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How Many Ideas Do You Show Your Clients?

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 Link


Scenario 1 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link


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 Link

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 Link


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 Link


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 Link


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 Link

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 Link


Footnotes Link

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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.

  1. 1

    Two at the most usually – dark & light, fun & serious etc.

  2. 2

    I’ve done both approaches.

    I’ve presented just one idea with the thought being that I’ve got the design knowledge and experience to select the most appropriate and effective design for the brief. If the client hasn’t liked what I’ve presented we then discuss where I may have missed the mark and what I got right and then go away and develop the logo some more. This has usually worked well as I am then more clear on the brief.

    Recently I presented 3 ideas to a client (and I have done this a few times before) and it has been the worst mistake! The client really liked a couple of the designs so they picked aspects from both and wanted me to amalgamate them! The designs were not cohesive at all so required a lot of rework. Then I presented a few colour choices and the client couldn’t decide between those. It was a very long process.

    I’ve now decided the ‘one idea’ approach to be most effective for the way I work.

    PS I really enjoyed your article Graham – I look forward to reading the discussion. :)

    • 3

      I totally agree with Karen

    • 4

      This is also known in my circle as “Design Frankenstein”. One piece for this concept – One Piece from this…. etc. It can be a real nightmare. Not showing enough ideas can also come back to bite you in some cases too. I agree strongest with the part that states “Know your client”.

    • 5

      Also is one word (not all so).

      • 6

        client want a bit of this and a bit of that, which didn’t work at all, so I had to rework everything.

        Not also, just a comma missing.

    • 7

      super fabulous

      December 29, 2009 1:14 pm

      I’ve had similar experiences to Karen. I’ve shown a bunch of logos to a client and they want to take a font from one and combine it with another design. the problem being the font they want won’t work with that other design. trying to explain this to them is futile. you have to make and show them it doesn’t work. it’s a major time consuming hassle.

      the less you show them the less headache and hassle you’ll deal with. i’ve made it it a rule not to show more than 2 ideas/comps. I try to show 1.

      I’m not sure how relevant it is but there was a study done that showed the fewer choices customers were given the more sales they made (they were selling doughnuts). this is often taken advantage of in landing pages where there is usually only one option or choice to click on.

  3. 8

    I usually present one Idea with two versions: black&white.
    However, if the client isn’t happy with the presented items I often have several other variations or versions of the request to show. It’s like a plan B. To show the client that I’m prepared to problems and to give him other choises.

    But I only present this other versions after the main project is rejected.

  4. 9

    I always cut down to my best options and show the client. Its best you edit yourself and give the a few of the best to look at than all from my experience.

    • 10

      Too right. It’s not just a simple of case of ignoring all other ideas from the outset. It’s pick and mix time.

      The crunch comes down to ‘what’ you actually show the client. I am actually working on a logo project now where for my own curiosity, I have explored a number of different avenues, but I know I will only choose a few to look at further. And will try to cut that down to one ‘conceptual idea’ to show the client, which I will back 100%.

      If at this point they are still unsure, then I still have some options left to me.

      But I do stress with some clients from the outset, I can get pretty ‘firm’ with my reasoning. That if the client suggests ideas that I personally and professionally feel are technically and/or cosmetically poor, I will ‘stamp’ my foot several times. :) OK, maybe not stamp my foot, but I must show the client my experience of what is right and wrong, if I don’t, then I am doing the client a great disservice.

      When I have encountered a client that, shall we say, seems to not want to listen to my ‘sage’ advice, then I will come out with this ‘gambit’… I will quite simply say, and I don’t sugar coat it “if we use that idea, then this design will break pretty much every typographic and aesthetic rule known to personkind, and that to proceed with this approach causes me great pain, to the extent I would not even want to show this design in my portfolio.” ;0)

      So OK, I tailor that reply given each unique set of circumstances, but the important thing is that they genuinely appreciate my ‘concerns’. I will explain in infinite detail ‘why’ their idea or suggestion is not just wrong on a personal ‘subjective scale’ but that it really does break some basic design rules.

