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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.


David Conrad

Interesting post! For what it's worth, our approach at Design Commission has been that one comp is the best approach, but not out of "sheer arrogance" but rather the notion that iteration in design is a necessity and that it makes more sense to spend time iterating on a single concept more times, than burning time and cycles on work that won't get used.

I know that the approach of presentation is very much a philosophical one for most studios, but the times that we have been asked by the client to provide multiple directions at the first meeting have not yielded either a better product or a happier client and, inevitably, you end up with "a little of this one, a little of that one" which dilutes the intention behind each of the unique directions.

I'd encourage everyone to at least try this approach on a project by telling the client that instead of presenting 3 concepts with 3 rounds of review you'll present 1 concept with 9 rounds of review. It will be the same (or, ideally, less) work for you and the concept will be more thought-out at the end of the process.


David Sherwin

That's a great strategy...

I'd also like to know if the 1 concept, 9 iterations approach works well with very, very big tech clients, like a certain one I saw in your agency's book. They're usually the ones that clamor for options, while smaller clients can be persuaded more easily.

Your post also reminded me that I forgot to mention that when you're under the gun on schedule, you should only show one concept. There just isn't time for more than your first best idea. :)



I'm a big fan of one tight, two roughs. If the homework's been done properly I'd rather show just the "right" one but I agree, my-way-or-the-highway can seem arrogant. So showing the best idea fully formed and two alternate directions roughed out usually works well. The "pretty" presentation gets the heads nodding, while the alternates are there to show thought process and value, and flexibility in case we did miss the mark.

The roughs can also show you've been listening, as in "you said your husband thought acid green and purple would be good for your cheese shop, so we explored that in this alternate design..."



David Conrad

It's an interesting question to me because I don't think I've ever stopped to really consider what qualifies a project as a one-idea versus a multiple-idea one. It's always just been a "known" where we made the call before the work started.

Our approach hasn't changed much based on the size of the client, but it most certainly has based on the type of project. In particular, if dealing with less tangible deliverables like branding and/or naming work (of which, we've only done a very small amount) I completely agree that 3 - 5 concepts is a requirement. It's all too likely that you'll get a response like "I just don't like blue..." from the client which is a really difficult one to debate.

However, for most of the work we do at Design Commission–basically putting together the way a Web site or Web application looks and behaves–we try to stick with our one-gun approach.

I guess, if I had to write some sort of policy doc about it, I'd stick to the notion that work tied to more subjective input from clients warrants more concepts to choose from. But, for work that relies on any sort of functionality or is tied to specific requirements, our ability to analyize and provide recommendations based on our perspective should guide the work and discussion, not a multiple-choice exam.

And, yes, of course, if time is a factor, then, as Henry Ford put it, "you can have any color you want, as long as it's black." :)

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