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Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Lesson 8 of 18

Typical Work Processes

Timothy Samara

Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Timothy Samara

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Lesson Info

8. Typical Work Processes
You have a project - now where do you start? Creative processes differ from person to person, however the typical design process goes through the same stages: research, ideation, refinement, and execution. Timothy describes the factors to consider at each stage.

Lesson Info

Typical Work Processes

So you have all these tools to work with, and then you have to do something with them. And you've got a project and you're like, "What do I do with this stuff?" And it's a process. It's that you're asking some questions and you're providing some answers. And then you're asking different questions. So every designer designs or follows a process from beginning to end, in a different way. There's no one-set process. Some people work in a kind of spiral, non-linear way, some people are very methodical and build step upon step upon step, some people are kind of all over the place, and then kind of like, "Ah picked one," and then they start to refine that. And sometimes that really depends on the nature of the project. It's just the way it is. But for the most part, designers, when they're in school are essentially taught a relatively linear process. It's still an iterative process. That means it doesn't really quite go in one line from point A to point B and you're done, it kind of starts a...

t A and then goes over here and then kind of comes back to kind of like A and a half, and then it goes to B. And then when you're at B, you might come back to like A and a half again, but kind of merge it with B and then go to C. So that you're always kind of circling back, and then kind of narrowing, and then getting more specific and then adjusting, and refining, and making it more clear. And then arriving at this little nugget of ultimate perfection. So the first phase is always research. The way that one is taught, typically. And that is to find out what's what about the project. You have to know what the subject matter is that you're talking about. So you have to read about it, you have to go online, you've got to Wiki it, you have to get some books on it. You've gotta dig into your library, if you have one, and you should always be adding to developing a library of resources, not just about graphic design, but about subjects that are related to it. Economics, marketing, sociology, psychology, history, history of different parts of the world. Cultural differences and so on. You can go online, of course. The internet is a tremendous resource where you can find a lot of stuff very fast, which is often useful because you're working under a deadline. You don't have time to read like 12 Philosophical treatises on the subject matter at hand. But you can also get a lot of information from your client by conducting interviews, or just talking to them. The client is not like this kind of scary sort of demon overlord that you can't talk to. You're going to be doing something for them, and you have to know what they're all about. They don't know what you do, they don't do what you do, they don't understand it. And you likely don't understand what they do. You might have a kind of basic idea, "Okay, you sell widgets. Okay, you're a banker." But really, what is that about? And then you kind of have to find out, well not just what it's about in a literal way, but how am I going to relate that idea to other people? In what particular way am I going to relate it? What's the story I'm going to tell about this thing? You know, if you're doing an advertisement for cellphones, you can't tell people about the fact that you can call on it, this is not a phone, that you can call on it, that you push buttons and you can get texts, and pictures, and so on. Everybody knows that. You have to tell them the story about how this phone, and the way that it works, fits into their lives. How does it make their life better? What can they do with this phone that's not something they can do with another phone? Why are they going to do it differently? How is that gonna affect the way that they communicate with their friends, with their family, with their co-workers? And then what does that mean on a kind of a larger, cultural level? If you want to take it that far. Like how romantic do you want to get about it? There's always romance in the silliest widget. There's some romance. Ultimately, all of these things are made by humans. And that's a story all by itself. The next phase is ideation, what is more commonly referred to as concept development or concepting. That is, you've done your research, you know what you're supposed to be talking about, and you've gotta find a way to show it. So that usually starts with some kind of sketching, whether it's by hand or digitally. And what you're looking at here are thumbnail sketches for a poster that you're actually going to see later. For a poster, and some people sketch by hand, or with paint. Some people use cut paper, some people use combinations of those, and also work back-and-forth between the computer and more conventional kinds of technology. These are some blown-up hand sketches. These are often referred to as "thumbnails" because usually you do them very small. So you're really just kind of getting the big picture about layout, what kind of elements are going to go in there. These are page spreads from a book that you'll also see later. Generally, during that concept, that ideation phase, all of the iterations, all the explorations in various, at various levels of roughness or refinement are kind of pinned up. People talk about them before the client sees them. And you sort of pick out which ones are really the most viable ones. Sometimes, you might invite the client to that discussion, but that can be a little bit dangerous, because then you get kind of a not-so-objective kind of viewpoint. But usually at this stage, then some direction, some particular candidate among these different conceptual options seems to call out as for whatever reason, and usually a number of reasons, as the most viable, the one that's gonna get you the furthest, and solve the clients problem in the best and most compelling and interesting way. And then you go into refinement, then you start to really test, "What do you really mean by that shape? How big is that part? What color is it? Where does the type go with it? Is this part going on the left or the right? Is it really that round, or is it more elliptical? What's higher or what's lower?" So then you start to really get, how does it reproduce at a small size? Especially, as with here, if you're talking about a logo that's gotta be shrunk down on a business card like this, and also has to appear on the side of a truck, potentially, is that it's got to function at both sizes. Be absolutely clear, without sacrificing any of its identifying information. At a very small size and at a very large size. And the refinement process, whether it's for logo or for any other kind of publication. It's really about sort of fine tuning how that thing is gonna be used by the audience. And also making it pretty. Don't forget the pretty. 'Cause that's also, those two things, function and beauty are simultaneous, and inextricable in designing. They both have to be there. If you don't have one, you have dull, and if you don't have the other, you have useless. So it's utility and avocation at the same time. And last is execution. That is that you're going to be making the thing, or somebody's going to be making it for you. Since most designers are not themselves printmakers, or wire and chair fabricators, or sign fabricators or internet coders, and so they hire out, or they engage colleagues to handle specialized kind of modes of production, but most designers coming from a print background are experts in how printing works, what happens when ink hits paper, and what you have to do to your files, or to the artwork to prepare it for that kind of production. And then they go on press and watch it happen, and they help the press person make adjustments to ink flow and so on and there's that. And then last is for digital media, there's coding involved. Whether it's HTML, or CSS or JavaScript, or deep-sea or Flash-based media or after effects or you're working with motion that's also digitally-based is that either you, if that's part of your skillset, or one of your colleagues, or someone that you hire out, is going to implement from your plan, from your specifications, from your files, what you give them, the actual thing that works out in the real world. I'm not one of those people who can code, so when it comes to digital media, I make lots of diagrams and drawings and layered files that I give to someone and I say, "Make this do what I'm asking you to do." I've just started, actually, learning how to do some coding and actual web implementation myself, I guess I'll be like a quadruple threat, but it's the putting together is the last phase where you're releasing that thing after that long process. Out into the world.