      Sometimes you do need to be ‘hard’ if you are passionate about giving the client the best you can do. Fine line between being ‘firm’ and ‘arrogant’ though, so that is something to be aware of. :)

      • 11

        Graham: You stated near the end of your comment that under certain circumstances a client’s request “breaks some basic design rules.” I am fairly new to design and creating graphics for clients, could you point in the direction to where these basic design rules can be found, or tell me what they are? Thanks for your help!

  5. 12

    definitly,…the less i show and the more i’ll get…
    the more you’ll talk, the more he’ll ask,
    Save some time, take your best idea and design, take the other one which is not so good obviously…and you’ll get what you want !!!

    • 13

      That’s my approach for sure. Take the best idea, the idea you professionally feel hits the brief and communicates the desired message and be 100% behind that idea when you present it.

      Assuming of course this is the approach you have agreed at the beginning. No good if the client is expecting 4 ideas but you subsequently only offer one, that’s a bit of a sucker punch. All comes down to the details before you start, and the method you both agree on at the beginning. This is where you can direct the score, setting the confident tone at the outset is always a ‘better’ option.

  6. 14

    great article!

  7. 15

    yup thts the i too use

    Give him one very best and one lesser

    u will defiantly be given the one u want!

    bt twice i was stunned when the other (weaker one ) was selected :)

    bt most of the time trick works :)

    • 16

      This is one of the most gut wrenching situations for a designer, when they have submitted a handful of ideas, that the client chooses the ‘worse’ or ‘least desirable’ idea.

      This is so common and happens time and time again, and is part of the reason I adapted my process to trusting my own judgment and interpretation of the brief.

      It’s often tricky enough to find one good idea, let alone be expected to find 3 or more. Not all logo projects allow for such room in idea diversity, not unless the brief is so vague.

      If, as a designer, you submit ideas that in your mind are not appropriate, ideas that you may not even want to put in your own portfolio, why oh why are you showing them to the client? It’s asking for trouble. In my humble opinion anyway. :)

  8. 17

    I generally submit two or three ideas to a client, but it really depends on my relationship with the client. Of course, I think the really secret is no matter how many ideas you submit, you should lead and really show your expertise and passion for the design you think will be the most successful.

    Great article, Graham! Thanks for the discussion!

    • 18

      I agree, showing your passion and confidence as well is so important in making the project run smooth.

      If you can’t ‘back yourself’ then expecting a paying client to feel comfortable and at ease with the money they are investing in you can be a tall order.

      There is often the element of trying to get more for your money from a designer, like the amount of ideas you show is relative to how much they are paying.

      I think this is a common misconception which can be tackled early on with a new client. As long as you are clear about your process before you start, then the chance of crushed expectations can be avoided.

      Shift the clients focus and possible expectation from ‘money=more ideas’ to ‘money=main agreed idea researched and implemented as perfectly as possible’

    • 19

      Wow. Remind me not to leave comments 5 minutes after waking up… Here are my fixed typos so this post makes sense to everyone not in my (still) tired brain:
      The REAL secret…
      And you should lead WITH and show your expertise for…

      Also, one of the things I always push when I take on a new design project is that you’re paying for my expertise and my experience, because you (the client) are not a designer. Ultimately, the design you use to represent your company/organization/person with should be what you’re glad you invested your money in, not the process itself.

      I also find that stating outright how many max designs a client will see for review eliminates a lot of the squabble over money for ideas instead of money for final product. Most clients are happy with 2/3 designs because, like Graham said, too much choice can be overwhelming.

  9. 20

    I think the stock pictures are useless.

    The ‘brief’ photo made me laugh, though (‘brief’ being ‘letter’ in Dutch and German)

    • 21

      The honesty is refreshing. :) I usually don’t bother with images on my own blog, I just focus on the message through words. Its like when you buy a reading book, you don’t generally expect images. 300+ pages of raw text. Of course I am not measuring my attempts at writing with such books, but I tend to take that general cue.

