Ah, the age-old question. Sure, it says you'll show three in your contract, but you just know they'll buy the twinkly idea that hit you in your morning shower. Why go through the hassle of designing out those lesser ideas that won't get client buy-in, but will demonstrate "range" and "value" as part of your ongoing relationship?
I have a few business rules about how many ideas to show. In numerical order.
One Concept Is for Friends and Art. Or You're the Shizzle.
If you're designing an art project, like a band poster or a pro-bono project for a friend, one concept is fair. If you're a hot shot, in-demand designer -- Stefan Sagmeister comes to mind -- one concept is part of the cost of engaging their firm. One concept is the illusion of a perfect solution, delivered by a rock star. So you'd better be one.
For us mere mortals, if you're designing for a corporation of an appreciable size, showing one concept can come off as sheer arrogance. I've had heart-to-hearts with local marketers about showing up to client presentations for major branding initiatives and being handed one concept -- and a dud at that. In every one of these cases, they've had to argue their agency down from their lofty perch to even consider an approach within the creative brief and budget. Is that really good client service?
Working with corporations, they are going to want to see the range of your thinking to frame up that single perfect solution. Now, this said: I have walked into the shooting gallery with only one concept, but only at great peril and backed by heavy artillery in the form of fully-baked research and strategic positioning. But try it at your own risk. It's too easy to get burned.
Two Concepts Are for Day-to-Day Projects, Tight Bids, and... Pitches.
When working on "big idea" campaigns and day-to-day, meat and potatoes projects such as collateral and environmental graphics, two concepts fits the bill. How many brochure covers does the client really need to see to make an informed choice? How many ideas to you want to show when they're going to govern a huge campaign? Any more and you're just asking for it.
If the client doesn't feel either design concept or campaign theme hits the brief, there's likely some great ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor, just waiting to be executed. Either that, or the brief wasn't tight to begin with. If it's not your fault, you could hit them with a change order to cover that extra round of work. You can't "miss the mark" if the target was in the wrong place.
If you're forced into doing a pitch, don't ever show more than two concepts per assignment -- and your absolute best ones, at that.
Three Concepts Are for Real Challenges.
If you're going through a branding exercise or developing an enterprise-level Web site, three concepts are completely fair. However, scope needs to be tightly controlled at the first round. Don't show color studies for all your logos right out of the gate, or develop multiple Web page exceptions when the client hasn't even bit off on a Web page shell.
Keep each concept simple -- as the purest, most uncomplicated expression of your idea.
Four Concepts Should Never Happen.
Three is the magic number, not four. Show a client four ideas and you're just asking for Frankenconcepting. Too many choices is always a bad thing. Stick to prime numbers.
Five Concepts = Fat Wads of Cash.
In some heavy branding exercises, I've done five to eight concepts. Was that a good idea? Not really. In the end, they quickly whittled it down to the three we knew were top-notch. We were getting a hefty fee, however, and the client felt like we'd shown real range and value for their dollar. More projects came through the door from that client, and we were able to bring it back to two concepts for future work.
If you're getting great compensation and love the thrill of executing a dozen ideas to their last detail, feel free to throw every last concept at the wall. Just know that in the end, only one of them will ever stick.