Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Dog and Pony Show Design

June 11, 2009

Have you read those articles about which number of design options is best to show the client? I’m sure you’ve seen a few; the issue of design comps quantity is often broken down into a discussion of what would be the optimal presented quantity and combination of main page comps and secondary page comps. These articles always touch on how the offered design comp quantity affects the likelihood of your getting quick and/or easy client approvals …you know, because quick approval is probably why the client hired you.

Excrement. No, really …are you designing an effective solution or a dog and pony show? How about if you just smile big for the client? Wouldn’t that solve their design challenge? How about if you demonstrate handstands or wash the client’s car while she’s evaluating your many comps? Wait, I know …let the client decide 3 components of the design and you decide 4 components. That way you can be sure to get quicker approvals of your “design.” Because that’s how you can demonstrate that she’s getting a good value for her money, right?

Excuse me for harshing anyone’s mellow, but at no point does design professionalism allow for planned compromise or for entertainment and distraction as substitutes for effectively addressing a client’s unique design challenges. Therefore, any discussion of how many design comps work best to lubricate the approvals process is nothing less than mindless irrelevancy. These considerations are simply a response to situations where the agency or the designer has failed to gain the client’s trust. The thing is though, failure is not mitigated by a dog and pony show.

True, your potential client may think that his requesting 4 design concepts is better than you delivering just one. However, if you enable that ignorance and misplaced decision-making, or pretend to agree with that idea in order to please your potential client or secure a project, you are behaving unprofessionally and you’re probably stealing money from your client. Theft, lying, and hypocrisy are not the hallmarks of professionalism.

Design decisions

The decision for how many design concepts to present to the client is one that can only be made by the designer assigned to the project …in the course of the design process, not before. This number is likely one, because if the designer is sufficiently competent there is almost always one best solution to the design challenge. Sometimes there is a compelling second option that exploits other avenues of communication or other aspects of user experience, so the designer might choose to present that one as well. But your decision on this matter must be based on solving the client’s design challenges, not dazzling the client with what you hope is a valuable-looking array of options. Neither should your choice to present design options be a compensatory measure for your professional ineptitude or your lack of client-vetting skill (for that would be so very cliché).

You must never allow a client to decide how many design concepts are appropriate …because design is not a process whereby you see just how many darts you can fit into your hand in hopes that one of them accidentally hits the bullseye. Beautiful accidents can happen, but accident is not the basis for design excellence. Purposeful discovery followed by focused, skillful conceptualization and execution is the basis for design excellence. Anything that compromises or distracts from this process is a waste of your time and effort, and the client’s money. Extra design options for the sake of options have no place in this process and cannot improve the chances for success. Multiple design options are what you visit in your design process on your way toward a solution. What you present to your client must be the most effective result of your exhaustive efforts. Nothing less.

The burden of responsibility

As the professional, you have an obligation to define the project process. In this effort there is no substitute for directness and clarity. For my agency, our project Authorization To Proceed contract states, “…on a mutually agreed upon date, AGENCY will present one or more (AT DESIGNER DISCRETION) 2-page visual design mockup(s) for review with CLIENT…” The fact that we’ll likely only be presenting one or possibly two design concepts is always covered in pre-bid discussions, and we already have buy-in from the potential client by the time we bid the project and reiterate this fact.

The decision for how many design concepts to present to the client is one that can only be made by the designer assigned to the project …in the course of the design process, not before.

Sometimes in pre-bid discussions the potential client expresses a desire to be presented with a specific number of design options. This is a red flag, but often all that is needed in order to salvage the situation is some relevant discussion about how best to solve their design challenges. Often they’ll then acknowledge that they believe in our approach, dispensing with their earlier ignorance. If they persist in their desire to dictate the number of presented design options, it is because they do not trust us to do what they’re considering hiring us to do. That way lies failure. I point this fact out and suggest that they find an agency that they do trust, and then let those professionals decide how best to address the design challenges.

In these cases, sometimes the potential client agrees with me and leaves to find someone else (though not likely with the intent or results I prescribe) and sometimes my effort convinces them that we know what we’re doing and that it would be best to invest some trust in us and let us do our best work for them. In either case, we have avoided the disastrous introduction of compromise at the outset of the project. The alternative would, of course, be intolerable.

What sort of compromise can you tolerate in your commitments? For that matter, what sort of compromise does your brand promise? What sort of compromise do you tolerate or even invite on a regular basis into your work? How’s that working for you today? How will that work for you down the road?

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