We start every major project with a brand sprint and stylescape explorations. The brand sprint is to make sure we understand the company. We'll combine that with competitive analysis / research and any existing brand documentation the client has. The stylescapes are to visually interpret what we've learned into an agreed upon art direction before we begin writing copy or designing pages.
The client is a partner in every step of the process and we get buy-in and sign-off from them at each step.