteration.

You don’t want to go down a road opposite of your client’s vision only to have to U-turn. Present deliverables often so clients see your efficiency, but make them small deliverables so you don’t assume without feedback.

Design process

4. Launch fast and small

If you have a rapidly approaching deadline or an incredibly tight timeline, make sure you launch something. But make it a key something, like a kick-ass splash page—meet the immediate needs, while allowing more time to build out the rest of the site in phase 2. This enables the prioritization of speed without needing to sacrifice quality.

This method proved successful in a site we recently designed for Riverline. The initial concept was on an expedited timeline, so we crafted and implemented the homepage as fast and as well as possible. Once that successfully launched, we built out the rest of the site, which allowed us to meet and exceed their initial expectations without sacrificing the quality of the design.

Design process

5. Use the best tools

This can mean different things for different designers, so find what works best for you. Stay up to speed with new technologies, as there are constantly improving mediums. For us, using Sketch over Photoshop has proved incrementally beneficial to our processes. We find it to be more intuitive. Plus, by utilizing Craft we can directly sync with InVision, where we share our designs with each other and with our clients.

Related: Learn how to switch to Sketch in this free and easy video course

As most of you probably know if you’re reading this blog, InVision allows for real-time updates and the ability for the client to leave feedback directly on the design. This has been invaluable in simulating the functionality of our designs, communicating effectively with our clients, and most importantly, saving time.

Having feedback at the click of a button saves hours of back-and-forth emailing, trying to explain exactly where there may be an issue or attempting to understand what a certain element is supposed to look like.

Now it’s all in one place, it’s functional, and it’s never been easier to update. Don’t make your job any harder by using bad tools.

6. Know there’s always room for improvement

There are 2 wrong ways to design:

  1. Throwing something out there without the right level of collaborative energy or thoughtfulness
  2. Overthinking it entirely, when at some point, time is better spent executing (if you’ve ever heard of the Marshmallow Challenge, you know what we mean)

Design is never finished—we can’t look at a single site without thinking of ways it could’ve been designed differently. But if we waited until we were ready, we’d never get anything done.

Design process

There’s no magic equation that adds up to the perfect design process. With agencies specifically, we have to balance working on several unique projects for a diverse clientele, meeting a wide variety of visions and deadlines.

So, establish a design process that allows for collaboration and ownership simultaneously. Communicate often, but allow for heads-down time. And never stop searching for ways to improve.

“If we waited until we were ready, we’d never get anything done.”

Remember as a kid, when your teacher would remind you that clean-up time goes quicker when everyone helps? That still holds true. When everyone contributes, things move faster, and it leads to a better output. And we mean when everyone really contributes, because each individual adds value to the greater whole.

At Clique, we believe in growth through quality. Practice, improve, repeat. Produce better output more efficiently as you grow as an individual, and as you grow as a team.

When we do that, everyone wins.

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Author

Mel DeStefano
Mel DeStefano is a Content Strategist at Clique Studios, an award-winning design & engineering agency in Chicago. Clique designs and builds digital experiences in the industries where they make the most impact.

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