David Airey is an independent graphic designer working with companies of all sizes since 2005.

Too many ideas

One of my first projects in self-employment was to create a logo for a South African web hosting company called Circle. In my eagerness to please, and when my initial ideas weren’t accepted, I suggested that I publish a blog post showing all my sketches, inviting readers to share their thoughts. I was at a stage in learning where I didn’t understand the downsides…

white circle black background

  1. It’s never a good move showing all of your ideas. There’ll inevitably be poor ones in the mix, lest we forget the influence of Sod’s Law, where if you show a client 10 ideas (nine good, one bad) the odds on bad being chosen are significantly shorter than 10:1.
  2. When you present your client with too many options, the task of choosing becomes much more difficult — it’s easier to choose one from two, than one from fifty.
  3. Inviting the general public to pass judgement disregards both your client’s target audience, and whether or not those commentating have any notable design experience. When your client is able to read the comments, it throws a further spanner in the works.

Any one of these mistakes would be enough to hinder a project’s completion, let alone all three combined. Needless to say, I never did finish that logo.

This post was prompted by Creative Amnesty, Nick Asbury‘s brilliant scheme to have designers talk about their worst work, leaving Nick looking golden. Creative Amnesty was part of Nick‘s day of guest tweets for @CreativeReview.

You’ll find more tales of woe here.

My second book on Amazon

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36 appreciated comments about “Too many ideas”

  1. Great logo! Although it could use a drop shadow perhaps.

  2. Brilliant points David.

  3. It’s never a good move showing all of your ideas.

    This can be difficult when starting out and trying to drum up work.

    But point well made. Gotta keep something in reserve.

  4. Well said, and a very good point. In my case, I try to show only the best 3 options. While I usually sell the client on a design soon after presenting, I always like to give the client time to review each logo and sleep on it. But I’m always a bit worried when they tell me that they’ll show the logo presentation to their colleagues and other business friends they may have. At this point you no longer have control over the discussion. As you mentioned on your post, allowing people to pass judgement on the design, and whether or not any of the participants know or have any design understanding at all. My only insurance is that I’m showing the best 3 ideas and no matter which one is picked, you know that you and the client will be satisfied with the outcome. But like a lot of us, there is always a favorite idea or in this case a favorite logo that you hope the client will choose. What is worrisome is the fact that other people’s opinions might influence the client from choosing a direction you have already convinced him to choose, so do you not allow the client to ‘ sleep on it’? Or do you just have to try and convince your client again if they have changed their mind after ‘sleeping on it’? What are your thoughts on that?

  5. I’ve done the same thing. I have examples of a project where I showed about 15 logo concepts, all well beyond the “sketch” phase, to the client. There was too much confusion and we ended up wasting a lot off time. In the end, I should have chosen something and really sold it hard. Lesson learned, certainly.

    This is similar to the consumerist idea of The Tyranny of Choice. Sometimes variety is great. The rest of the time it’s a burden.

  6. Nice points David and i do agree with you that we should not show too many !deas to client, in this situation i use to ask client comment after first concept and rework accordingly. I think it’s batter to rework on on !dea to work on 10 different.

  7. Always show the minimum you can get away with – even just one if your confident enough – and always tie each solution in with a rationale that relates strongly to the company and underlying strategy. Follow this and one other very important rule: Never, EVER show something you could not live with yourself. Or they WILL pick it!

  8. The other downside with presenting multiple logos is when the client likes all of them and invariably asks “Can you do one more, please? Take that bit out of that one, that bit out of that one, the colours from that one, the type from that one and that bit out of that one.”

    Result – a mess.

    Back in t’olden days when we used magic markers rather than computers, it was easier to steer the client to your preferred choice simply by drawing it up to a higher standard than any of the other ideas submitted.

  9. Thanks a lot for reading/commenting, folks.

    David, you asked whether it’s a good idea to let the client sleep on the ideas you present, and you worried about the differing opinions of those close to the client.

    You’ll find that there’ll always be a variety of opinions on whatever you present, and that there’ll be a “committee” you must persuade. You might only deal with one person throughout the project, but the committee can still include business partners, employees. More than once I’ve been receiving those opinions from client friends and family.

    Achieving consensus is just another part of our job. From time to time feedback will offer suggestions that I can see will improve the outcome, so my advice is not to consider any idea that you present as being perfect. Is the perfect design even attainable?

