25 posts categorized "Concepting"

Reflecting on the Mess


We become more comfortable under pressure when we see our design efforts as a process, not an end product. So we have to train ourselves to be more comfortable with waste as a byproduct of the creative process.

Or, to put it another way: Knowing when to walk away from a design idea can make you a better designer. You just need to have enough ideas to know which to walk away from.

You don't have any boundaries as a creative thinker, except for fear: fear that you'll come up short with terrible ideas, fear that you won't know enough about the subject to provide an informed response, fear that you'll run out of time before you are satisfied by your design output. While such fears are oft battled by artists and designers alike, they are self-imposed and reinforced by our peers. "Designer's block" can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. (As one of my colleagues Ric Ewing likes to say: A race-car driver should never stare at the boundary wall if they're worried about crashing into it.)

These fear-driven situations most often occur because we aren't being generative, papering the walls with our thoughts and sketches. We're tapping our pencil against the notebook thinking about how we have no ideas. There's nothing for our minds to react to other than what's inside them. An idea discarded in the mind is useless to a designer, and quickly buried in a tangle of neurons soon to be obliterated by caffeine, alcohol, or accidentally smacking into the dude in front of you in the coffee and/or alcohol line because you're checking your Facebook status.

An idea captured through whatever vehicle you choose—computer, pencil, food sculpture—is the snowball rolling down the mountain that slowly incites an avalanche. And you need an avalanche of ideas before you can start being a critic about which ones are rockstar. Such avalanches also serve as shrines to progress. They make our bosses and sometimes even our clients stop wringing their hands about a project outcome and stand back a few paces, fearful of being buried in the haystack before they're presented with the best damn needle you can muster.

So, backing up a few steps from the soapbox for a moment: What value is there in walking away from your ideas?

By abandoning them, you can create space in your mind for them to intermingle and cross-pollinate. This can lead to those aha! moments where various strains of creative DNA recombine to form a new species of solution.

Last night, I had my students from my 80 Works for Designers classes over to catch up. In our conversation, we shared our experiences of "solving" 80 design challenges, where we all had anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours to create a rough sketch of a design solution. I place the word "solved" in quotes because without fully executing that sketch at a high level of fidelity, we didn't always know if our original ideas would survive unscathed or fall to pieces.

One of the strange byproducts of living through such a process—layered on top of our full-time responsibilities as designers, where every project had to end in a completed deliverable—was that we were acquiring tacit knowledge about where our boundaries existed as purely conceptual thinkers. We had trouble finding them, and probably you would struggle to bang into them as well.

This was quite different from learning how to close down to a final design direction and execute it via the appropriate medium. It made us more willing to suspend judgment, step backward from the precipice that would lead to a muddy, murky swim (courtesy of Photoshop), and consider further iterations that diverged from the first idea/not always best idea. In short: I no longer desired executional completion early in the design process, and I rarely saw the same impulse in my students. Besides, what a designer carries from any final, tangible form they've constructed is a somewhat false sense of completion. "Well, now that I'm done with that logo, I can move on to a new project."

Being done, however, only happens when you run out of time, client money, or patience. Perhaps a better word is satisfied, and while we often are able to deliver artifacts that meet our client's level of satisfaction, it's the mark of a strong designer to be fairly unsatisfied no matter how amazing your comps may look to a client's eye. They need to meet your standard first… though your false sense of completion is also marred by the realities of providing a service to your client, pinned to a set of deliverables that meets a specified need. You could hand a finished logo to your client and they'd make some horrific improvement to it. Or you could instantiate it across your client's online properties, and they could be acquired by a holding company that forces a complete rebrand. The list of possible ways that your perfect logo could be violated is endless.

So, perhaps what I'm saying is this: Our clients and peers may judge our output as the measure of our effectiveness as designers, but what most satisfies us creatively may come from a greater breadth of exploration through the process. We will never have enough time for an eternity of pencil sketches, so we need to learn to best use what time we do have, at the appropriate points in the process.

What kind of form does this knowledge take, if we never have a chance to fully realize the design iterations we've been considering? Whatever form it needs to in our physical world, except unvocalized thoughts blown away in a hot summer wind.

Without a mirror to hold our mind up to, we cannot effectively reflect upon what we create.