      So finding images for this post was actually a ‘first’ for me, so will try harder next time… :)

      • 22

        I actually really like some of your stock photo choices. The brief one didn’t do it for me, but the spoilt by choice one I thought made a good starting impact. Though, I guess I am a little biased – I do read your mostly text blog. XD

  10. 23

    When I want a kid to choose, I give a small, closed set of discrete options: jelly or peanut butter on your bread. No open ends to divert to pancakes or the likes, no discussion about mixing options. Inviting (grownup) friends over for dinner I usually choose the food myself. They trust me to ‘deliver’.

    Customers can be like ppl, so assess their maturity. Unexperienced customers want the world and then some, so guide them in their choices (which can be telling them what to choose) through limitation. If customer can better express what they want, use dialog to determine what they want and provide additional alternatives. And again use your common sense to make a smart limitation. I don’t feed my friends fries, pizza, chinese AND falafa ;)

    • 24

      You hit the spot there. It’s never one or the other with me, although I do ‘prefer’ the less is more approach. It all comes down to the individual, the client, the brief, the budget and other factors as location and general subject matter, and taking a view to what is the best approach.

      I like how you say ‘they trust me to deliver’, that is so true. If you don’t have that trust in yourself, then expecting the client to just go along with things can be a tall order. If you are confident without being arrogant or obnoxious when explaining your reasons, then this can go a long way to creating a smooth running project.

  11. 25

    Predrag Kanazir

    December 28, 2009 5:48 am

    I am a bit extreme – I tend to drive towards one design only. I usually prepare 2 ideas (one featured) while we’re still in pencil and paper phase of the project. From there on, I focus to the one and only one concept.

    Tried it differently – didn’t work. Too much wasted time and nerves.

    • 26

      I personally don’t think it’s extreme at all. I firmly believe that my usual approach is the best way for me and my client. But as I have commented below, it all comes down to the brief and how much money the client is prepared to pay.

      If they have put up a nominal amount, yet expect or demand 3 ideas, then you are on very shifty ground. Conversely, if the budget is generous, then you usually feel good to spend more time exploring other ideas, even if they don’t see the light of day. At least ‘you’ have gone through the process of trial and error, which can make you ultimately feel more confident in the main idea.

  12. 27

    From a customers perspective, I always want more than one idea. And they have to be real alternatives (and not slight variations of one idea). It is always interesting, what a designer can make of a briefing and develop ideas in different directions.
    Although I do agree in not giving the customer too much of a choice. ;-)

    • 28

      Always interesting to get the other side. The problem lies in with the comment I made below. It all depends on the brief, the subject, the budget to how many ideas are reasonable, expected or needed.

      I have actually turned down new work when the client has insisted seeing 3 ideas when my gut tells me there is only really one viable way to communicate the brief.

      The confusion can be when the client is not totally sure of what they themselves need, and adding in more choice can only add to the confusion. If I get a sense the client is a little ‘lost’, I will do my best to keep to a single but evolving idea. :) To lead the way with a clear plan of attack, often the client is reassured by this ‘positivity’.

      How you come across as a designer makes all the difference in areas like this. :)

  13. 29

    What’s the problem? Show them 3. :)

    • 30

      Part of the problem is that there is not always 3 viable or solid ideas… the brief maybe so ‘tight’ and precise’ that there is only one avenue to take.

      To force other ideas out just because people expect it can be the worst thing to do. In my experience, stick with the idea you feel is right and work on this with the client, explain and justify your reasons. You are the expert, so the client does need to know that you are sure of your own decisions.

  14. 31

    Nice article Graham. This made me grin brightely “…kid in candy store…”, it hits the nail on the head! As a Designer you are always eager to show your skills and I think everyone of us has already fallen into that “trap”. I think showing your client too much will go wrong in 95%. There are clients where this could work but as there are always more than 1 person included in the decision process, you will always get different opinions on your designs ending with a mishmash of all of your concepts. The better approach is to start with a single concept, go through a well prepared discussion with all desiders about the dis/advantages of your concept and start a more evolutional process that ends in a solution that benefits your customer needs and your own claims.

  15. 32

    Three, no more no less

  16. 33

    Excellent article, Graham. I don’t think it’s too important exactly how many ideas you show, though two or three is a reasonable target in most cases.

