WPDFD Issue #12 - March 01, 1999


There is something nice about a blank, white sheet of paper. There is nothing there but potential. The same goes for a blank computer screen - just select New... from the File menu, but then what? It can be intimidating, it can be exciting, but beginning a new project from absolutely nothing and nurturing and cajoling initial ideas into full fruitfulness is what the creative process is all about.

The brief and proposal

The first part of any design task is to identify the problem. The client may have identified the problem and presented it to you as a design brief. More likely, they haven't. Sure they may know they have a problem, but they don't quite know what it is and certainly don't know how to go about fixing it. One scenario is that they think they want/need a Web site - but don't know why or what to expect of it.

The very first part of any design project to identify the objectives and scope of the job in hand. If you don't have a concise brief from the client, write it yourself. If the objective is not clear, it is impossible to satisfy it. It may be that there is more than one objective, in which case you have to prioritise the objectives in a sensible way. It may be that you need to explore a number of confused or related objectives before deciding on which is the right approach.

It is very easy to be swayed by preconceptions. The clients may have seen something that they like and want the same for themselves, or something along the same lines. You might have this great idea you have been dying to use for ages, and this could be the big chance ... No, avoid preconceptions. No two problems are exactly the same. Unique problems require unique solutions. The trick is to identify what is unique about this particular problem.

A few months ago, I wrote about how different designers have different strengths and weaknesses and how you can map their skills on a notional prism. Your skills may be in illustration, or typography, or in lateral thinking - it takes all sorts. The chances are, that you have been chosen for a particular design job because the client likes your previous work. They probably want you to communicate a message about their product or service in your particular style.

Ideas vs. style

The 'idea' is the intellectual element of the communication. You can have an idea with no style whatsoever - a lot of advertising material falls into this category, it is blunt and to the point and there's not much wrong with that. But, in a competitive situation, it is style that differentiates products making them memorable, emotively desirable - and ultimately, successful.

When faced with creative constipation, most designers will head straight for the bookshelf and start flicking through design annuals looking for inspiration - I do it myself. This is okay if it is inspiration you are after and you are not just looking for someone else's ideas or layouts to copy. Remember, those design you are looking at in the books are solution to different problems and unlikely to be the answer to yours.

Quite often I get people write to me and say, Hey Joe, (I'm sick of that one for a start,) is it okay if I use your background on my site? No, it bloody isn't!!! The background and graphics elements I created for my site give it a unique graphical style and they won't be unique if other people start to use them. And their sites won't be unique because they used the style of another well known site.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of site layout styles that we see over and over again. You can call them, 'tried and tested', 'popular styles', 'classic looks', 'Style #14b' or whatever. Yes, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be totally original but the fact is that people take shortcuts for reasons of time pressure, budget restrictions or simply because they don't have an idea in their heads!

I find that my computer is the main barrier to design. Ideas are light, wispy things. They waft by on the breeze like flutterbies, much more easily captured with a pencil and paper than by thirty pounds of plastic, steel and silicon. No matter how 'user friendly' your system, the computer forces you into thinking its way - it may be subtle, but you have to learn to use the computer to realise your ideas in the most transparent way possible.

Blaming your tools

They say a bad workman always blames his tools - yes, it no good blaming your computer or software if your work is below par. Bad workmen often choose the wrong tools to begin with. A Swiss Army Knife may get you out of trouble in an emergency, but it is not a substitute for a proper tool kit. Too many software programs are Swiss Army Knives, packed to the brim with 'features' but not particularly good at anything.

In Web design, certain tools are essential. You need a WYSIWYG HTML editor. I don't really believe that graphic designers can produce a decent page using a pure text editor only. There are plenty of products to choose from at a variety of price points with varying emphasis on layout accuracy and code efficiency. You also have to have a good Web graphics program. The ubiquitous Adobe Photoshop may be good for creating images, but it isn't the best tool for optimising Web graphics.

From idea to Web page

When it comes to producing copy, like this article for instance, I could sit down with Microsoft Word and just type topdown, but I don't. I use an ancient Mac program called Acta which is more of an 'ideas processor'. I can throw in lots of disjointed thoughts initially and then rearrange them by simply dragging and dropping on the screen. I can construct a skeleton of the article, and then go in and fill-in the details.

Prototyping in Photoshop

I will usually prototype a Web page in Photoshop or Illustrator where I can use the layers to show or hide alternative elements, moving them about the page until I get a 'look' that I am happy with. Having done that, I will produce the final images in GIF or JPEG format before taking them across to Macromedia's DreamWeaver/BBEdit for assembly and coding. I will then 'publish' the pages using Apple's Web Sharing control panel so that I can see what they look like in Netscape and Ms Internet Explorer version 3 and 4 on my PC.

Self criticism

Now, before rushing off to show your client your wonderful new creation, stop. Think! This is the point where you have to stand back from your work and give it the acid test. This is where you have to try and take your client's point of view as best you can - it's not easy, but ask yourself these questions. Does the answer meet the brief? Have you 'bent' the brief to fit in with a preconceived idea?

And finally...

Before presenting your ideas to your client, draw them into your thinking gradually. Shock tactics are all very well, but can spring unfortunate defence mechanisms. Remind the client of the brief that you agreed upon. Show that you have identified the problem and drop a few hints about a possible solution or solutions that you considered, but rejected for some good reason. It may be that you want to illustrate some of these rejected ideas, that makes the case for the final solution a much stronger one.


No, it's not some new Web design software that you haven't heard of yet. Solitude is sometimes confused with loneliness but it's not the same at all. You can be lonely in an office full of people, but you won't have solitude. Solitude is like putting your environment into neutral gear so that you are not distracted when you are trying to think. I live and work in London, UK right below the flight path to Heathrow, probably the World's busiest airport yet solitude is not hard to find.