Class Description


  • Identify and apply fundamental graphic design elements
  • Add essential design skills to your toolkit
  • Approach and manage the creative process through varied projects


You don’t need to have a background in fine arts or be an Adobe InDesign whiz to create compelling designs. In this class, Timothy Samara takes you back to the fundamentals of graphic design - the same principles he has consistently returned to in his 25-year career.

Through real-world projects, you’ll learn the basics of:

  • Form and image
  • Color theory
  • Typography
  • Layout and composition

Most unique about Timothy’s class is his demonstration of how design theory manifests in actual projects; he cracks open his professional portfolio and takes you into the world of how real designers work. With an extensive career behind him, Timothy’s design services have spanned from web design to print media, to interface design, and to building brand identity. By walking through Timothy’s creative process, you not only see how design elements interact and impact an overall product, but you get a rare view of the problem-solving graphic designers do and the decisions they make. What rules exist and when are they broken? How do you juggle meticulous research vs. spontaneity?

Whether you want to design a poster, flyer, or logo - this class will give you the insights you need to design with confidence. Welcome to the art and science of graphic design.


This class is designed for beginner and intermediate graphic designers as well as more experienced designers looking for a brush-up on design principles, career-changers, marketing team members, and anyone interested in graphic design fundamentals.


Timothy Samara is a New York-based graphic designer and educator whose twenty-five career has so far focused on visual identity and branding, communication design, and typography. Since 2000, he has split his time between professional practice and academia, defining a highly respected reputation as an instructor at the School of Visual Arts, Parsons/The New School for Design, Purchase College SUNY, New York University, The University of the Arts, and Fashion Institute of Technology. Mr. Samara is a frequent university lecturer and contributor to design publications both in the U.S. and abroad. He has written eight books on design to date (all from Rockport Publishers), which have been translated into ten languages and are used by students and practitioners around the world.

Connect with Timothy online: LinkedIn

Ratings and Reviews

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a Creativelive Student

Wonderful class! I loved getting the info as to the creative process. Great!

Øyvind Hermans

I love this class, clear and precise information with very interesting examples. I have worked as a graphic designer for 6 years but have no design eduction, so at times I feel like there is these gaps of design-knowlegde in my decisions, this was the perfect filler of these gaps.

sixtina maculan

Thank you for sharing your experiences in this class. It's been a pleasure to listen, learn and understand, as well as a wonderful motivation.