  10. I’ve always thought that it’s better to have two, maybe three, polished concepts, be it logo’s/websites/whatever, rather than several average concepts.

    It’s very easy to try and over deliver if it’s a big pitch that you’re desperate to win, or a job interview. It’s hard to leave ideas in the folder. But I believe even the weaker ideas have some value.

    In the past I’ve pitched for jobs and come up with a number of concepts regardless of the budget, boiled them down to the strongest, but taken the ones that weren’t to be presented along as a potential talking point if the ‘chosen ones’ didn’t go down as well I’d hoped.

  11. Respectfully, I must disagree with your downside #3: “Inviting the general public to pass judgment disregards both your client’s target audience, and whether or not those commentating have any design experience of note.”

    Clearly, each client has a target audience for its products or services but, when it comes to a their logo, isn’t the general public the real target audience?

    A logo’s key function is to identify. It serves as a visual representation of a company, enabling the general public to make an intellectual, often abstract association between a symbol and the business (e.g., golden arches = hamburgers). Another thing an effective logo does is elicit a specific emotional response from those within a specific demographic, i.e., allowing a specific subset of the general public to identify THEMSELVES as prospective consumers of a company’s goods. Not to stereotype but a teenage girl looking a pink swirly logo might assume that she could use the product associated with it, whereas the average middle-aged man probably would not.

    The second half of downside #3 (“…whether or not those commentating have any design experience of note.”) should not, in my opinion, be a concern. Those who take the time to visit and leave comments on design-related sites likely have more than just a passing interest in design. And how awful would it be if it was left only to professional designers to determine whether a logo was good or not?

  12. I haven’t been at it long but just this week I ran into a situation where I really needed more time to figure out something that struck me as a winner. But I couldn’t get out of the deadline, do to factors out of my control. So I presented some ideas. But than I continued to work and presented my winners today.

    Probably not the best plan . . . but I’m hoping that the pick the new concept.

  13. The first logo I designed, I ended up posting all samples I came up with on Facebook (my client was a friend on FB). There were so many comments that it made it hard for him to choose, and for me to give advice on what changes would best fit his business and not just go along with what the masses were saying.

    It took awhile, but I did finish the project. I learned not to do that again though. I only publish the finished product now.

  14. “I asked him if he would come up with a few options. And he said, ‘No, I will solve your problem for you, and you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution — if you want options, go talk to other people. But I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how, and you use it or not, that’s up to you — you’re the client — but you pay me’.”
    -Steve Jobs on Paul Rand

    In my opinion this problem is easily avoidable.

    Let’s see? You took your time to study the client and his problem. You took your time to study the client’s competition. You know about composition, tension and the golden rule. You know the metaphorical value of color. You know the figure ground relationship. You know about the function of grids. You know the difference between RGB and CMYK color spaces. You understand aesthetics. You took the time to explore some relevant variants. You took into consideration scalability…

    … Then, why present more than ONE option? Yes, I said one. I truly don’t get it. Will this one option be the PERFECT design? Chances are not but we should strive to make it the best for a time frame. Plus, you also know that design is an iterative process, right?

    Yeah, I know… what if the client want a second professional opinion? He can go visit another fellow professional designer and use whatever solution he wants.

    By the way, I used ‘you’ not to point at anyone in particular but actually to ‘us’ as designers.

  15. I recommend you start over. Nothing is worse than simply giving up. When I approach something creative, I try to hit it as many times as I can. Eventually I end up with something effective.

    You are right though. It is always best to try to focus on the Target Audience every step of the way! If you can get a sample from the TA than you are much better off than the general public. And simply showing 10 things does leave you handicapped when you could simply show 1 sample to 10 people and compare the 10 samples across 100 people. Or if you have the resources, 1,000 people. That’s what I try to do.

  16. Abbas, the weaker concepts have great value for me, too, even though they’re no longer presented. They give assurance that what I’ve chosen to run with definitely is what I consider the strongest direction, and confidence in what we present is essential.

    Rick, disagreement’s always welcome. Interesting thoughts. But no, the general public isn’t a target audience I’d recommend catering to. Seth Godin’s words on pleasing come to mind:

    “Pleasing everyone with our work is impossible. It wastes the time of our best customers and annoys our staff. Forgive us for focusing on those we’re trying to delight.”