Slides from "Designing with the Body" Workshop

Last Friday and Saturday, I taught a 75-minute workshop at AIGA Seattle's "Into the Woods" conference on how designers can incorporate prototyping practices into their design repertoire. Quickly prototyping design solutions is often the only way that a design team can discern which solution is most desirable and accessible for their intended audience. This is especially true for product, service, and exhibit design projects, which often have intangible qualities that are hard to capture in a whiteboard sketch.

In this workshop, I encouraged participants to randomly select a design challenge and then act out possible solutions to it. The challenges in the workshop were drawn from my first book from HOW Design Press, Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills. These challenges were timeboxed in a manner that forced workshop participants to learn through prototyping and improvising the use of their design ideas:

15 minutes: Sketch ideas on paper and discuss amongst the team

15 minutes: Settle on one idea and create a physical prototype of your idea AT SIZE

15 minutes: Conduct a walkthrough of your design with one of your team members, with an eye towards which of your ideas may or may not be working. Use any remaining time to add or change design elements that improve your idea.

1 minute: A person from another team will walk through a use case with your design, and you need to act out what would happen as they interact with it, swapping in the appropriate screens or being the voice of the interface. However, this does not mean that the designers get to explain what should happen. They have to sit and watch as a person with no knowledge of their solution experiences it for the first time, and voices their expectations regarding how it should work.

Since each team only had a limited amount of time to detail out the specifics of their solution to the design challenge they'd selected, they were discovering new possibilities as they prototyped their solution, tested it among their own team, and then shared it out with the overall group. And since they had to provide the voice of the interface, they began to think about how well-designed products and services speak to you from their very first "Hello."

Shown below is one of the solutions to the challenge "Touch Screen of Deaf Rock." Teams were tasked with creating an exhibit at a children's museum where deaf children could feel different types of music. To test out solutions, one of the people in the room put in earplugs and then walked through the exhibit to see how it worked. In this example, the pens dangling on strings were meant to represent wind chimes. When a person would tap them, a breeze would blow over their face.

Designing with the Body - Touch Screen of Deaf Rock Photo

How Sending Postcards to Strangers Made Me a Better Designer

Poetry Postcards

Something people with creative jobs always struggle with, myself included, is that creativity often likes to take its sweet damned time. We're forced into all sorts of habits and rituals that we feel will help us get to ideas more quickly. Totems of one such ritual sits on my desk: a pile of postcards at least three inches tall, sent from people all over the world. They serve as a reminder that creativity flows from well-considered constraint, married to daily discipline.

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Can You Vote for My 2011 SxSWi Panel Idea?

The Panel Picker has gone up for next year's SxSWi conference, and I'd appreciate it if you could stroll on over and vote on my proposal for this year, which is a new talk with a different take on how interactive designers, developers, and UX professionals can come up with better ideas faster—specifically in the design of interactive products, services, and systems. Here's the abstract:


Better Ideas Faster: Effective Brainstorming for Interactive Design

You're under the gun. Again. Only a few days to come up with a revolutionary new feature for your Web app. Or you've been tasked by your boss to give the company's new mobile experience a little more oomph. Or you're floating in the space of a nebulous client problem that you just can't seem to pin down.

In these situations, it can be hard to focus on coming up with breakthrough ideas. But don't worry—help is to the rescue. David Sherwin from frog design, a global innovation firm, will share tools and methods that any interactive professional can use to more consistently brainstorm quality ideas for interactive products and services. This presentation will be illustrated with examples from frog's interactive work and David's new book Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills (HOW Design Press).

Questions Answered

  1. How can I best structure my brainstorming time for success?
  2. What lightweight brainstorming techniques can I use that will inspire new, more innovative design ideas more quickly?
  3. How can I be more effective in moving from project discovery to generating targeted design ideas?
  4. How can our team collaborate best across disciplines to rapidly iterate any type of interactive experience?
  5. How can our team best synthesize a wide range of ideas into a set of compelling client recommendations?

You can vote on the panel here. Thanks for checking it out!

Slides from "Better Ideas Faster: How to Brainstorm More Effectively" at HOW 2010

Here's the slides from my presentation today at HOW 2010, "Better Ideas Faster: How to Brainstorm More Effectively."

Download the presentation from SlideShare.net. You can also download the handouts that went along with the talk at this link.

