We’ve been following and admiring the work of industrial designer Reid Schlegel for awhile now. His sketches are so clean and full of information that you can’t help but be inspired and excited about the products he creates. We noticed that he had been using SketchBook to develop design sketching tutorials on his Behance profile and decided to reach out. Much to our delight, Reid agreed to put together some of his thoughts on the process of design and how he breaks down a project into five stages for a feature on our blog. The project in question looks to improve the iconic New York city hot dog cart.
What is Your Design Process?
It is every designer’s job to blend their creativity, hard skills, and experiences together into their own design process. This is a daunting challenge for many young designers since there is no single way to approach it. To develop my process, I realized early on that it is key to put a stake in the ground and simply begin exploring. Initial creative explorations highlight new methods and skills that need to be learned. A dynamic design process matures over time as we acquire these skills and weave them into our ever-expanding toolkit. Experience tells us which tools to pull from our toolkit at which time, to efficiently and consistently create beautiful products, but we all need to start somewhere as we set out to become professional designers.
The following work represents the large bricks that make up the foundation of my design process. Other bricks are frequently added or removed based on variables of the client’s ask such as, the time frame, my level of expertise on the subject matter and the budget, but these five steps are a solid foundation to begin building your own design process upon.
As designers, it is our duty to step out of our comfort zone and don the perspective of our end users. Empathy is crucial when designing a product, space or experience and there is no better way to gain insights than by observing and speaking with real people. It is table stakes to design beautiful products, but in my opinion no product is truly successful unless it also solves a problem. The juiciest problems to solve may not be obvious and only come to light when we start the design process with true design research. This due diligence justifies a products existence and acts as a sound foundation to build a design upon.
I have always wanted to redesign the NYC hot dog cart. Though I am familiar with hot dog carts, it was still crucial to begin my redesign by going into the city to observe and speak with vendors and customers. When designing for others the biggest mistake that a designer can make is relying on personal assumptions about their user, over actual anecdotes. Asking questions and then probing with who, what, where, when and why questions helps identify the thought process and decisions behind user’s behaviors.
For this project, primary research consisted of intercepts on the streets of NYC. I stood near hot dog carts in several neighborhoods and asked customers about their experience and vendors about their aspirations, pain points, motivations, etc… For secondary research, I explored the specs of each type of food vendor cart, the laws around street food vending in NYC and read articles and journals around the topic area. After synthesizing this light primary and secondary research, five opportunity areas emerged; food storage and prep, customer safety, signage, durability and maintenance. This knowledge gave focused areas to explore and rational to back them up.
Armed with insights from research it is the designers job to explore an extremely diverse range of solutions and architectures for the project. Quick sketches usually dominate this phase but no communication method is better than another. Foam models, CAD, photos, storyboards, etc… all can be used to push an idea forward as long as they are quick and generative. No idea is too small or too crazy and this openness generates a large pool of ideas that solidify into complete concepts later.
As I began to think through potential hot dog cart designs and features I broke out my trusty pentel flair pen and half cut 8.5”x11” color copy paper sheets. The medium thickness of the pentel flair and smaller page size prevent each idea from having too much detail, in turn increasing the speed of each sketch. Up front I always brain dump all existing ideas and expand upon the quick doodles that I took down during design research. As these ideas run out I reference inspiration websites such as www.lemanoosh.com to spark new and exciting concepts.
Brainstorming is also crucial during this phase. It is ideal to include a diverse set of people to actively participate and capture their unique perspectives on the topic. Building on these unique ideas creates new and interesting avenues to pursue. I personally love the creative energy created during brainstorming and use it to feed my design process.
Quick Tip: Ideally every member of the project team participates in concept ideation. In reality the bulk of this work is the responsibility of junior designers. When putting together a portfolio for an internship or full time position, make sure to clearly show the breadth of thought and the mixture of techniques that were used to generate all early concepts. One of the worst things that a candidate can say in an interview is that they had a single idea and ran with it, without exploring any other options.
After all ideas are exhausted look at each holistically and organize them into thematic groups; such as specific features, details, architectures, forms, interactions, manufacturing methods, etc… I suggest pinning each sketch up in a flexible way so they can easily be moved around and taken down for discussion (I prefer 4’x8’x.5” foam core boards and push pins). Each resulting group acts as a puzzle piece that can be combined to form complete concepts.
