Design & The Five Ws

When I was young, I stumbled upon a small post-it note hanging up in my dad’s home office with “The Five Ws” scribbled on it. The note read: Who, What, Where, Why, When, and How. As a kid, I loved this. It was such an easy way to investigate the world with a few simple questions.

Recently, I remembered The Five Ws around the same time I started recognizing a pattern in my design work. I’ll start a new project with the strategy and framework in place, then dive into producing the details. Somewhere early on, I have to come up for air and check my decisions against the over-arching goals of the project. A cycle starts to occur as I move back and forth between “big picture thinking” and “fine detail production” throughout the project.

So, here’s how The Five Ws helped me understand this cycle:

The process of design is a loop between the Why (Intention) & What (Content), and the Where (Layout) & How (Execution).

“Why” should govern everything else in the process. It can be defined as the purpose and intention of the visual communication – how it evokes a desired response in the viewer. And, although the “Why” must be kept top of mind during the production of details, it’s most important role is setting the primary objectives at the big-picture level first.

“What” describes the content – the words and images that help achieve the “Why.” Combined, they represent  ‘content with intention,’ which is at the core of what I think defines much of design in a broad sense. When content exists without purpose, it makes consumption difficult.

“Where” represents the organization of content, also known as the layout. With the primary (and secondary) objectives established during the “Why,” the “Where” is all about constructing relationships between type and images. It’s a semi-detailed task during the wire-framing or sketching stage of a project, and a super-detailed task when pushing vectors and pixels around to achieve a beautiful, cohesive result.

“How” speaks to the production of the design. Choosing which methods, tools, technologies, and styles to use is the first step. The second step is the designer’s ability to produce good work with the established palette of techniques and style.

So, with four of the Ws accounted for in the design cycle, here’s some thoughts on the remaining two: “When” and “Who.” I know, there’s six altogether, and one of the “Ws” is an “H”. Anyways…

“When” defines the time-line of the project. It also corresponds to the amount of time spent establishing (and subsequently evolving) the high-level strategy versus producing the actual work.

“Who” represents the designer working on the project. I believe, to a certain extent, that the designer has to get out of the way (lessen their stylistic preferences) and make good, effective design decisions for the brand their working on. At the same time, clients hire designers for their specialty skills, P.O.V. (point of view), and experience (e.g. filter). So, it’s the responsibility of the designer to strike a balance between personal preferences, decisions based on research and expertise, and brand adaption.

I think designers have different working methods, but the process and design principles we practice are universal. I hope you found this loose perspective on the process of design informative and helpful. Please share your thoughts!

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5 Responses to Design & The Five Ws

  1. Pingback: HOW Magazine Blog | Who, What, When, Where, Why & How

  2. Thanks for writing this, Gerren, I love hearing about other designers’ workflows and practices. I am SO glad you started with “WHY”! from the start of my journey as a designer, I’ve always held the contention that whatever you are designing/producing should be held together by a single, driving factor. I watched so many of my classmates (and other designers since I’ve left school) produce work that had no foundation, no central focus, and it was (and still is) frustrating that such a simple truth can be so elusive. Well, unless you know to look for it. Thanks again, great post!

  3. David Cecil says:

    I posted this on the How site, but wanted to comment on the actual article also (in case you miss it):

    Great stuff, Gerren! We ALWAYS start with “Why?” Unless we know what problem we’re trying to solve, there’s no way to guarantee the effectiveness of a solution.

    Keep up the good work.

    David Cecil | Owner, Strategist
    Johnny Lightning Strikes Again
    Web Design. Graphic Design. Branding.

  4. Chris Meeks says:

    Finally got around to reading this, and I sure am glad I did! Especially in a day and age when a lot of people think that knowing Photoshop qualifies someone to be an effective designer, it’s refreshing to see how an experienced, well-informed, articulate designer realizes that tools are basically just one component of one step involved in a successful creative process. Cheers!

    - Chris

  5. Gerren says:

    Thanks for the kind comments, Chris!

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