    You also mentioned those who comment on my work. Don’t get me wrong, the commentators on my blogs have been of immense help on my journey, and I’ve learned more than I can say from their chat. Here’s the ‘but’: For every few comments received from genuine, knowledgeable designers there’ll be another that’s posted by someone who offers nothing constructive whatsoever. Criticism for the sake of it does no-one any good, and I’d prefer to leave behind the negative portfolio comments that I don’t allow to appear, only to have the commentator repeatedly try to leave more asking, “Where’s my comment? Are you scared?”

    There are definitely pros to allowing portfolio comments, but they’re outweighed by the cons.

    CA, that’s one of my favourite stories about Rand. What I’ve found, however, is that if the client’s involved in making the final choice between two (or more) ideas, consensus and satisfaction can be easier to achieve. All valid points, though, on the merits of a single direction.

    Peter, I’m never one to quit easily, but when my client was charged a fraction of what he would be today, and when I only received half of my fee for much more effort than the entire project should’ve taken, it would’ve been foolish to carry on.

  17. Great post and discussion! Like Ian, I am just starting out. Currently I am working with my 4th logo client. I learn something every time!! I usually try to offer only three options. What about when the client wants to give suggestions? Sometimes it makes NO sense and I have to explain why, but other times they have good ideas that make a design even stronger when implemented the right way. When that happened, it gave the client a strong sense of ownership and connection to the design, it looked great and was an easy sell! Most people have a little creativity in them, and EVERYONE has a opinion about what they like. I cant stop them from showing the work to other people, but I can make sure that my case for one design over another is clear (and usually in writing so they can forward that on too!).

  18. David, I know how that does sometimes. I face it all the time with my website design. These days I make sure the budget exists before I put the work in. I don’t necessarily bill every hour, but I want piece of mind that I could if I had to.

  19. I only present one design concept to my clients. Finding the best solution to the design challenge is designer’s job.

  20. I started out showing “too many” ideas to a client for the shear fact I wasn’t confident in what I knew was best. I didn’t want to leave that meeting with a no, so I would smother them with variations. Of course, they would pick the one I hated. Now I will show ONE, and in black and white only. I won’t introduce color anymore until after because that too will influence a decision for the worst.

  21. Good call. I’ll try that too.

  22. I agree a little with Rick Schober regards #3. Although the designer and client should not be swayed by the inexperienced general public, there is perhaps some real benefit to be had from outsider feedback, it can sometimes reveal the obvious that the experts are not yet aware of. But #1 certainly true, rod for your own back.

  23. There are those cases where we (as designers) get tunnel vision I agree. Sometimes outside perspective can be constructive, but it’s a balance between acknowledging other viewpoints and knowing/defending what the final product needs to be and why.

  24. @Omiga

    Unless your name is Paul Rand, I would reconsider your “one” concept strategy. Perhaps a contributing reason as to why so many businesses resort to crowd-sourcing is the lack of choice designers are providing.

  25. I’m not saying a “one and done” philosophy is always right, it’s simply a technique that often works. Someone who owns a business in a certain field does something I can’t do; They are coming to me for a service they can’t do. Why not put my best foot forward? Anything more is, in some cases, just a cushion.

  26. Without a proper brief you could end up doing endless concepts. Try to get the most from a client at the very start so you know where you are going. We try to work out WHY a client does what they do rather than what they want.

    Normally we give 2-3 concepts, sometimes 4 max if there is good reason. We normally start with mood boards and the presentations are generally angled to what we think is the best solution. Normally the client agrees, which means we have done our job properly. It’s not the X Factor. Very often the best solutions are obviously the ones to go for, the other designs just help to confirm that.

  27. Oh this is one dilemma I wish I could resolve… David, your book was such a blessing, because yes I was always giving 6-12 options and getting confused clients who wanted a bit of all 12 concepts, etc. Have pulled back, and generally clients give good feedback and all goes well. However, I have this one client … I have started the second logo for him (second business). …First logo project was a nightmare journey from hated all, I lost control, regained control and ended up with great results, and all are happy. … But, now we start the journey again > I wanted to keep control this time. Ensured I only presented 4 options and basically once again, he hates them all!? I would almost take it personally if I didn’t have solid outcomes w. other clients.
    Seriously would appreciate advice > when they hate them all or “none grab me, what else have you got” happens… do you push your own ideas again (possibly resulting in unhappy client)? …do I have to consider that I really may have just delivered crap? …or do you take it as a challenge and start again (not charging the time as it was package price)? (Note: I have attempted to ‘pull’ more information as to WHY the customer doesn’t like it – but he can’t communicate this information.) sigh.

