How to form concepts for imaging projects
In about 1996, I built my first web site, using Adobe PageMill. As time went on, I eventually used more and more expensive software to do that work, (DreamWeaver, GoLive, etc.) and my web site(s) grew. Finally, I became frustrated with the limitations of this "drag and drop" software, and just learned the code myself. Today, I do all that work in TextEdit, a simple Mac word processor.
During those years, I also worked in design shops doing various kinds of graphics work, and became familiar with all the common tools, like PhotoShop and Illustrator. The combination of my growing skill set enabled me to start designing and building web sites and various graphic media for other people, and that's when things began to change... When I did personal work, I nearly always had a concept in mind when I started, But when others came to me, they often had no concept at all, beyond "I just want it to look good", or "This (...whatever) is the mood I want to convey". So, when faced with a blank slate, how do you conceptualize something for a client? In the case of personal projects, where you are "the client", the same ideas still apply.
So, here's a brief outline of some of the things to consider, and hints at the type of articles you'll find on this site.
- Mike James
What does the client want?
If your client is part of a known, huge, iconized business, (Say, IBM, or Coca Cola) then chances are that they'll have an outline of what they want, all kinds of sample sketches, logos, deadlines, (!), etc., along with a larger budget. That's often going to be what I'd call "straight" business. They want a logo "shaped like a boat" or whatever, and you do it, using their recognized shapes and colors, etc.. That doesn't mean it's "easy" or "fast", but it does mean that you'll probably be working in some kind of directed, micro-managed environment. Whether that's your kind of work or not depends on your personality.
There are equally-important clients who do the opposite, and communicate very little. They may "just want you to handle it". It's freedom, in a way, but I think it's important to have feedback durng the process, so that I don't paint myself into a corner. Keep great backups!
What does the client have?
In the case above, you already have some idea. But let's say you're building some graphics or a web site for an artist-type, and that while they may be very creative in their own work, they don't have a clue, when it comes to the kind of design they want from you. That's both great and terrible. Why? Because, you will seem to have "free rein" to be creative at the beginning, but chances are that you'll go through more prototypes and "tweaking" with this kind of client.
What can you do?
Suppose the client has a mixture of physical and digital images, some analog and digital video, and artwork in both printed and digital forms. Can you handle all of that data processing, AND still accomplish what the client wants? Will you have to learn new skills, buy new hardware and/or software, subcontract some of the work, transfer large files over the net, etc.?
Are you "creative", in the client's eyes? In other words, do they want you to simply "assemble" a project for them, or do they want YOU to conceptualize or iconize it for them? You're always growing (hopefully) so don't be afraid of a challenge. But do give the project requirements some honest consideration. If it's really way over your head, it's probably best to admit that, and suggest someone else. On the other hand, if you think you understand the task well enough to conquer it, then by all means, be a hero!
Expect changes and reversals, once you submit the first concept(s).
If this isn't a clear case for "Back up your work.", I don't know what is. You and/or the client may want to go back to a previous version of the project, so don't throw anything away... ever! Here's a good example of why...
A few years ago, I did the web site redesign for the Anchorage Cultural Counci, and I did updates for some period after that, until the job ultimately ended, after a leadership change. Still, I kept everything. Several months later, the new leadership emailed me, and wanted something posted right away. (They hadn't hired a new web site person.) I was able to simply say "Sure, no problem", because I had a copy of the final web site on my computer, (and backed up) and I still had the server's FTP info, so I could make the update right away. They were pleased.
If you're working with the above type of client, then things typically start like this... (Client) "I don't need anything super-fancy. I just want a simple... (whatever)". So, you design some samples, and show it to them. Typically, things will evolve into making a lot of small changes, and/or increasing the scope of the project. (more pages, on a web site, for example)
What's the budget and the timeline?
Knowing this in advance, you need to be honest with both yourself and the client, at every point in the process, regarding the time and budget considerations. If you've already agreed to "do the job for a flat fee", you're in trouble. So, don't every do that, unless you've bid the job properly. The client has to understand clearly that you're happy to make all the changes they want, keep tweaking the design, etc., but that it will cost more, in both time and money.
Think "icon" and think "hierarchy".
One of the most helpful things you can do for any little-known client, is to try and "iconize" them. That is, try and establish a consistent layout and "logo", whether it's simply based on a specific combination of colors, or an actual logo, font, slogan, etc.. Think about how simple, but instantly-recognizeable the IBM and Coca Cola logo are, for example. When people can recognize a "label" instantly, and from a distance, you've got it right.
From the very beginning, you've got to keep things in a hierarchy. The term "scaleable" describes why. Take a web site design as an example. It's hugely important that you expect the project to expand over time, and plan for that. The client may have only asked for one "Photos" page, but you should expect to make more, as time goes on. So, keep "templates", when they apply, and use a labeling and/or numbering system in your files that will work, far into the future. The categorization and numbering methodology for images alone, in a web site, can become overwhelming, if you don't plan for it in the beginning. Create "Master" folders for every category of work, and add "Sub" folders inside them, as things expand.
In the particular case of web site design, CSS is a tremendous timesaver. You keep concentrating on the content, while the presentation of it can be changed rather easily.
Improving on what the client asked for (or not)
When possible, come up with several prototypes for the client, with solid reasons for each one's existence. Making three versions of a logo, changing nothing but the color, is an obvious example, but not terribly creative. If you have artistic ability and can convey emotion through your visual media, do it!
What can go wrong, and what can you do to make it work?