It was an honor to present today to a great crowd of over 750 people, and I was especially thrilled to highlight the fantastic design work from the following designers in my upcoming book from HOW Design Press, Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills...

Sean Baker
Donnie Dinch
Meg Doyle
Jarred Elrod
Claire Kohler
Matt McElvogue
Meta Newhouse
Mark Notermann
Jessica Thrasher
Lenny Vella

Hope to see you on Wednesday morning, 9 AM for my panel discussion on creativity!

A Hundred to One

Dog ISO headline

When I first moved to Seattle, I freelanced at what was considered to be the meat grinder of the Seattle agency world. My first assignment was to serve as a production artist for a series of pet food ads. I was provided with layouts in QuarkXPress 4.0, consisting of a few dozen black and white portraits of happy Scotties, terriers, and other sedan-sized pups. The traffic person then handed me sheet of paper completely filled with three- to six-word phrases. "These are the headlines for the ads due today," she said, and scooted away.

I spent the next few minutes puzzling over the page. Some of the lines made no sense to me, outlining in scientific terms the benefits of Pet Food Special Formulation A to Crappy Pet Food Type B. Others were clever puns and riffs on animal lingo. The rest of the lines seemed like doggrel, and at the time I didn't really understand why the writer had even included them.

Until that point, I'd never been exposed to the full brain dump of a creative person, and while I could see which lines were pretty good, I was a bit stumped as to which would make the best ads.

Continue reading "A Hundred to One" »

Do You Use Ideation Questions?

Tough Questions

Don't try to chop down a difficult design problem with one swoop of your mental ax. Instead, chip the problem apart using ideation questions.

In their simplest form, ideation questions are restatements of issues that form the basis of a systemic problem. As an example, it would be difficult to attack the following challenge provided by a client: "We want you to improve the health care system." The problem, as it is currently stated, is much too wicked to approach with a measure of intelligence.

So, you'd start to try and approach that stated problem by breaking it down into questions. First, we'd restate the problem as, "What should we do to improve the heatlh care system?" Answering that question, from at least one angle, might be the broadly stated goal of your effort with your client. At this point, you can start to break that massive question down into a series of ideation questions that surface latent issues. How do people access health care services? Who provides those health care services? What people are not currently served by health care services? And so forth.

From here, the fun really begins. Select a key question out of those that you've written, then start to ideate around a key component of it as a tightly focused question. If we choose "How do people access health care services?" as our starting point, then we generate a series of questions that directly address the root cause of issues within it. "How can signing up for health care become easier?" "How can we more quickly admit people to emergency services?"

You can see how these focused questions speak to the initial challenge posed by the client, but have tangible outcomes. You could spend hours writing and answering questions when using this process, but the trick here is to be very selective in ideating against the questions that are most specific and most intriguing to you. The resulting ideas that emerge from your brainstorm will be more actionable as a result.

This approach may sound like common sense, but there is always a point in the design process where we begin to build our design execution off a set of baseline assumptions. Using ideation questions will force you to face assumptions buried in big, messy problems that we'd like to try and solve, but don't quite know where to begin.

And you can already see where this is helpful when you're working to frame the desired outcome of a client project, before you even begin...

Timeboxing for Creative Professionals

Creative ideation

Being creative is a mind game.

No matter how much time you have for ideation, you can always come up with a good idea. It just takes extra time and energy to identify which of those ideas is the best one to pursue, then iterate on it to achieve some polish. This can be accomplished through the use of timeboxing. This is a technique that is regularly used in agile software development, but is also quite adaptable and useful for any creative professional to improve their speed to an idea.

Timeboxing is also excellent for defeating procrastinators. Most designers—myself included—ruminate subconsciously on a possible solution for days on end. This is a luxury of time that isn't feasible if you're working regularly to tight deadlines. And besides, most designers have trouble meeting their deadlines no matter how far off they twinkle in the distance.

So, what is timeboxing? And how can you use it on your next project?

Continue reading "Timeboxing for Creative Professionals" »

Ode to a Post-It Note

The boundary of a primitive tool is your mind

Ideas conform to the shape they are provided. Thoughts in our headspace can be amorphous as a cloud, slow as a flock of geese in flight, or as potent as a lightning strike. When writing and drawing in our notebooks, sketches and words coexist in a rectangular prison, often creating friction due to relative proximity. But Post-It Notes are a peculiar beast, as they enforce the minimum detail for us to express the maximum idea. Add in a chisel-edged Sharpie and you can only fit five to eight words total, with maybe a little doodle.

