When clients come to us, it's because they need something. Maybe it's a crazy good website or some breakthrough branding. No matter the need, in our initial conversations they usually ask similar questions about our design process. They want to understand the concrete steps and thinking we'll use to create something astonishing for them. Which makes perfect sense, because clear processes are comforting. It speaks to the traditional approach most professions lean on: follow certain steps and we'll arrive at the desired outcome.
Countless creative organizations follow linear design processes that can be described with set deliverables. "First we will do Work A, which we will show you in Presentation A. Then, we will do Work B and hand off deliverable B," and on it goes until the project is complete.
We know that approach well, because we used to follow it. Every project, every client, we jumped right into the same pre-set list of deliverables. But over time, we found this method was just too limiting, because design is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The problem we're solving for one client may be drastically different from the pain point of another, so how could the same set of deliverables apply? (Spoiler alert: they didn't.) Trying to follow prescribed list of predetermined outputs before fully exploring the actual problem we needed to solve was like trying to hit a bullseye in the dark with a broken arrow.
So we developed a new framework for how we navigate design-related questions. With inspiration from established processes, like the double diamond, we created our own version that combines linear and iterative elements. And it's deliverable agnostic. As a result, the framework can be applied to small problems and big problems. To landing page websites and massive multi-page masterpieces. To tiny questions and overarching challenges. No matter the project, the flexibility of our process always gets us to the same place: replacing the initial problem with a real solution.
It’s a framework, but an adaptable one. It’s a circle, not a solid line with two endpoints. Which makes a ton of sense for the customized projects and advanced design thinking we do.
Let me walk you through it.
At the beginning of any design problem, we start from a place of ‘I don’t know yet.’ Acknowledging this is a critical part of the framework because it sets us up to approach the project with curiosity and an open mind. This initial white dot is our client saying something like, “We need a new website.” But we don’t yet know what kind of website that should be, or what story it should tell. That initial need doesn’t give us enough to start providing answers or solutions.
The first step in moving from ‘not knowing’ toward ‘knowing better’ is to Understand the need more thoroughly. For a website project, this means Gathering information about the company, its goals, its pain points, and its users. Then, we do additional Research around the client’s likes and dislikes, the competitive market, and industry trends. Around this phase, we’re starting to Synthesize the things we’ve learned. We Measure our understanding by getting reaction and feedback from the client to evaluate if our work is resonating.
You’ll notice this work happens in a diamond shape. That’s because we start from that narrow place of not knowing. Then we go through a phase of exploding outward, exploring and aksed endless questions in a creative cosmos of possibilities. Next, we bring structure back to the creative process, synthesizing our findings until we can Define the Problem / Vision. That’s the essential center dot, which represents the simultaneous end point of the Strategize phase and the start of the next one, Execution.
You may be wondering, "How can defining a problem and vision happen simultaneously?" And didn't we already define the problem at the beginning anyway? Wasn't the problem that we needed a new website but 'didn't know yet' what type of website that should be?
We start from a place of “I don't know yet.”
In this framework, the Problem and Vision are two sides of the same coin. Our vision is that we want to solve a specific actionable problem. “We want a website” shifts to “We want to make a website that brings value in this way and fits these specific conditions.” We’re no longer working with an empty canvas; we’re building creative guardrails that will guide the next phase.
However, a key piece to remember is that if you do all the steps in the Strategize phase (Gather, Research, Measure), and you still aren't able to successfully define a problem and vision, then it's time to trace the first diamond back to the beginning for more Understanding and Synthesis work. Ultimately, the goal is to connect the larger dots by first doing the work that connects the smaller ones.
These cycles-within-cycles are where the iterative magic happens. It ensures that we don’t get to the end of the project having created something entirely wrong. Each small cycle gives us opportunities for learning, feedback, and improvements — which makes the big cycles more successful, and the ‘knowing more’ complete.
Within the second diamond of Execution, the first step is to Visualize, which means putting the vision out into the world. We need to build something visible, workable, concrete. Something that begins to respond to the problem and vision we’ve uncovered. Next, we Measure the success of that visualization, in most cases by getting feedback from our client or their users. Are we close to solving the stated Problem and bringing the Vision to fruition? This feedback helps us gain more Clarity and ultimately enables us to Implement a solution that lives somewhere, like a new website.
At the end of the larger design process, we come to the ultimate conclusion that we Know Better. This doesn’t mean we’ve solved every problem. In fact, it’s likely that pursuing this process has solved one problem, but created or pointed us to several additional questions.
That is why this framework exists as a never ending circle. Because for the duration of our work and, in reality, our lives, it's about realizing there is always more that we don't know. More problems to solve, new questions to answer. It's an infinite cycle of learning that lasts a lifetime.
So yes, this model breaks down how we design brands, websites, and all the other magic for our clients at Paper Tiger. But it goes deeper. It's a process you can apply to countless other situations in life.
When you're faced with a new problem, head to that first dot — ‘I don't know yet’ — and then follow the steps in this framework to explore, to understand, and to implement something new, so that by the end you 'do know better.'