Doing design research before choosing a direction

Finding a design direction is more of a research process than just a creative process. In this post, I show you how I have integrated the research process into my design process, Drive.

Without a strategic session,  hoping that our (designers) creative work is something that you (the client) likes,  will almost be a guessing game.

During my Drive Process, I have been able to find and create ways to follow a design research pattern. In this post, I will talk getting started, and some of the tools I strongly recommend to use.

I will show you how to create mental models that help you find information by using keywords, questions to ask so you can understand which of the 3 major design shapes the design should focus on, colors and much more.

Let's dive right in.

A blank canvas, and a conversation with the client

Before I get started with a project, I will do a lot of research on the client and competitors and potential customers. But at the moment of our first strategic call, where we look at brand attributes, users, and style, I like to step away from what I know and ask questions to let the client do the talking.

A few strategic design questions and more listening will help us (designers) grab ideas of what the client is looking forward to. And most importantly, if we listen carefully for repeated words, we will know what is very important to you, the client.

My first step is with the client in a 1-hour call. We go over words that describe the business from many points of view:

  • General
  • Culture
  • The voice
  • How do their customers feel while working with them
  • How do their customers feel after working with them

What is the most important here is to get words that describe these feelings and experiences. Single words, phrases, sentences; any format really, that captures the emotion and experience.

This will help to align the creative process and build those mental models afterwards.

I am also interested in learning what my clients like and hate. This is a good method to ask about colors, shapes and styles. For this I have a table divided into two columns. On one side I will put everything they love, including websites and brands that are not part of their niche, and other other side, everything they really don't like.

I also take a look at what their customers like. You see, the idea is to create a bridge between their customers and the brand. Looking at what potential customers are comfortable with and feel familiar with, will make the research even more straightforward.

Thinking of keywords

If you have done this with me in the past, you know a lot of words can be generated after this session.

Now, I will normally get a piece of blank paper, and start writing them down in a way that they can be combined. This is where the mental models come to play, as you want to create patterns and structures with these words.

You can also go further into this, and find synonyms for the initial words you wrote down. This will open up your thoughts for when you go online to do some research.

One key tip here is to make sure you do not do this in an overly structured way. You want your mind and thoughts to freely create patterns. This is why doing this with a pen and paper is better than doing this on your computer.

This should take you about 30 minutes, maybe more. Just put some time aside to get this done before you do anything else.

Tools for design research

The first thing I do is create a mood board. This mood board is sort of like a disorganized collage of photos and elements I am finding online. Later on, I will create an organized direction which is what we calla Style Scape.

Research on creative platforms

Here I am looking at websites like,, and any other platform where other creative minds post their work and case studies.

This will allow me to see what is already out there, and what other people have created. Since many creatives do mock-ups and amazing identities, I am able to think about shapes, colors and how it can all unfold much clearer.

Creative agencies

If you have been in the creative world, you are most likely to know some of the biggest agencies out there like Pentagram, for example. They have done amazing design jobs for businesses in numerous fields, so looking at their work for references and motivation will be ideal.

Previous projects

If you do have a number of projects under your belt, you will be able to do this step, especially for projects within the same niche. For me, I will normally keep a record of designs that were accepted by the clients and those that were not. This allows me to create a mood board of shapes and styles that I have already created and see which is similar to the current project.

Looking at competitors in a few ways

There are many types of competitors out there. There are the ones that can be called your direct competitors, then the ones that are just in the same service industry, but targeting a different segment, and those that provide services to your clients, but are not really your competitors.

I create a list of this during my research for my clients. What I look for what is it that the industry leaders are having as part of their designs, what patterns they developed, why certain ideas are trending, while others have been put aside.

Researching colors

By now we have keywords, patterns, mock-ups that helped us create a disorganized mood board. With this in mind, we have to start looking at colors.

Adobe Kuler, is probably one of the best places to do this. They have a huge library of colors pallets and of colors generated by images.

If a client is happy with their office colors for example, and wants to keep a similar look, an application like Adobe Capture, will give you the exact color combinations found on photos you can take and upload into the app.

Another application for this is Canvas, specifically, their Instagram page. They constantly share different color pallets that will be very useful for creative projects.

Getting to paper

By now you have collected a lot of information. You most likely have ideas of shapes, colors, and styles.

But before you move to Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, it is important to get your ideas on paper.

This gives you the freedom of creating shapes and ideas you formulated from your research. Again, do not be too technical or judgmental of your design, all you want to do is run some ideas on paper. So, if you are not good at drawing, that is fine. You will make everything better once you go to work on your computer.

Give your hand and your pen the freedom to move.

Create mental models to choose 3 directions

You have a lot of information and sketches.

Now you want to start categorizing what goes with what, and make it as organized as possible.

I normally present 3 directions to my customers. I call these directions:

  • Mild
  • Medium
  • Bold

These categories will take all the elements I found and combine into the direction they are most suitable for.

The final result is a design presentation, leading to a Style Scape which we will use for the rest of the project.

This is my process to get started with design, and making sure there is enough research that will lead to better design decisions. I believe that design for the sake of just designing something leads to problems in the long term, but once a clear strategy is conceived and both, the designer and the client, have the same mindset, the perfect design for the client can be created.

For designers, it is important you make this your own. It needs to be your style, and you have to find ways to have conversation with your clients that will allow them to answer all the questions you need, without making them feel as if they are being interrogated.

That is it for today! 👋