When building these complete concepts, it is imperative that each communicates multiple innovative ways to solve the problems expressed in the project brief and address the insights that emerged during design research. Each concept also needs to be clearly differentiated from each other so they can be critiqued individually and express the breadth of thinking and possibilities to the client. It is important to stress that each concept is a vehicle that expresses several larger themes simultaneously. When presenting each concept to your client make this clear to prevent specific aspects of a concept killing the whole idea. For example, if the client does not like the form of a concept but loves its functionality, explain that the two aspects are not mutually exclusive and that the function can live on with a new form. After presenting each concept I like to share a slide that breaks each concept down into its key elements, so specific elements can live on even if the entire concept does not.
When designing these concepts, I prefer to add as much reality to as possible. For example, if the final product has predetermined internal components it is good practice to roughly build each component in CAD and organize them in a way that should work in reality. Screenshot this rough CAD as an underlay to iterate on top of. This provides confidence when presenting the work that the forms created will most likely work in reality and look as presented. No one is ever happy when the final design looks vastly different than the concepts that where agreed upon during down selection.
After building my rough CAD I place each screen shot in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro and design around the shell. Here I design the first draft of each fledgling concept that I present to my client in a mid-phase or down selection meeting. As a rule of thumb, between two and four concepts. Always remember to never show work that you do not believe in. More often than not your client will pick the concept that you do not want to move forward with. Quality always outweighs quantity.
In a perfect world, our client will love a single concept and select it to move forward with. However, in my experience this is rarely the case. Refinement usually requires taking the best aspects of several concepts and turning them into a single direction. Even if one concept is selected a good concept only becomes a great product when the details are seriously thought through and tested. In this phase, CMF (color, material, finish), proportions, manufacturability, surfacing, etc… are massaged to a much higher fidelity.
Working in a flexible CAD software, ideally with a history tree for parametric modeling is preferable for this phase. When working with mechanical engineers it is ideal to be able to roll your model back and make changes without having the entire model fall apart. Fushion 360 fulfills all of these requirements and provides internal color/material application and a quick rendering engine for rapid in progress renders.
While refining my design in CAD I like to make an assembly of each iteration so I can see how far the design has come and compare each iteration in order to determine when the design is finished. I also prefer to periodically render the most up to date design. Quick renders are great for group discussions and can be marked up easily. Sketching over renders is an extremely efficient way to explore changes that would take much longer to model in CAD.
Once the design is finalized it is time to make eye catching visuals that will sell the final concept to your client. I begin with a hero shot that captures the essence of the design in a single image. Think to yourself, if every other image was lost could I still explain the concept with this single image? In context renders are ideal hero shots because they provide scale and context for your client and help visualize the concept in their life; similar to realtors staging an empty home for an open house.
Next I create orthographic renders that express every view of the product. Think of each image as a side of an unfolded box that collectively explain the entire concept. These images are a great base for informational callouts that define all of the details, such as CMF, interaction touch points, dimensions, etc… Callouts can also include arrows that indicate function or movement. Additionally, annotated orthographic renders are great first pass images to send to vendors and manufacturers.
At this phase, it is important to make sure that each image can speak for itself and explain the concept when you are not there to present it; this frequently happens when your client has to upsell an idea within their organization. Storyboard renders break the lifecycle of the product down into key moments that thoroughly explain each step. I approach storyboarding as if I was writing a comic. Scenes can zoom in and out depending on what needs to be explained and text should be reduced to the bare minimum. The fidelity of each image can also be reduced, for example I prefer to do low quality renders and then turn them into black and white outlines in photoshop. When something is important I add color, drawing the readers eye through the story and showing emphasis where I want it.
There is no single design process because there is no single type of designer. At our core we are all creative, but we all think in different ways, have different perspectives, use different skills, express ourselves differently, etc… The best advice that I can give for developing your personal design process is to trust in yourself. If you trust in yourself your skills will grow and improve and so will your design process. After several years of working as a design professional in New York City I looked back at my portfolio of work and realized that my process had never let me down. This epiphany strengthened my trust in myself and in my design process. From then on, I stopped worrying that I did not have the correct design process or that I would not succeed on my next project, which allowed me to let go and be much more creative. Trust took the mental burden off of my shoulders and allowed my work to jump up another level and my process to blossom.
The five core bricks of my process are only starting points and can be added to, removed, altered, expanded, etc… I hope all of you will work hard to build your skillset and then trust in yourselves to create beautiful work, because this is where being a designer really becomes fun!
We’d like to thank Reid for sharing his thoughts on design with the SketchBook community and encourage everyone to head over to his Behance profile, follow him on instagram, and check out his new YouTube channel.