    More important, I think, is that we ask the right questions and get the right answers going in. As an example, I ask clients for 10 adjectives and 10 verbs that describe their business and the image they want to put forward. If they can only come up with 8, that’s fine; the point is to make them really think, and to give me as much raw material as possible for my own brainstorming.

    This is MUCH more important than researching what other people are doing in your field. Too many people already design for other designers, in part because many were trained to design that way (for their professor’s or mentor’s approval, for example). Armed with good information about the client’s own needs and wants, our output is much more likely to satisfy. And we have to be prepared to explain, in each case, how we perceive that the design meets the criteria discussed with the client at the outset … and to brainstorm further about how it might be better.

  17. 34

    Darryl Jonckheere

    December 28, 2009 8:07 am

    The project budget and time constraints should exist as significant factors in determining how many ideas the client ultimately reviews.
    This, along with how full your plate is work-wise and the relationship you have with this particular client (or are trying to cultivate) should quite accurately determine the scale of your creative development phase.
    Not to generalize, but smaller clients (with smaller budgets) typically nickel and dime your services more than larger clients who might have greater resources at their disposal and less time available for hands-on critique.
    Regardless of how many ideas are shown, if the primary project stakeholders are not initially involved up front or there are individual(s) behind the scenes providing subjective critique, both the creative and project integrity as a whole will be severely compromised.

  18. 35

    Thanks for the article Graham – always a good read fro you.

    Karen summed my thoughts up exactly. If you’re interested, here’s an article I wrote a few months back about my take.

    My feeling is if you have 3 logos to present, then you haven’t spent enough time to make 1 better than the others, or your base concept is generally weak.

    You just said it in a comment Graham “You are the expert” so give them your expert opinion. Most clients want to be guided, not to be handed a platter of options for them to do all the work.

  19. 36

    Marketing Alchemist

    December 28, 2009 8:18 am

    I swear by the three concept approach when possible. One concept directly answers the brief and is in the Clients’ comfort zone. The next concept is more progressive but still answers the brief. The third concept is the most progressive, clearly superior, answers the brief, yet is portfolio worthy. Too many choices, beyond three, makes the Client start to deconstruct the designs instead of looking them conceptually as a whole.

  20. 37

    Great article Graham! Nicely done.

    This is an in-depth approach to working with clients that not only fosters a satisfying relationship (genuine collaboration) but promotes a fundamental, cost effective approach to getting the job done.

    Design teams in corporate settings tread a particularly delicate road where choices and final sign-off are concerned – especially for collateral and print projects. A typical corporate scenario includes marshaling editorial content from subject matter experts, coordinating production with printers and dealing with legally mandated deadlines of some sort.

    This is where the decision making process gets really complex. With a group of contributors, differing agenda’s and a wide range of taste, a project can easily become a furry animal with sharp teeth; time consuming and terribly expensive.

    Whether the design work is coming into the “fold” from outside (freelancers/agencies) or developed in-house by a dedicated creative team – and often it’s a combination of both – the ability to profile the decision-making environment is invaluable.

    Just as you’ve described, one size does not fit all. I’ve found that understanding client/company history can make all the difference. How effective has the presentation process been in the past? What are the typical hold-ups? How long does it take those four managers to respond? How did the budget evolve as a result?

    As a coordinator responsible for both creative and non-design feedback I’ve found that a funnel-down approach using both scenario’s helps to reign in the sharp teeth and keep the fur from flying. Loose at the start, tight in middle, targeted at the end.

    Designers need to stretch out creatively and the client(s) need to feel comfortable, to have a sense of participating as ideas unfold. Presenting an array of ideas off the bat opens up the dance floor. In a literal sense, flexibility and “movement” are fostered on both sides.

    Narrowing the selections down from five to three and finally to one final choice takes scheduling finesse. But it’s surprising how comfortable various decision makes become when they know ahead of time what to expect. The key is setting expectations.

    It’s as if the client has been invited to a party and needs to know what the guidelines are. When does it start? Who will be coming? What’s on the menu? When is it over? Maturity or visual sophistication are not the key issues in these situations. Gathering consensus has to do with focus, attention and timing – necessary ingredients for fleshing out design solutions in a complex situation.


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