Reusing a software development workflow for creative work

A good workflow can bring any task from idea to reality.

Creating illustrations on conceptual issues is a very tedious task which is often required when working on a product for software developers. Though tedious, illustrating those abstract concepts well makes them both more appealing and comprehensible for the reader. Even the simplest icons need thought and time put into them and in a perfect world we would have an endless amount of time for each and every one of those graphics. In reality there are deadlines which make efficiency as well as knowing when to stop part of the job.

Establishing a workflow for the creation process as a whole is the most important and helpful way, not only to save time, but to keep a consistent quality across the board. This may seem obvious in theory, but a large number of people still struggle in creating a workflow for themselves particularly when it’s about design.

Now the question is: What are the main points in every creation process and how do we create our graphics?

A good workflow works in more than one way

The workflow we use for illustrations was derived from the process we use in our software development department which is as follows:

  • Plan: What do you want to change and how?
  • Review of plan: Let someone check if you are extending in the right places, i.e. does your plan fit the current architecture?
  • Implement: Do the actual implementation.
  • Review: Get feedback on the implementation.

A review in the planning stage has the advantage that wrong design decisions are caught before they are implemented. This very similar procedure can also be used for creative work.

Our base workflow for graphics consists of:

  • Ideation: Come up with the general idea for the graphic as a team, therefore, combining Plan and Review of plan stage in the development process.
  • Implementation: Create the actual illustration.
  • Feedback: Get feedback on the illustration.
Comparing the software development workflow to the creative workflow.

Obviously there are some differences since instead of adding up on code that already exists we are working on something that is not tied to prior graphics (except for the style of course). However, to understand the workflow you have to know what each point is about, so let’s start from the beginning.

The ideation phase

The most important and usually the most difficult part of the process is coming up with an idea that can describe a situation or object perfectly. Usually you have a text or a specific word that needs to be visualized. The ideation phase combines planning and deciding on the theme or looks of a picture. This phase is done with the help of one or two additional people that help in selecting and polishing the suggested idea. In the case of a blog picture for example we try to include the author so the text and image fit together. We sometimes even include examples that are used in the text. But how can you reduce the time needed to come up with something?

Look at prior illustrations or search the internet for references

Some subjects are easier to depict than others. If you come up with something on the fly, it’s still better to use references to come up with something else altogether. It can also help you to refine the idea you already had.

Don’t settle on your first idea

It does happen sometimes: You come up with something that seems to fit the subject perfectly. You already plan out the illustration but then you get feedback that basically tells you: “This idea is not going to work.” Now what do you do? You focused wholly on this one thought and you haven’t prepared anything else in your mind. This idea was “perfect” after all. It’s a lot harder to come up with new ideas when you have already focused a lot of energy on one. Therefore, thinking of more than one idea from the start is a lot more efficient, we usually go for three.

Get feedback

As mentioned earlier, miscommunication can lead to a lot more work than intended so working together in a group of two to three people is necessary. In the worst case scenario working alone could lead to having to redo the illustration as a whole. Sometimes sketches of the graphic can help in this process and shorten the time you need on the next step.

Sketches can make communication about an idea much more efficient.

Implementation

Now that the hardest part is out of the way you can finally get to the fun part: creating the illustration, or at least a first instance of it. Depending on what you decided in the ideation phase you at least have an outline of what the graphic should look like. If you made a sketch that fit, you can pretty much copy and paste the design. If you only have a few known aspects, start with those and then add onto them.

The two important things you need to take into account are time and style. Reusing old graphics as well as templates quickens the pace. In order to access those as fast as possible we use a library inside the illustration program which includes logos, wordmarks, colors and our most used icons. Style and color are prerequisites that are written down in our design guidelines, you can check them out in this blog post: Design guidelines for startups: why you should have one too .

As always things are easier said than done. The first draft of a graphic will rarely be the one that’s uploaded. And to be honest, that’s how it should be. This version is mainly here to, again, help you understand the graphic better and this means it does not have to, or even better, can’t be perfect! With that in mind, if I am happy with it, what’s the problem? Well, once again it’s not only important what you may think.

Feedback (Again?)

Some of us hate it, some can’t get enough of it, but in the end it’s needed. Feedback isn’t something that should only be suggested in dire need. As mentioned before, working on one project for a few hours can numb you to your mistakes and a second pair of eyes is a huge help in that regard. Catching spelling errors, alignment mistakes or just suggesting a different color can help to correct a few mishaps. Ideally they even make you come up with new ideas.

Of course you shouldn’t overdo it. Usually an illustration is done after 3-5 feedback rounds. Implementing the first feedback can easily take up to an hour depending on how early in the process you are. However, the later the round, the less changes are done and therefore the less time is needed. Below 3 cycles only happen when you have a very detailed sketch in the ideation phase. Everything above 5 is questionable and you might be caught up in too much detail or there is a misunderstanding between you and the people working with you. Of course those numbers can vary but you should be aware at which point feedback is no longer needed.

Rapid feedback makes iterating more productive.

Conclusion

A workflow can help you immensely in time management along with keeping you focused and interested in a task. As you can see on the process listed above we are focused on efficiency and for our graphics to keep the same style no matter which person is working on them.

If you read through this whole text thinking: “My way is a lot better”, let us know about your processes, we are always eager to learn and improve our current workflow. Your way of doing things can help people. 🎓

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Technical | 2022-06-13