When designing a project, I always focus on the elements of the subject. How can I tie in what this piece is about with the visuals that it refers to? This involves making a mental list of what the piece is about.
I recently designed a brochure for RAND Corporation dealing with students and education. The obvious starting point is finding images of school children, but images that don't look like corny stock photos. Part of the fun of designing is analyzing each part of the project. What should the background look like? Which font should be used?
I chose notebook paper as my background of choice for the front cover and certain parts inside the brochure to tie it together. When you see that paper, it instantly transports most of us to our school days, so in an instant the reader has a sense of the subject matter. It's also colorful, without being a flat, boring color.
The font is almost hand-drawn, like a child has drawn it.
All these elements come together to form the whole. That's a big part of the design process. If the viewer thinks, "Of course it makes perfect sense for it to look like that," then I'm well on my way to succeeding in my design attempt.