So, why should you work with a pile of Post-It Notes instead of a notebook or whiteboard when trying to come up with a bunch of ideas? Here's a few reasons why...

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Brainstorming in Parallel

Fast Good Dirty

Many designers invariably fall into a pattern when confronted with higher-order design problems and a very brief timeframe—say, thirty minutes or less. One designer talks, then the others listen. Then, another designer responds or shares their own new idea, the other designers listen, and so on and so forth.

Meanwhile, the clock is still loudly ticking towards a deadline—and the most important actions happening are consensus management. This is not the fastest way to generate the largest number of ideas possible. Working for speed, as opposed to inclusion of multiple points of view in a roundtable-style discussion, requires throwing ordinary meeting etiquette out the window. Decorum can stop creative thinking in its tracks.

So if you're going to work really, really fast to get great ideas out into the open quickly, consider working in parallel as a team. Here's nine guidelines for how it can be done effectively.

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Moving Beyond Words: Tips for Better Group Brainstorms

Punch List

The following advice sounds easy to put into practice, but it isn't.

If you're participating in a major brainstorm, you need to move beyond conversation as a way of communicating your creative ideas.

Act out your layouts. Make physical prototypes. Role-play different scenarios in character. Challenge the need to provide critique. Leave your rational mind behind and feel free to go random, as long as your launch pad is the creative brief. And always have someone record every idea that's being shared in the room, from start to finish—both in word and in sketch form. Record everything on video if you can't take notes fast enough.

Why is it so hard to foster ideation that extends past the spoken word? Companies like IDEO have been plugging this mindset for eons, but I sit in brainstorm after brainstorm where people fall into ideation patterns. One person has an idea, which they share out loud. Then another person has an idea, which is verbalized in the same manner. There's a slow verbal dance back and forth about those ideas. Sometimes, someone writes that idea down on a whiteboard or notepad. We explore through language the nooks and crannies of what's being communicated through only one medium: spoken words.

This is a real shame, because there is important information not being communicated about your ideas—nuances and options that aren't being communicated, captured, and otherwise emoted.

And that extra information is where the real surprises happen in a brainstorm. The more information you get into the brainstorming group, the more ideas you'll get out as a result. This is just simple math.

Continue reading "Moving Beyond Words: Tips for Better Group Brainstorms" »

The Top 5 Reasons Why Brainstorms Fail


1. It's not really a brainstorm. Instead, call these meetings "Idea Validation Sessions," where everyone has done their own brainstorming in advance. Now, they simply want to confirm with the group that their ideas are worth executing (or buff their ego). In the worst case scenario, these meetings serve as an opportunity for the top brass in your firm or client organization to show the power they hold over the flow of ideas. You can nip these faux brainstorm sessions in the bud by letting all meeting participants know that their seed ideas are merely a starting point for a much grander journey.

2. The meeting has no structure. Don't carry the illusion that brainstorm means lack of organization. "Let's just get together in a room and the magic will happen," has been the status quo at some agencies I've worked at, and that tack can misfire. Even if you're working with a team so long that you've developed some level of chemistry, consider providing a structure for each meeting. If you don't have an intent for your brainstorm at the outset, including the desired result, you have no way to fulfill your goals. With a group of free-form thinkers, this can become a problem pretty darn fast.

3. You didn't work from the brief. No surer words can raise my hackles than, "Let's just forget about the brief for a second..." I'm completely comfortable with going with gut intuition and throwing on the board any random thing that comes to mind—which is a big stretch for more linear thinkers—but in the end, it always comes back to the brief. If you're ignoring it, you need to ask yourself: Was it even correct in the first place? And why are you brainstorming when you need to go back and correct it?

4. You didn't travel far enough from the realm of logic. If you're free associating, start with close associations, then move your mind into places where there's no association whatsoever. If you're thinking about lunch, write up on the board what you want for lunch. You'll be surprised how those seemingly mundane details become luminous when associated with potential concept directions.

