Just as there are different techniques of sculpture or painting, there are also different design techniques. This post presents two techniques that I have observed and I call “design by layers” and “design by stages”. Although each of us may feel more comfortable with one of them, it is important to know both techniques as they can be useful in different situations.

Design by Layers

In design by layers we begin with the sketch of the project as a whole. In this first phase, as we progress along the different parts of the project, our style becomes more defined and polished, and small elements not present at the beginning are introduced.

Once the first draft is finished, we return to the first part of the project and we reformulate it with these new elements and the style that the process itself has inspired.

During this second phase, our style continues to improve and we introduce again new elements that will be applied to the whole project in a third phase, if necessary.

The project ends when all the parts have a uniform design and when the designer considers that it cannot be improved much more (applying a new layer wouldn’t significantly improve the project).

Design by Stages

In the design by stages, the designer begins focusing on the first part of the project, aimed to design it completely and obtain a finished product.

Once the first stage of the project is finished, the designer tackles the second part in the same way, and so on until all parts are completed and we get the final project.

In this type of technique, new elements initially unplanned are rarely added and the style doesn’t undergo significant changes.

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From what I have observed, each person tends to feel more comfortable with one of the two techniques, but it is important to know them both because each technique has certain properties that make them useful in different situations.

So, design by layers is useful in projects in which there isn’t a very clear idea of the result to be achieved and where creativity plays an important role. It can also be used in those projects in which the parties aren’t independent each other and where the whole is what matters.

By contrast, design by stages is more useful in projects where we have a very clear idea of what we want to obtain and how we will carry it out. In these cases, the creative part is less important. The designer knows in detail what to do and executes it without further ado. This technique is also useful in projects composed by well-defined parts with internal coherence.

To illustrate how these two techniques can be combined depending on the type of project, I will expose two real situations.

On one occasion, I was asked to design a major corporate presentation. The goal was to completely redesign the previous presentation, giving it a much more modern and visual look. To do this, I had a reasonable delivery time. In this case, I used the technique of design by layers, which is also the technique that I use whenever I can. I really didn’t know what to do, so I just started with a sketch and I made design decisions on the fly.

On many other occasions, however, I’ve been asked to design small presentations with a very tight delivery time. In these cases, I design by stages (though I don’t felt so comfortable with it). The important thing is to finish the project, so I limit myself to apply conservative ideas and to use styles already known. Since time is very tight, the main goal is to design as many slides as I can, so that if time expires and the presentation is not finished, these slides could be used.