Designers often complain about never being involved in the process early enough. We get brought in at when a project is at a we-need-to-create-visuals stage, and then we start asking the big fundamental questions. Questions that have impact on the strategy, goals and approach of the project thus far!

I believe that generally, because of this fundamental questioning, it is beneficial to involve designers early in the strategy and planning phase of any project.

Do you hire a designer to design (the conventional idea of design as the creation of visual outcomes) or to think? It may be useful to bear in mind the two broad types of designers who can operate quite differently at the starting phase of projects.

Type 1: the strategic facilitating designer

This type of designer primarily aims to enable clarity at this phase of the project. This would be the clarity necessary to enable the subsequent project phases of design, decision making and planning.

They work to facilitate shared understanding, purpose and goals. They facilitate workshops. They create diagrams, information graphics, and other visual clarifications. They contribute to communications through writing and making presentations.

The strategic facilitating designer sticks to a design process to make sure that all the bases are covered. They work from a foundation of gathered facts, discovered assumptions and stipulated expectations. They build a conceptual model of the project requirements, stakeholder needs and desired outcomes. All before actually doing anything that convention would call “creative.”

Following the process can take a while. Time is needed to gather and review all the facts, to map things out, and to confirm understanding.

Creativity is focused on generating possibilities in strategy, options, and directions. Facilitation, people/relationship, conflict-resolution, consensus-building, information design, communication and empathy/listening skills are the primary tools.

Type 2: the artistic visual designer

Engaging an artistic visual designer can be a quick way to obtain visualisations of the often vague concepts under discussion at the planning phase of projects. After one or two brief conversations, artistic designers can start to sketch out the initial visualisations.

Visualisations (images, drawings, models, interactive mockups etc) help people anchor their thoughts. They make otherwise vague concepts immediately and powerfully concrete and thus drives buy-in.

There is a risk with this approach however. These visualisations are based primarily on the initial gut feel of the designer, at stage in the project where much of the requirements, constraints and deliverables are still unknown. Vital details could be missed. Or the completely wrong concept concretised.

Early visualisations set up prematurely concrete expectations in the minds of project stakeholders. They often become prematurely fixated on the often exciting, free-flowing, conceptual sketches – this can hinder their ability adapt and changes in response to new facts revealed further along project’s progress.

The artistic visual designer’s creativity is focused on generating visualisations above other considerations. The process of generating visualisations can and often feeds back interesting insights and new questions for exploration – this is an opportunity not to be missed, even if it means changing the design in the process.

There is no simple formula to work out which type of designer works best. It boils down to project requirements. As I am more the strategic facilitating designer in the planning phase of projects, I am naturally biased towards that approach. I do, however, recognise that sometimes, a (usually political/bureaucratic) situation may demand the creation of early visualisations.

I have seen how the temptation of taking the fast route to visualisations has shaken up many a project – it requires very diligent expectations management of the shareholders to reduce premature buy-in. Co-creation of the visualisation can sometimes help remind stakeholders of the malleability of the draft design, that it is not finished yet.