5. There was too much bounce back and forth between free thinking and critique. The brain isn't a light switch you can just toggle back and forth mercilessly between the left and right hemispheres—but if we treat it as such, we subconsciously expect to stay logical and never submerge ourselves fully in more free-form and nonlinear thought. This is a shame, because subconscious and latent thought are what provide the real "meat" in a brainstorm. You can start out with logic when the brainstorm kicks off, but you should try to preserve a suspension of logic through the midpoint of your brainstorm. And the right place for critique is always at the end of a brainstorm, not during it.

Hacking Your Design Habits

Double Dutch

These past few weeks, I've been trying to watch how my interaction with my laptop and desktop computer changes the quality of what I design.

As an example: When I'm writing copy for a web page, I often key it directly into the Photoshop comp and try to design the layout around it. However, if I'm writing copy divorced from layout, it invariably ends up being too long, and I end up struggling with paring it down to half of its length.

At this point, I usually go for a walk or take on another task until I've achieved enough detachment to find new angles for editing the content. But recently I thought of a new tack: reading copy off the screen and transcribing it onto a sticky note. In the process of writing the copy longhand into a tiny square, I don't even have to think about what I need to edit. New words suggest themselves just because I'm writing at the speed of my body, not the speed of my mind.

That was just one example of design hacking. Another design hack I've been experimenting with is practicing Surrealist automatism in meetings, then bringing ideas from the automatic drawing into my work. Automatism is a practice derived from Surrealist poets such as André Breton, which swiftly leapt into the drawing and painting work of André Masson, Miró, Dalî, and many others.

How do you do it? The next time you're in a meeting -- the more procedural, the better -- allow your pencil in your notebook to move freely. Keep your rational mind occupied: focus on what's being said with your rational mind, and participate in the conversation. And be sure to avoid trying to craft or shape what emerges consciously. You aren't trying to draw. You're just drawing.

After the meeting is over and when you're back at your desk, look down at what you've written. What accidents and chance marks on the page are suggestive to you? How could they evolve into ideas that, when the opportunity arises, infiltrate one of your designs?

Thinking in Opposites... Or Not

Third Meridian

The opposite of picnic is... prison? And resurrection is... traffic jam?

Being illogical is probably the best thing you can do in a brainstorm. Or, to be more specific in my fostering of weirdosity: after you've exhausted the trough of ideas that make sense, there needs to be a point of departure where you seek out opposites.

Human beings have a tendency to find relationships between things whose meanings seem to be in direct conflict. The tension between those sparring words or images, and the ensuing friction in your mind, forms the sparks that ignite more novel concepts.

You aren't really playing with antonyms. You can see from even the barest examples that the idea of opposite is only a trick that we use to churn up concepts that initially seem far outside "the box".

Turn off your literal filter, start riffing off what's on the whiteboard or in your sketchbook, and see what new thinking takes form.

Let's Play Audience Advocate

You Don't Say

I'm tired of sitting in brainstorm meetings where someone shares a perfectly good idea, and another person immediately uncorks the following: "Well, let's play devil's advocate..." and begins to blast that idea to shreds. That doesn't make your ideas tougher. It just kills them.

Instead of invoking the devil, think about your audience. We need to shift our frame of reference, in the context of our meeting, to make the call.

Here are some questions you can use to create context around your critiques and keep those great ideas on the table long enough to bring them to life.

Continue reading "Let's Play Audience Advocate" »

Collaborative Design Practices: Making the Design

How to scare your Creative Director

If you're just starting out as designer -- or looking to grow into a job at a studio or an in-house creative department -- a new set of posts on the 80Works.com blog may be helpful for you. This set of three posts is about how designers work best when allied with copywriters, art directors, creative directors, and any other kind of person that'll be part of the creative process. I also dust off the Self-Critique Checklist that I included here about a year ago.

Get started with Collaborative Making, Part 1: Workflow on the 80 Works for Designers blog.

Collaborative Design Practices: Concepting

creative idea, inspires process of making, requiring tools of application, results in finished artifact

There's an unusual sort of friction that occurs when you go from a personal design practice -- which is usually fostered through design school assignments, individual studio practice, and 1:1 client engagements -- to a collaborative practice at a design firm or agency. And when that friction occurs, the various tasks that you carry out to ideate and create a designed artifact gets questioned at a fundamental level. You find little bits and pieces of methods that further aid your practice, and help you work more closely with wildly disparate talent. At the same time, that friction can help uncover some fundamental working methods and processes that were forged in school, but aren't entirely useful when thrown into, say, working at Hornall Anderson.