  28. @Ben,

    Wow, I’m not sure what to say to that. I appreciated your concern about my approach to sell designs, but I think I gonna stick to that for now, as it seems working just fine for me and my clients.

    How many concepts do you present to your clients usually? How many options do you suggest to provide in order to compete effectively with the average of 101+ entries per project offered by design contests?

  29. Apologies for the long response: but thought this might be interesting addition to this.

    My theory (of the moment) — Is it actually possible to have too many ideas? Or is the big idea, to have hundreds of ideas…

    Creativity in the business of Branding does not solely or even mostly reside in one ‘big idea‘ — the age old golden fleece of marketing. They reside in hundreds of design decisions. Great brands have hundreds of great ideas, not one big one.

    Ideas are now applied to so many varied things throughout the life of a product, organisation or service, one ‘big’ idea isn’t enough to unite them all.

    People tire of consistent application. They crave inventive thinking, gentle surprise, decoration… we send people to ‘solitary‘ — white boxes devoid of decoration to punish them. Paradise is varied, beautiful, filled with hundreds of things to gaze over and delight the senses. Great brands do this too.

    Everyone jumped on the bandwagon of the ‘big idea’ but those conceptual, blue sky, not-that-useful mantras just create a restricting jacket rather than a set of exciting principles. It’s fine to have principles… but keep them guiding rather than prescriptive… ‘always moving forward’ is the philosophy of Eurostar, not a rigid brief. It promotes diverse creativity, not a rubber stamp.

    It’s widely trumpeted in Marketing circles that creativity comes in the form of ‘concept’ of one ‘Big Idea’, rather than a deeply considered, tangible, coherent and crafted feel that runs through everything.

    You’re reading an article from SomeOne — a company that loves conceptual thinking! We are not saying that conceptual thinking is dead. That Big Ideas are worthless. Not at all!

    More that — big ideas should be many and frequently occurring in the modern brand experience. We like to give organisations, products and services much more than just one big idea. Through the application of many ideas, an aesthetic is born and this aesthetic steers the brand.

    For Eurostar — we created hundreds of ideas, hundreds of ways to touch the brand and be touched back — sure, we created a logo… but it’s one that is alive — ever changing, ready to surprise, sell, unite and adapt to new challenges.
    Alongside a new logo — probably the thing most people will latch onto — we’ve also created hundreds of ideas to inspire, surprise, entertain and communicate…

    » Brand strategies (not just one, but many for each part of the business)
    » An extensive set of dozens of icons for the new website
    » Extensive signage in the three key stations in three countries
    » Bespoke headline typefaces, in the three cuts and two weights.
    » Sculptures that embody the spirit of the new organisation
    » Bespoke group of on-board pictograms for non-written communications
    » We defined personality traits of each product, service and organisation
    » Created digital interaction principles
    » Primary, secondary and tertiary colour systems for multiple offers
    » Developed re-craft an onboard magazine
    » Created films for the staff, the launch and the company
    » Worked with the advertising agencies in three countries
    » Created co-branding systems for partner brands such as London 2012
    » Created messaging to run throughout the organisation to keep people up to date with what’s happening, why, where and how…

    …and a whole raft of ways of applying these new ideas to help create a new aesthetic to help shape a new reputation for the new organisation… and we’ve only just got started…

    The demands of modern life on a product, service or organisation demand smart adaptive design thinking on multiple levels. Not just one big idea, but hundreds…

    It’s more like creating a hotel, from scratch (which we at SomeOne have done several times with BabyGrand, The Scotsman, 42TheCalls, TheTownHall & now HeckfieldPlace), working out everything from how to greet guests to what kind of toweling to use for the robes in the spa and what the spa smells like and what it’s temperature is and what the lighting is like… through design, it really is possible to shape peoples experiences and in turn determine how a brand is perceived.

    A brand is the experience.

    It’s no wonder that large organisations are now turning to Design practices like us to help steer their brand through launches, relaunches or existing issues

    Having hundreds of great ideas contribute to ‘how a brand feels’ – it relies on multiple ideas, multiple experiences, adaptive thinking, flexible applications.
    Consistency is utterly misplaced as a central thought in branding.

    Coherence is what is important.

    Join it up everywhere, but don’t make it dull, repetitive and predictable (the very definition of consistent).

    Surprise, delight, entertain, inform and inspire.

