How to refine your designs so you stand out from the competition.


In my final part of a series of articles on My Creative Process, I talk about refining to your designs to stand out from your competitors, how I structure my time and I share the secret resources I use on every project to give my work a professional finish.

Now that you have spent time researching, brainstorming and creating your final design, you can start about finally bringing it to life. This stage is key if you are going to enhance the designs you have created. 

Managing your Time

Too often in my past I wouldn’t leave enough time for design creation and refinement. I would often get stuck continually brainstorming, striving to find a better idea than the last one. This was honourable, but misguided as unless you are able to execute it properly, the best idea, design or logo will always be lacking. 

We’ve all seen the cooking show where the chef tries to create a stunning, but far too complicated meal and ends up running out of time. The idea is great, but the execution is under-cooked.

However it is as easily tempting to go too much the other way by working up an average idea too quickly.

If you haven’t gone deep enough in your research and spent a good amount of time brainstorming, it's more than likely that the idea won't stand up to scrutiny.

It's style over substance and is a common mistake I see impatient designers make time and again.

Create something amazing

This final stage is where you create something amazing. Something will look fantastic for the client, but also for your own portfolio. You can be a little self indulgent making it look amazing because you have focused most of your energy up until this point on solving the problems for the client.

This is when you refer back to your initial stages of investigation, when you picked out possible colour combinations, textures, styles of photography and typefaces. To see something come to life is tremendously satisfying and when paired with your initial sketches and ideas, will look fantastic in your client case study.

Structuring your Time

This will take longer than you might think, as your thoughts on the project will have evolved since your initial research phase. So you will need to allocate plenty of time to this stage of the process in order to make the most of the design you want to create.

My Project Breakdown:

  • 10% Research
  • 20% Brainstorming
  • 20% Creation
  • 30% Refining/Execution stage.
  • 20% Time Buffer

Each stage can be different. In terms of how much time is spent on which part is up to you and will change with each project. Sometimes you will strike upon an idea right away that nails the brief, but then other times you will spend more time brainstorming and researching as it may be a more complex issue.

I hope that by seeing how I work, you can try something similar to help you in your own creative process. It will get easier and quicker over time, so the more projects you can do (real and personal) the better, especially when starting out.

The most important thing is to come to grips with the time management of your projects.

This 5 Stage System gives your creative thinking a structure, but you have to be aware of how all 5 will fit into a fixed period of time, defending on the size and scale of your job at hand.


I cannot stress enough the importance of building time buffers into how you work. These buffers of time will help you manage the project if it runs over or there are external problems like picking up an illness such as flu or food poisoning.

By having a built in a buffer, you are also able to take time out to discuss future projects with any potential new clients who may approach you.

I will be writing an article all about Time Buffers very soon as I personally feel that they are essential to every project.

The Special Sauce

Make sure you give your work that certain something that sets it apart from other designers. You've spent all this time researching, brainstorming, creating and eliminating, to not give your final design a final polish seems like such a shame.

In my work I like to show my knowledge and research, by using specific techniques and add depth to my work.

This could be finding rare typefaces, using multiple layers of subtle textures, or choosing unusual colours.

Too often I see superb designs that feel too digital. They are too clean or the typefaces chosen lack imagination.

Here are just a few of my secret resources that I use all the time.


For genuine authenticity, especially when I am working on retro themed work, I always go to It's phenomenal. Not only can you search by year, industry and typeface, but they will also tell you which websites are selling these typefaces.


Farrow & Ball is where you can find sophisticated colours, inspirational moodboards and pre-chosen colour schemes to give you an idea of which colours go together.

Their colours are beautiful and the best part is that if you are using a specific colour as part of a rebranding job, this colour can also be used in the interiors of the business to carry the theme beyond print and screen.

This is the page I use as it has all of the colours in one place.

Textures & Brushes

The best place online for authentic retro tools is Retrosupply. Dustin has created possibly my favourite website on the entire internet. Not only are the tools super easy to use, but the effects you get in such a short space of time are genuinely astonishing.


Unsplash is unrivaled when it comes to photography. Not only are their images beautiful, but they are free to use for whatever you want! I go here daily to find images for clients, proposals and presentations.


Mike at FilterGrade is a genius. The quality of his Photoshop filters is astounding. They always add depth and substance to my work in seconds and very easy to use. They are essential weapons in any design arsenal!

To Sum Up

Make sure enough time is given to this stage of the process so that you can enjoy creating something that will look amazing. Use more unusual resources to give authenticity and take the time to use filters and textures for a more polished finish.

Thad CoxComment