This is one of the reasons why certain designers, when faced with a very large creative team with a certain level of expertise, often freeze. I did, as a tactic of self-preservation for my working process at my first "big agency". It took a very wise art director to pull me aside and basically tell me that I needed to learn how to work with people, not at them through my designerly tendencies. Of course, his criticism sunk in much deeper because I'd just barked at an account manager about how there was no reason to change the paragraph rag on page four...

This is the first part of my attempt at a practical, as opposed to theoretical, consideration of how we can tease out the nuance in our collaborative design practices. Understanding how we function best in team environments is critical when you're under extraordinary deadlines -- which is more common than any of us in the working world of design would care to admit.

If you're a design student or just starting out in the industry, this series of posts may be very helpful for you. They're expanded from a mini-lecture I gave last week.

Go on to Collaborative Concepting, Part 1: Overview + Project Inputs on the 80 Works for Designers blog.

Concepting: Why You Should Foster a Collaborative Practice

From Point A to Point B

The new design project just kicked off -- maybe a logo, say, or a fancy brochure for an upcoming event -- and you're just itching to take a copy of the creative brief, run off to a quiet place, and start sketching out some ideas. Since the deadline is weeks and weeks away, and there's nothing else on your plate, this gives you uninterrupted time to meditate on the design problem, luxuriating in the process for days on end...

I can't remember the last time that happened, even for something like a show poster for a friend's band. They still needed it yesterday.

Besides, those "let's concept forever" situations seem like a pipe dream when you're working in a big, busy company. Your boss wants you to bill productively. That means sitting at your desk, or at least within close reach, and carrying at least four to five various projects that keep you at least 85% utilized (a.k.a. profitable). It also means working in close collaboration with other designers, copywriters, your creative director, the account managers and project managers, and last, but not least, your clients.

This is one of the reasons why it's always difficult to concept in the midst of a large company, where everyone needs to keep reminding you of what needs to be done, when, and how. I know that my best ideas come in the shower, or right after doing yoga, but that doesn't scale at work. I'm usually asked to come up with great ideas in a conference room, under a very tight deadline, and sometimes even in front of clients. Many designers react to the business-end of corporate life by enclosing their creative process in a black box and running it in secret, shutting out others. When I started working with large teams, about six years ago, this was intensely difficult. Today it isn't even a possibility. This has totally spun my head about what makes concepting possible.

Part of what makes a designer "professional" is not only their ability to produce superlative work under time constraint, but also to do it in a way that is inclusive. You need to foster a lack of attachment to your ideas if you're going to grow as a designer.

Why would you want to let go of your ideas and let the team own them? Here are a few reasons why.

Continue reading "Concepting: Why You Should Foster a Collaborative Practice" »

How to Avoid FrankenConcepts


1. Show radically different ideas, not variations on a theme. If you don't show dramatic difference between comps, clients are much more comfortable playing art director. If you have one great layout and still need to generate multiple concepts, don't just iterate on the original.

2. If it's interactive work, clearly explain your documentation. I don't like to show "concepts" for UX, but when shifting from wireframe into multiple screen design concepts, be prepared for the client to react to details that were clear and "approved" in the documentation. Clients can start mingling elements of multiple screen designs to "solve" the problem, while it's often best to return to the wireframe and update the information architecture of the page first.

3. Show fewer concepts whenever possible. Any more than three, you're at risk.

4. Get them to love your idea before they love your execution. Be prepared to design less, not more. Microdetailing your comps can lead to your filigree being folded wholesale into the final design. This is why I always recommend showing sketches whenever possible, and getting the client to swoon over the direction before the visual.

5. Make sure the content structures don't wildly differ. If you introduce new types of content to a page -- i.e. "This idea has a pull quote, while in the other one we tried long copy..." -- you're introducing different layout features that could be mixed and matched. For interactive work, this isn't as much of a concern, since you'll be working off a wireframe. Though this could be a problem. (See #2.)

6. Articulate your creative strategy for each comp before showing the work. I find this the most important rule of the bunch. By drawing a boundary around what you're trying to accomplish, the details feel integrated with the concepts and don't "peel away" so easily.

Have any ideas to add?

How Many Concepts Should I Present?

How Many Concepts

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.