Project discovery and the design professional

This article first appeared in issue 225 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

Even for seasoned professionals, no degree of skill can save or mitigate work fuelled by contextual ignorance. In order for your designs to have any positive impact you must have something relevant upon which to base your many design decisions. It follows, then, that the discovery process is a project component that requires deliberate precision every time.

Few designers just entering the profession possess any significant skill or experience
with the components of effective discovery process – and for beginners this is, of course, to be expected.

What should not be expected, though, is that designers who have years of commercial experience under their belts fail to properly employ and conduct project discovery.
Yet my experience and research reveals precisely this sort of persistent evidence of how designers have had their profession stolen from them … or just don’t know how to claim it.

In order to take back your profession you have to become a professional at effective project discovery. Your mandate in discovery is to become informed, to seek out and explore constraints, to establish credibility and to gain and reinforce trust. Revelations aside, you must also communicate your own requirements, expectations and more besides. Let’s examine the basic process.

Discovery purpose and process

It’s seldom mentioned, and even less frequently understood, that one of the primary purposes of the discovery process is to enable the leaders – the primary designer and/or primary developer – to establish credibility and develop rapport with their client stakeholders.

You need to consider this as a requirement rather than an option because neglect or incompetence on such a vital point can render all of your skill and insight moot.

Discovery is not an event; it’s a process in which each phase has its own unique purpose and mandates. Knowing how best to adapt to varying contexts is one characteristic of professional competence. For the purposes of this article, though, we can assume a few fundamentals of the process …

Pre-bid discovery

Pre-bid discovery is the stage at which you or a peer prequalify prospective clients and their projects, ensuring that both the customer and the venture are worth pursuing. Here foundational project constraints are sought in order to facilitate subsequent phases of discovery. A few of the vital questions you’ll need to answer include:

  • Is the client and this project right for me or my agency?
  • Will I or will my team be allowed to bring our best work to the final result?
  • Is the client prepared to begin this project?
  • Is the client prepared to engage appropriately with the project?
  • What is the project’s full scope?
  • Am I or is my team prepared to fulfil or exceed the project requirements?

Your pre-bid discussion ought to satisfy these issues (as a bare minimum) and should allow for the creation of an informed bid.

Freelance professionals will conduct this phase of discovery themselves, but in other cases it’s more likely that a project manager or studio owner will be the individual having initial conversations with prospective clients.

This fact may preclude you from directly participating, but as a design professional you have a responsibility to ensure that your influence and requirements are represented, no matter who conducts this first touch with prospective clients.

In the end, the information gleaned in pre-bid discovery must find its way into the project designer’s hands, because it will lay the foundation for more in-depth discovery to follow.

The kickoff discovery session

The kickoff meeting is where the design professional comes to the fore, establishes credibility and begins to earn the client’s trust, laying the groundwork for a good rapport with the client stakeholders.

A win here facilitates success later, just as missteps here can invite compromise later.
You must arrive well prepared and with a robust script of questions accounting for the things you know you need to know in order to do a good job. The fluidity of the conversation should, however, allow for discovery of things you don’t yet know you need to know.

Provided that pre-bid discovery was well executed, this first meeting is where virtually all of the potential battles and potential project problems should be eliminated.

And yes, that is to say that if your susbsequent designs require revision or become compromised, or you find yourself having to fight an unexpected battle later in the project, it means that your discovery was inadequate.

Reflect on your process!

Post-kickoff discovery

Once you’ve been informed by the kickoff discovery session there’s still more work to do. Follow-up emails or phone calls are likely to be in order. In smaller projects, effort can be directed toward further strategic research based on the contextual information gained in the kickoff meeting.

This might be accomplished in a search engine, for instance, but context will govern what methods are more appropriate on a case by case basis. For larger projects or those involving different departments of the client’s organisation, stakeholder interviews may be appropriate.

Again context will decide, but stakeholder interviews are often best conducted as private dialogues. This is because an exclusive format promotes a more honest and candid conversation, whereas a group conversation can lead to censorship owing to internal politics or other factors. Your purpose, again, is to gather information, constraints and trust.

The brief

My experience is, unfortunately, that in too many cases the project brief is a relatively worthless document generated by the wrong people and at the wrong point in the process.

One common bad practice is for the project manager or some other non-designer to have a short initial discussion with a new client, generate a cursory brief off the back of this, hand it to the designer or team and expect the document to serve as the primary guidance for the design process.


The design or strategy brief ought to be an encapsulation of what the designer’s discovery process has revealed. As its name suggests, a brief should be a short and concise document of no more than one or two pages of vital details covering the reason(s) for the project, the key objective(s), the target audience(s), brand and tone guidelines, strategic guidelines, specific challenges and any other specific factors essential to the project, brand or results. As the designer, the establishment of the project brief is your responsibility and no one else’s.

The brief will provide overriding guidance, and as such it must be 100 per cent accurate. While it isn’t a comprehensive document, it should provide an immediate benchmark against which your work should be measured. Therefore, as soon as it’s been composed, the brief should be submitted to your client for approval – or for revision and then approval – to ensure all parties’ understanding of the project remains consistent.


In most cases, discovery is a process that persists throughout the project. Here I’ve simply touched on the advisable formal phases necessary for every project. As the pro, you should make deliberate choices based on context.

The discovery process is your best chance for facilitating success, and is the only means of deliberately realising a relevant concept of what the ultimate result should embody. There’s no substitute for proper and thorough discovery, and as the design professional your mandate is clear. Only through precise discovery can you establish the basis for any deliberate decisions and ensure the things that will enable you to work as the professional and succeed for your client.

Next week, in the final part of this series, Andy Rutledge discusses collaboration.

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