The Google Doodle is an example of great design that ships consistently. The pyramid is designed to explain the keys to its success. As always with pyramids, build up from the base.
Mission / Soul
Understanding the soul of a project is the necessary foundation on which the design solution is built. Everything ties back to this idea, so identifying it first is the most important part of the process.
You should define a concise mission statement that elegantly answers the question "what is this for?".
If you are stuck at this stage, consider a process like the Golden Circle.
Design does not exist in isolation. A person's life will never end with your product / website / billboard / app / hardware - there is important context before, during and after the fact.
Consider before they find the design, the experience using it, as well as the all important next step once they have finished up (the 'what happens next?').
Also ensure you define how the experience should reinforce the soul of the design - integrating 'what the user does' and 'what the project does'.
There are many human-centric UX techniques that can be applied here to help drive this step.
Look & Feel
Now you have defined the reason why you are making the design as well as how people will interact with it, you can jump right into defining what it looks like.
Answering steps 1 & 2 will help in designing something that is both fulfilling and resonates with people on a subconscious level, so this should greatly aid in the creative process.
There are many ways to implement a design. The ones that are the strongest find a way to integrate the soul, user story, and look & feel into a cohesive whole.
Make sure that at this stage the design actually gets made, and made well.
Over the Top
Following the pyramid from its base, at this stage you have theoretically completed the design. Most people stop here, but good design becomes great if you keep on pushing one step more.
The cherry on top here is often a simple surprise and delight moment that will unexpectedly jump out at the user and put a smile on their face.
Looking for some Over the Top examples? Check out some of these great Little Big Details that show this thinking in action.
An updated version of this article is available at Strategy Umwelt.