A few months ago, I read an interesting post by a designer I admire about using the one-concept approach with client logo design, and it got me thinking about this again. During the seven+ years of my partnership in ithree graphic design, the number of logo concepts to present to clients was an often-discussed (argued about?) topic.
Two of us tended to be big researchers of what other people were doing with their design businesses, and fairly early on, we both came across a couple of very successful designers who were proponents of this idea, and it made sense to us even though it wasn't what we practiced at the time.
There were many times in those seven years when, after our sketching sessions, we had one logo solution that felt absolutely right to us. Because presenting multiple concepts is the industry standard, and because our proposal said we would do that, we would then comb through our sketches to find at least two more that felt good to us.
Now, I’d be lying if I said this was always the case, There were also lots of times when we would have two to three concepts we felt were great solutions to the clients problem. But even though that was the case, I’m not sure it was the right thing to do. I’m not sure it was the wrong thing to do either, but I think the whole idea is worth exploring.
Proponents of the one-concept approach would argue that we just weren’t finished yet and that we should have spent more time refining the logos until we’d distilled all of our ideas down to one truly excellent solution to our client’s problem.
Just in case you’re thinking right now that the once-concept approach is total bunk, I’d like to take a moment and note that one of the best logo designers in American history took this approach.
The designer was Paul Rand, who is best known for his corporate logo design, including logos for IBM, UPS, Enron, and Morningstar, Inc. In case you still don’t know who he is, this is what another designer, Louis Danziger, said of Paul Rand:
"He almost singlehandedly convinced business that design was an effective tool. [. . .] Anyone designing in the 1950s and 1960s owed much to Rand, who largely made it possible for us to work. He more than anyone else made the profession reputable. We went from being commercial artists to being graphic designers largely on his merits.”
Suffice it to say that Paul Rand was a big deal. So, when Steve Jobs hired him to design a logo for his new computer company in 1986, Jobs, as many clients would, asked him if he would come up with a few options. Rand famously responded with, “No. I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution. If you want options go talk to other people.” Holy crap! Can you imagine saying that to a potential client?
In the end, not only did Jobs pay Rand $100,000, but he also used Rand’s logo, the new company name, NeXT, that Rand came up with and the 100-page brochure detailing the brand, including the precise angle used for the logo (28°).
Yeah, well I'm not Paul Rand
Ok, so that’s Paul Rand who was 30+ years into his design career, and I don’t for one second think I’m even close to Paul Rand in any way, shape or form. BUT, I think there are still good reasons to explore this approach, even if you’re not Paul Rand.
Designer Sean Wes who strictly adheres to the one-concept approach says,
“I submit to you, if a designer has arrived at two concepts, his work is not done. Design is an iterative process. You start with many ideas and you continually refine. You dismiss the less effective ideas and distill down to the one that best serves the project goals. It is the designer’s job to establish a process that concludes with the most effective concept.”
What's wrong with more than one?
Both Sean Wes and Breanna Rose from RoanMade both argue that when professional designers are crafting a logo, they are designing something that is meant to appeal not to the person who hired them but to the business’ target audience. The client’s personal preferences and tastes are technically not important. The designer is the expert and should be choosing the colors, font styles, composition, etc. that will best communicate the most compelling message to the client’s ideal customers.
Both argue that when a designer presents more than one option, the client’s subjective preferences and opinions are naturally enlisted to help them make a choice. Often, the feedback in this situation will include phrases like, “I like” and “I don’t like,” which are clear signs that personal opinion is coming into play, and, again, the client’s personal preferences should not be guiding the ship.
Pixel pusher or professional designer?
Designer Melissa Yaeger explains it like this,
“Early on, projects involved me creating as many solid logo options as I could for my clients. However, with experience I noticed that this led to more indecision for my clients, a seemingly endless cycle of “tweaks” and revisions, and me left feeling like more of a puppet than a problem-solver.”
She says the one-concept approach works,
“because of years of experience, hours of research and strategy, and—most importantly—a strong foundation of trust between my clients and me. While this approach involves presenting only one concept, it puts much more weight on that one concept and everything that precedes it. It works because I do that work up front to make sure this concept has the legs to take the brand where it needs to go. I still explore many directions early on, but narrow those down to the best solution and build that solution out into a more fully realized brand identity I know will work.”
I agree that when a professional designer becomes a puppet, neither the designer nor the client is served. The client is not utilizing the designer's expertise to full advantage and will more often than not get an inferior end product. The designer, meanwhile, is likely to feel micro-managed and under utilized. I can honestly say from experience that my best work has never come from projects where the client is simply telling me what they think I should do.
That damn fear thing
Here’s the thing though: presenting only one concept requires a ton of confidence and guts. I get why it’s a really sensible way to approach a logo design project, but it’s an equally scary idea to embrace. In fact, I can see that fear is probably one of the main reasons logo designers are still presenting multiple options to our clients.
What are we afraid of? We’re afraid that we’re NOT experts yet. We’re afraid that our clients will think we didn’t put in the work. We’re afraid that the client won’t like what we’ve presented (even though that's not the end goal).
When I think back to my former partners’ and my experiences, I can clearly see that the more ideas we felt the need to present the less confident we felt about them.
Is there a happy medium?
So what if we’re not there yet? Does that mean we shouldn’t be taking clients? I don’t think so. A logo designer I know of who is incredibly talented and successful in the online business world still presents more than one option to clients. Does that mean she’s perpetually afraid and not confident in her own skills and expertise? I seriously doubt it!
For me, I think the solution is somewhere in between presenting several ideas and presenting just one idea. I do think that presenting more than two to three ideas is probably a sign that we, as designers, haven’t done the work up front to really hone in on what will best solve our clients’ problems, and we may not be feeling confident that we're "there" yet.
At the same time, I usually see my client’s as partners in the process, and I value their input. I don’t by any means want to be a pixel pusher, and when someone comes to me saying they already have an idea and just need someone to execute it, I will pass on the project. BUT I think it’s possible to present more than one option to a client and together evaluate the options and determine what will best appeal to the target audience as opposed to allowing personal preferences to decide.
For me, I think that’s the best strategy for now. I absolutely believe that less is more, and I’ll probably shoot for being able to confidently present one concept that I feel is best when I get there, but I can also honestly say that I’m not ready for that yet.
What do you think?
If you're on the client side, what would you think if your designer said they were going to present only one option and proceeded to do so? If you're a designer, how many logo options to you present? And why? I'd love to hear your comments!!
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