    Name a great progressive megabrand and they probably do it… Nike — everywhere, Apple — all the time… they have more than a logo, they have materials, shops, sounds, films, sculptures, events, ideas, websites and people who evangelically sing their praises… why?

    Because people love rich experiences.

    Dharavi is India’s largest slum. It’s chaotic, does not have clean running water or sanitary arrangements. It is home to 1 million people. Yet people seek it out to be inspired. It’s chaos and order come together to enable a million people to live together. In just over a half of a square mile (1.7 km2). Everyone comes away in awe — both of the self regulating systems — and of the amazing things that happen there everyday… it’s inspiring because it is bursting with inventive thinking, of ideas that are creating millionaires who live in Dharavi. Ideas that are sparking new industry, new entrepreneurial organisations of people and amazing, sustainable systems for living. It’s the most ecologically sound eco system. Recycling is greater here than any other city on the planet. It works.

    And when people make their millions (and they do, all the time) they don’t leave even though conditions are testing — because — they love it there, they love what it inspires in them everyday through one of the richest tapestry of experiences seen on the planet. People feel connected and people love that feeling.

    Feelings are the emotional connections we create with products, organisations and services… How we feel about Eurostar, O2, London 2012 & The Royal Opera House are affected by design decisions. Which is why the brands that are winning are often those that place design in the board room rather than the back room.

    Design is an essential part of creating, re-creating and managing a 21st century brand… yet it is often only recruited when things have gone wrong, or at the last minute.

    Brands that place design thinking as a priority win. Brands that develop as they go along — win.

    Brands that wait until they are tarnished with poor design thinking have a lot more catching up to do than those that adapt, flex and connect with people.

    Brands that work brilliantly — in useful, successful, profitable ways — tend to be those with a deeply considered design story, with hundreds of great ideas that snuggle up together under one brand name.

    That’s why we say a logo alone isn’t enough to create a world class brand.

    That’s why we say the logo isn’t that important, why we think it’s a dead end to pursue it without thinking about everything else.

    If a new logo can’t be useful, why have it at all?

    Progressive branding is not about creating one ‘big’ idea, it’s about creating hundreds of brilliant ideas, that while seemingly unconnected, connect under one organisation, product of service to create a monopoly.

    And that’s what the business of branding is there for, to ensure a product, service or organisation is chosen over another.

  30. Ha Ha Ha…..Sod’s Law in action! The very person who feels incompetent to create a design (that’s why he hires a designer) is the one who choses the design….lol

    You’re right David, the fewer the better. I have wasted many an hour working on too many. My problem is that I hate when my work stinks….. and I keep trying to make it better (reworking and reworking bad ideas), rather than letting the bad ones go and focusing on the ones that have the best chance of survival.

    It helps me (a hopeless procrastinator) to make short deadlines (I seem to work best under pressure) and charge for each concept. Clients generally don’t want to pay for 30 rough ideas so I don’t create 30 rough ideas. That keeps me on a short leash and reminds me not to waste time.

  31. Thanks for sharing that Simon!

  32. Ditto CA and of course Paul Rand!

    I never send more than two options NEVER. EVER. I always pick two options one fairly obvious route – very inline with the clients ideals and a second that really really pushes the envelope. As a matter of fact in my latest identity job, I sent just one identity option which was approved. I always make a note that based on feedback we can work on a third option.

    But here is the thing, there almost never that request for a third option.

  33. Wow, thanks for that stellar write up Simon! Well said! The initial identity is just the beginning of a much bigger picture. Perhaps a story!

  34. Why is it that clients are always drawn to the bad ideas? The world may never know.

  35. Hey David!
    Great article, and unfortunately I can relate! As a newbie designer starting out a few years back, I had the offer to design my very first real world logo for a local business.

    Of course I jumped right in and forgot everything my teachers taught me about research and planning. I must have rendered 20 or so variations of a new logo in Illustrator, and in my eagerness to please showed my client all 20 of them.

    You can guess what happens next. “Can you take this from that logo and put it with this one?” “Can you combine x and y?” “I like this but also that”….you get the picture. What could have been a decent logo soon became Frankenstein, with bits of pieces of everything thrown in together. There are definitely much worse out there, but looking back I am disappointed that I didn’t stick to my guns and produced a strong logo with a single concept.

    Lesson learned, at the most I now show only 3 or 4 polished ideas to clients. :)

  36. I usually present three concepts, however I have had a challenging team to please and I did present more than my usual, that is okay because you charge accordingly.

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