One stitch at a time
Next to "when are you going to design my city", the question I get asked the most is where I get my ideas. And sadly, I can't tell you that. It's personal and instinctive and honestly, I don't even know where they come from, but mostly I discover them in the shower.
But what I can share is a little glimpse at my design process. I start by drawing a lot of thumbnail sketches, where I'm mostly working through the composition of the image. These sketches are not usually very cute, but they are an essential part of the process because the one thing that's really impossible to change later is the composition.
Next, I do a larger more detailed sketch. I think you can really see my animation background in these zodiac drawings. I love designing animals and trying to inject a little personality in each one, even though cross stitch can be limiting in how much detail you can include.
Now, at this stage I think most cross stitch designers would scan their sketch directly into the chart-making software, but I like to make things more difficult. I trace my sketch onto graph paper, and start my chart with pencil and paper. I like choosing for myself how the image will be turned into a grid, rather than letting the computer decide for me. It's time-consuming but I think it's essential for creating nice smooth curves and angles.
Then I transfer the graph paper sketch into the software (I use MacStitch) by eye, one stitch at a time (yes, it's tedious). This is also the stage where I select which colors are used and where, though I usually have a plan of what the palette will be from the start.
Lastly, I stitch the chart myself, or have one of my testers stitch it. My advice: don't trust complex patterns that haven't been stitched, I guarantee they will not look the way you expect them to (especially if they use more than a handful of colors).
And that's it: my process for creating a cross stitch chart. The whole process can take a few days or a few weeks (not including stitching time), depending on the size and complexity of the design. It's a little bit modern, a little bit old-school. Just like cross stitch.