How Many Ideas Do You Show Your Clients?

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I read somewhere that showing your client the full range of your creative ideas during a project is important, the rationale being that the client is entitled to see the ideas coming from the creative professional who they have hired and invested in. While this approach has some benefits, in some cases showing too many ideas is counter-productive to the natural flow of a project. Proof of how imaginative you are can be shown in other ways.

Spoilt For Choice

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Scenario 1

You look at your Illustrator pasteboard and see half a dozen cool logo ideas… not just cool, but super-cool… not just super-cool, actually, but practical and appropriate. You have translated the brief brilliantly. You feel rather pleased with yourself. However, the last time you showed a client all of your ideas, you got caught up in a dizzying merry-go-round, forced to mash up parts of one logo with parts of another, using unsuitable and under-baked concepts.

That client was overwhelmed with ideas and unable to choose one or the other: too many directions, and too many good ideas. You offered all your super-cool ideas on a platter, convinced that you had nailed all possible directions. You worked hard to pre-empt your clients questions and suggestions. But with all of this hard work, you unwittingly set in motion a series of events that many designers before you have experienced.

Putting your client in the position of a kid in candy store can lead to some of the more frustrating experiences in design work. Are we undermining the flow of a project with our need to have our creative ego stroked by the client?

Too much choice can be a bad thing for clients.

Scenario 2

Again, looking at your Illustrator pasteboard, you see half a dozen cool logo ideas: super-cool, practical and appropriate, in fact. You have translated the brief brilliantly, as before.

The client is impressed by your imagination, your interpretation of the brief and your ability to think outside the box. They feel embarrassed — even spoilt — by the choice of amazing ideas; not what they were expecting, given their previous experiences. The client looks at the ideas and realizes you were the right person for the job. They go away to mull over the ideas.

You’re pleased. The client is pleased. Time for a beer.

The client returns with a decisive plan of attack. They have picked out one or several potential winners from among your ideas and are keen to walk through tweaks and changes with you. By showing the client all of your ideas, whether cool or funky, practical or safe, you have covered all bases, left no room for misinterpretation and accounted for that notion of “subjective perceptions.”

As is almost always the case, you have your own favorites, but prior experience has shown that you mustn’t assume the client will feel the same.

Fewer Ideas, Less Choice

We could alter these two scenarios by changing the “showing all ideas” to “showing just a few.” The advantages would be that the client would not be overwhelmed: you will have provided just a few promising ideas. This way, you are being assertive and confident in your ability to interpret the brief. You also believe that the client would be handicapped by more choice.

In both cases, the client might be pleased with the ideas you have picked out and your ability to get the job done. You are a creative laser-guided missile. You don’t need your ego stroked, and you don’t need to show off your awesome imagination to every client. Your portfolio does that just fine.

You have many other cool and practical ideas up your sleeve, but putting all your cards on the table at this time is not necessary. Save them. If the client does not buy any of the ideas you’ve filtered for them, even after you have justified their suitability, you can fall back on those. Even if you lose round 1, you’re prepared for round 2.

Be Aware

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Consider these points before attempting a full-360 triple-duck-tailed high-board dive. This is not a comprehensive list but a good starting point when deciding whether to show some or all of your ideas.

Knowing Your Client: A Psychological Angle

Ultimately, your flexibility in your presentation of ideas will be determined by how well you know the client: getting a good sense of their personality, their brief and other personality- and business-related issues. You will also have to know the process that your contact will go through back at their base: are they the decider, or do they report back to a board or senior staff member?

When a group of people is involved in making decisions, you may want to keep a tighter reign on the creative process. Presenting too many ideas to one person can be overwhelming, but too many ideas for a board of six spells disaster.

Being able to read people is not only useful: it can save your sanity over time. Design and creativity are one thing, but if you want to excel at business and attract new clients, especially as a freelancer, being well versed in basic psychology goes a long way.

Cover Your Back: A Solid Brief

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A tight brief is always essential and one of the first things to cover before doing anything creative. A firm and assured hand is often required. Research the company. Understand its decision-making structure. Your point of contact may not always be the decision-maker; you don’t want to pander to the wrong person. Pre-empt undesirable outcomes by familiarizing yourself as much as possible with your client and their business. For example, you may have been given a thorough brief, but if the person who prepared it is not responsible for making decisions, it could be all for nought.

The brief can change during a project, and it can change significantly without you being aware of it. The very nature of the creative process and your collaboration with the client can unearth ideas not previously considered. Be fluid and organic in your approach. When you feel the brief no longer reflects the direction of the project, be prepared to revise it with the client.

Take a time-out, and give yourself time to breath and re-evaluate. Don’t feel pressured to commit. Assess the situation and determine whether a realignment is in order. Better to backtrack a little now, because at the end you will just have further to backtrack.

Ask a lot of questions. The more you immerse yourself in the project, the more familiar you will become with the subject matter. Don’t be afraid to keep asking questions if you feel they are important to the outcome of the project.

Communication

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For many freelancers, meeting the client face to face is not always possible, and you may run into complications if you haven’t made provisions. Personally, I liaise with clients through email or Skype, but only when the brief and communication are solid. If the responses are short or not forthcoming, then I take it to the phone. Only then am I able to get a sense of what the client is about.

In my experience, we are getting lazy as communicators, trying to deal with all aspects of life — business and personal — via email and text messages. Some clients I’ve had have refused to speak with me by phone, while their written communication failed to inspire me with confidence.

If this happens to you, reflect on whether the project is worth taking on. If you have problems communicating before the project has even started, you will likely hit a brick wall when trying to get feedback on creative ideas or dealing with set-backs. I have on occasion “fired” clients because they were not pulling their weight, yet expected me to bust my gut. It doesn’t work like that.

