Creative Alignment

Ways of Working

I was chatting with a freelance designer recently, and we got to talking about the creative process. I shared an exercise we do with our clients to kick off the design phase of any project. We call it the Creative Alignment Workshop. I was surprised at how interested they were in giving it a try and realized, hey - maybe I should share it with others?

The Origin

Before I explain what it is and how it works, let's start from the beginning. Several years ago, we had a client who kept telling us to make the website feel warmer. After maybe... ten iterations of the homepage, we realized that we must be missing something. We jumped on a call and asked them to show us what warm looked like to them. They showed us a bunch of websites with images of people. Here we were experimenting with one warm tone after another in our designs. Wrong warm!

You may be wondering: Why hadn't we asked them this sooner? Why didn't the client ask for people earlier? That, unfortunately, we'll never know, but what I do know is that we were clearly not creatively aligned.

I learned two lessons through this experience:

  1. Everyone has their own words to describe what they see.
  2. Everyone has tastes and preferences. They will remain the same before and after ten homepage iterations.

The Creative Alignment Workshop was born out of these lessons. The objective is to align on a shared design vocabulary among Barrel and the client team. It is simple, effective, and clients love it.

How it Works

Step 1: Gather references.

As early as possible, before any design has begun, we take what we know so far about the client (brand book, existing website, website references) to start gathering imagery that we feel could be a good fit for the new direction. While we may have early ideas of the directions we want to explore, the goal is to gather a range of creative samples that demonstrate color, typography, imagery, illustration, and any other relevant design elements out in the world. These creative samples can include everything from websites to posters. Aim for a minimum of 30.

Step 2: Create the deck.

We add everything we gathered into a presentation deck. Don't labor over the order. Keep it random. Only include one creative sample on each slide.

Step 3: Conduct the workshop!

When it comes to the workshop, we like to make it feel like a conversation, so the format is casual. Typically it lasts one hour. The designer on the project clicks through each slide and briefly describes what they see in their language. The ask of the client? Talk about what you see, what you like, and what you don't like. Slide by slide, the client opens up more and more. It's like some sort of creative truth serum. Everyone vigorously takes notes on what they hear.

Here's an example of an exchange:

  • Designer: "On this slide, you'll see bright, bold colors juxtaposed with a formal serif typeface. We're interested in this tension."
  • Client: "I find those colors pretty distracting. I don't love the color yellow; my first car was yellow, and it broke down on me in the middle of the night. It brings back bad memories. The 'Times New Roman' typeface is nice, but I think it might be boring for us."

Do you see how differently the Designer and Client talk about the same image?

Why is this effective?

As you can see in the example dialogue, it is pretty amazing what you can learn with a simple conversation. In one hour, you get a sense of where the client sees the project going creatively, any visual motifs they love or hate, and hopefully a few different areas to explore.

To be clear, the idea here is not for the client to create the directions for you. The objective is to set you up with as much information as possible before you get to designing. Maybe you decide that, conceptually, yellow is a must-explore color, and that's fine - at least you know that the client may not be so open to it.

What is the follow-up?

We have done this several ways over the years, and sometimes, we change it with the client. Overall, we have had success by following up with two or three mood boards that bring together the creative samples into unique themes. We include notes from the discussion and give the client a chance to add any final remarks before we get to work.

If you decide to give this a try, I'd love to hear about it:

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