Book Review: The Design Method

The Design Method is not a celebration of design as an avenue for personal expression. The Design Method is not a visual style guide. The Design Method does not celebrate or perpetuate the design rockstar concept. The Design Method does not promote a fast track to senior design roles or prestigious design awards. The Design Method does kindly break the news that design business requires a lot of patience and not a lot of ego. The Design Method is an honest and practical book filled with gems of advice on how to generate appropriate solutions through systemization, clear communication, and a humble attitude.
The Design Method Eric Karjaluoto

Author Eric Karjaluoto has decades of experience in the design field as a creative producer, director, and founding partner of smashLAB. In this book, he shares his own experience, sparing some of us from having to learn his lessons the hard way. What he has learned through experience is that, by implementing a methodical, repeatable process from project start to finish, you can position yourself for successful client relationships and sound creative output.

The first big lesson Karjaluoto highlights is that design is not visual styling. If you are a brand, then design can tie your components together as a system. Design is a boundary. Your components may contain more than traditional printed or digital pieces; you may need to consider architecture, flavors, or textiles that fit into your system. If you define the boundaries of your design system, then you know better what to do for each containing element. This philosophy can work in branding, and it can also work as a method for organizing and approaching any project. In this book, it functions as the design system and process for your design business.

Structure will set you free. Rather than starting every project with a blank piece of white paper (or a white screen), you at least know to begin with step 1 of your process. The first step of The Design Method is Discovery. You begin by working with your client and doing your research to learn whatever you can about your client. In this way, you identify the main problems you need to solve. From there you can plan how to carry out your solutions (step 2: Planning), and only from there can you present to your client possibilities for creative output (step 3: Creative). Within each phase of your system, you give yourself a productive amount of time and you communicate regularly with your client to keep them on the same page.

The point of liberation here is not feeling pressure or need to show your client creative output before you are both ready. It is your job to take time to identify problems and consider relevant courses of action. The benefit is that you are prepared to offer an appropriate solution and your client is prepared to understand the context of your ideas because you have included your client in the conversation. Karjaluoto even goes so far to say that if your client is blown away or wowed by your presentation, then they were never prepared for it. In other words, save the surprise unveiling for your art projects, and keep your design projects systematic.

The Design Method is ready-to-wear advice for an agency or group setting. Some of the advice given is overkill for smaller scale projects or independent creative freelancers. That said, each piece of advice can be easily scaled down or modified to suit your specific needs. I greatly appreciate the clear, conversational writing. In fact, a social media reference to Karjaluoto’s very readable design blog is what led me to him and to this book in the first place.

Beyond general system advice and some very funny anecdotes, I appreciate the level of specificity provided for some methods. Karjaluoto actually shares a screenshot of his exact filing system, which I was happy to immediately co-opt. I am sure I will revise it somewhat as my needs are less severe, but at least I am now inspired to improve my filing system. And, finally, I would like to thank the author for successfully shaming me about my own terrible file naming practices. I will never again include the word FINAL (ie press-ready-poster-FINAL.pdf) as part of the name of any production file.

In conclusion, if you freelance, run your own design business, or simply want to implement a better system for any project, this book is for you.