A true collaboration requires the commitment of at least two people: the designer and client.

To Conclude

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There is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether to show all of your best ideas right away. Assess each client on their own terms and figure out what’s best. Would the client be overwhelmed by too many choices, or would they welcome the variety? No one size fits all. On occasion, your experience or a hunch will tell you to focus on only one concept, with perhaps a few minor variations. The work period may be slow, and you have only one project on the go and are happy to spend the extra time on what may be a valuable repeat client.

Sometimes sticking your neck out and giving more than you are being paid to do is worthwhile, but that’s a choice only you can make. Don’t make it a habit, or your clients will come to expect that extra workload of you all the time: a quick path to freelance burn-out.

Being a good judge of character, understanding human interaction, being able to see past the here and now to pre-empt later problems, all of this helps you keep your sanity. Spend time learning and researching not only creative techniques but people, too. Your job and overall quality of life will improve as a result.

Your Thoughts

Are you guarded or care-free in sharing your ideas with clients? Do you have a one-size-fits-all solution, or do you approach each client on their own terms? Have you discovered certain winning methods of dealing with particular situations?

We can all learn from one another’s experiences in dealing with people in business. If you are starting out as a freelancer, take whatever advice others are willing to give.

Image Credits

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.flickr.com/people/andreiz/
  2. 2 http://www.flickr.com/people/pictureperfectpose/
  3. 3 http://www.flickr.com/people/meine-erde/
  4. 4 http://www.flickr.com/photos/larskflem/
  5. 5 http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrtea/

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Graham Smith is a Freelance Logo Designer with ImJustCreative being his brand and identity. G's main motivation to wake up in the morning can be attributed to Helvetica, logos, typography, coffee and silly putty. You'll also find G practicing the overt art of Social Media: Twitter, FaceBook, Posterous and pretty much every other form of social media platform known to mankind.

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  1. 1

    Sometimes we show just one concept, other times it’s 2-3, or 5, and still other times, it’s a page full. This has less to do with whether or not I feel we have nailed the concept, and more to do with feeling out the client expectations. I’ve found it nearly impossible to use a set formula of showing 2-3 concepts, or using 1-2 logotype styles.

    Our strategic development process so involves the client at the root level that the interaction that occurs at the rough stage is often the key to nailing it. Yet: sometimes we show one concept, and we go straight to final from there.

    Bottom line is that every client is different, and expecting that they will all follow a similar development and approval pattern would be disrespectful. As unique as designers like to tell clients they are, so too can the creative process be different each time. I believe that our project development agility yields a more nurturing, productive creative process for everyone involved.

    That’s Train of Thought. Everyone has their own processes, and they all benefit clients with greater selection and compatibility.

    On contracts: Encourage clients, both verbally and in print, to fully read the contract. Our clients typically read our 4-page contract in its entirety, and ask questions before signing. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I want clients to know exactly what we will be doing, their rights, obligations, and benefits.

    For changes, send a change order or updated estimate, with the original contract terms included — before starting the change, and don’t start until you receive the signed change order and additional payment. Good clients will respect your professionalism.

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  2. 52

    I’m not sure if this is the best way, but…

    I usually show the client the design that is best flowing. Meaning if I am working on several layouts and one just clicks I always show them that one unless they ask to see more. 9/10 they always pick the one that I was putting together the best. I recently have done this and told them from the get go the others were not piecing together as nicely but I am confident in the one that was. Sure enough they picked the one I was confident in the most.

    Maybe it’s just sheer luck that all my clients have done this but it works for me.

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  3. 103

    great post

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  4. 154

    Make sure you enter the

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  5. 205
  6. 256

    Great article, thanks. My preference is to “self edit” and show the client only one design. I might vary the colour scheme, but the design will be very similiar or identical. In my experience giving a client options just leads to confusion in their minds. I’m always happy to come back and show them something different, but my preference is to show one design at a time.

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  7. 307

    I’ve tried both approaches. Unfortunately, more than once, the client has been excited about my array of choices and sought out another company to implement my ideas for less green. Bad clients can be found whether presenting them with a few ideas or a myriad of ideas. If they’re going to take my ideas to another company for implementation, I would much prefer that they only got 2 or 3 of my best ideas, not several more.

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  8. 358

    I recently read about a study where students were given the following scenarios and asked to choose what they would do:

    1) Study, or go see a lecture by someone they always wanted to hear speak.
    2) Study, go see the lecture, or go see a movie they were really wanting to see.

    In Scenario #1, most chose the lecture by a large margin. In Scenario #2, most chose to study. The conclusion was that when presented two equally appealing choices, we get bogged down in the decision and choose neither.

    That’s why I do 2 options and one is always much stronger than the other. This allows the client to “decide” but I don’t get trapped in trying to merge disparate ideas into some frankendesign. This gives them a sense of control – which is an understandable desire – but assists them in an area that is not their strength (design).

    In order to do this method, I must first conduct a really good interview with them. I never go off without making sure I understand their tastes, their brand, and their goals. I don’t want to waste time with random shots in the dark.

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  9. 409

    I enjoyed the discussion this post got started to see everyone else’s take on this. I generally present 1-2 ideas and if the client doesn’t like them, it makes us sit down and hash out the client’s needs/wants some more, all without having wasted any excess time creating several variations. I wish that in my early freelance jobs, someone had told me:

    “The brief can change during a project, and it can change significantly without you being aware of it.”

    But you live, you learn.

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  10. 460

    take your best idea and design, take the other one which is not so good obviously…

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