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  • Jill Macdonald

The Ugly Duckling

aka the Creative Process

Big black dog in the snow

Disclaimer: No dog was hurt for the purposes of this story, but his feelings may have suffered. This is an image of Cedar after his first trip to the groomer - clearly, he lost patience before the final touches were achieved. More on Cedar at the end of this post!

How the Creative Process Works

Want to know the truth about how your project comes together? Read on. If you don’t want to know, please stop here.

Creative process is a messy, scary, exhilarating undertaking. It’s not unlike cooking: butter, flour, salt, milk and heat. Simple, not a complex list, yet a person cannot just throw those ingredients together and come up with a smooth white sauce, quickly and unfailingly. It takes method and experience to recognize important turning points.

The Honeymoon Stage

With each new project, there is the initial bloom of excitement, the brainstorming: Logos, colour palettes, format concepts, content ideas. Catherine and I generate word clouds, research image banks, visit relevant web pages and just allow ourselves to drift. This is the time when anything is possible.

We give ourselves permission to suggest the improbable.

First Concepts

At the initial review, we present the first round of ideas. Sometimes this is a rowdy, fun meeting, other times it’s more sedate. For some clients, process is a moving target and they find it difficult to articulate what direction to explore, the whole thing seems like a tossed salad of ingredients. It’s not obvious how the colours, or elements in a logo concept will evolve and work together on a website, social media account or in a printed piece. But they are clear that they will know what they like when the see it.

Time for round two.

On the Third Date

We are getting to know each other. Certain fonts have been ruled out, tone of voice is emerging, we have images. But nothing is final, it’s still a prototype. We’re looking to nail down a direction and advance beyond what feels familiar into what is truly unique, what expresses this small business and only this small business. Each one has a distinct personality and aesthetic. That is what customers will seek and gravitate toward if it is authentic. We are getting somewhere.

The Ugly Duckling

Catherine sends me a wireframe, an outline filled in with colour ideas, a few images, the logo concept and some of the words. Maybe she has the navigation menu sorted out. When I see that email come through, my heart rate increases. It’s so exciting. And then I open it up and…

It feels rough. The hardwood floor before its sanded and whitewashed. A beautiful dress that is cut out and pinned to the pattern pieces but it’s not sewn together. There is so much more to do.

This is the leap of faith. We get online together and go through it all. Ideas flow, we figure out the problems, open new avenues, challenge things that aren’t working and by the end of each day, we’re pumped! The ugly duckling stage is most exciting because we are unearthing the rich qualities of our client.


It can be tricky to navigate sharing the creative process. Each step requires input from the client – will they be able to see the bigger picture, or will a few unpolished details trip them up? Trust is key, that we will deliver, that we will find the full expression of personality that resonates. We learn and keep moving.

The Reveal

Creative process take time. Quick and dirty solutions are impersonal, familiar is comfortable, it does not stand out. We believe in putting ourselves through the wringer of uncertainty, doubt and experimentation because the reward is seeing people recognize themselves in our work, not the other way around.

As for Cedar, he tolerates the grooming process, he does not love it. Yet when it’s over, he is a happy and handsome dog!

~ Jill Macdonald

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