Multiple design directions

Garrett Dimon shares his view of a design firm’s responsibility in “One Idea is Better than Three“. His premise is that presenting three directions to a client, then leaving it up to them to choose between the three falls short of our duty to create — and guide them to — the best design.

“If you present clients with multiple ideas and expect them to choose one, invariably, the end result is muted and diluted as the message of the different ideas gets blended together.”

I pretty much agree with Garrett. At another design firm early on in my career, we always presented two or three directions. However, we always had a favored direction, and it showed. Because we biased it. The favored direction was more polished, the details worked out, and it was generally more cleaned up than the others, because we spent so much more time on it. This wasn’t so much a spoken rule, just my observation of how we worked and presented design to clients.

I never liked that approach, because we spent so much time on one direction. Other directions felt like a waste of time. They were thrown together at the last minute just to meet the multiple direction requirement of the RFP.

Fast-forward to today. Sometimes Stopdesign presents only one design. Sometimes 2-3 designs. But my philosophy and intent is that all directions and explorations help push toward the best and most appropriate final design. Multiple designs aren’t usually presented to the client as options from which they much choose. Rather, they reveal different phases of thinking and problem solving during the design process. And they’re not all saved for one final design presentation. I like to pull clients in at key points in the design process, expose current thinking, involve them in key decisions, which then better informs and shapes my work moving forward.

While I believe its my responsibility to lead the client toward the most optimal solution, I don’t like spending too much time on just one direction. Especially early in the design process. I like to work out and present other directions that explore the client’s boundaries. Alternate versions that use entirely different concepts or themes as a base. Exploration of alternate designs are critical in ensuring I don’t fall too far down the wrong rabbit hole. As the client is shown each direction, we discuss the benefits and tradeoffs. “Is this too much of X or Y?” “Have you ever thought of doing Z?” “Is it feasible to expect this type of content?” The resulting discussion feeds back into the creation and/or refinement of the final design.

The design process should always include an active dialogue back and forth with the client. When I don’t get enough interaction with the client, I get a little nervous, and wonder about the end result. Even though I’m confident I can create goodness for them without much help, will my work still meet their needs and goals as well as if they were more involved? I want the client to understand how we (client and designer) arrived at the final design. If they contribute to the final direction, they feel just as invested and confident in the final result, and will best understand how to take advantage of the new design once it’s in their hands.

Instead of a surprise ending of look-what-I-created-for-you, this makes the final design presentation much more a confirmation of all the decisions we made together. “Remember when we talked about Q on direction #2? Here’s how that plays out in our new design…”


  1. Carl Fooks

    This sounds so remarkably similar to my own views and experience with software development. It’s also one of the key elements of the Extreme Programming movement; customer interaction.

    Essentially, the premise is that the customer doesn’t know what they want (straight off the bat)! That, however well researched, their requirements don’t become truly crystal clear until it’s “out there” and in use. So, on top of frequent and rapid releases, they recommend that the customer actively takes a part in the development of the application by being “on the team”.

    Obviously, not many customers have development experience! So this actually means being constantly available to the developers for immediate feedback, and to be an active part of the development process.

    It’s remarkable how often I find that extreme programming methods fit so well into other areas, especially “web development” … I suppose they’re actually methods for the creative process, so I shouldn’t be so surprised, but I often wonder what a considered and informed application of XP practices to the web design/development process could achieve.

    Obviously, this “methodology” is aimed at software developers, so the documentation is pretty technical. However, if you’re interested, you can get more information on extreme programming, here.

  2. bill

    Of course, there’s always the clients who just want you to produce something. They could care less about how you get there or if they are involved. Actually they want their involvement kept to an absolute minimum.

  3. Jeremy Boles

    My thoughts exactly. It is very refreshing to see this shift from “just getting it done” to “getting it done right” in the software and internet world.

  4. neill harmer

    I agree with this concept, but sometimes, depending on the client, it is impossible to only do one. I get clients all the time wanting to see 2 to 3 to even 4 different possiblities of a design. By different I don’t mean just different colors, I’m talking completely different layouts and styles.

    I admit I HATE doing multiple designs, it feels like I did extra work for them just to overlook those designs.

    How do you go about involving them in the whole process? I typically do not pull them in till I have a completed design.

  5. Ryan Nichols

    I completely agree. I was just writing up some materials for clients that revolved around this same concept.

    “Often clients expect to be presented with a number of finalized design comps. But what is really being said? As a designer we don’t know what is the best direction? Or maybe we don’t know what you want so we’ll give you a choice? The real solution is to involve you from the beginning and we’ll both discover the best direction along the way. Sure we’ll explore different options, but we’ll do it together and never waste time designing an entire comp unless we’re sure we both want to go there. It’s about communication and sharing ideas together, not doing guesswork and forcing you to pick.”

    I don’t feel there should be a final presentation, they should be involved at mutliple stages like you suggest. if a client tells me that they want 2-4 design comps, I explain what my philosophy is and why I work that way. Ultimately if they don’t want to get involved, then I can’t do my best work and it may not be worth having them as a client.

  6. Mike D.

    I think the key nuance here is that Doug isn’t saying he only goes in one direction. He is saying that by involving the client well before the final presentation, the multiple directions that are necessary to both fully explore the objective and make the client feel involved are taken care of before the final stages of the project.

    If you were to go down four completely separate paths until the end, you’d maybe spend 100×4 hours, or more likely 250, 50, 50, and 50. Whereas if you involve the client when you’re only 20 hours into each branch, you might get enough buy-in to spend the rest of the time on one direction… and that is what you really want.

  7. Alex King

    Very helpful post. I’ve tried this both ways and have often felt the “favored direction” feeling – now I know why.

  8. Ross Easton

    I’ve never actually thought of that concept. It seems to me that involving the client in as much of the design work as possible is a superb idea and I plan to adopt that concept as one used by my own design agency – A&R Enterprise.

    I recall one time that a client visited the studio to work on their website with myself. They said that they wished they had done that sooner and that it was great to be able to work with me in designing their website.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure that all of my clients would be able to afford the time to visit as often and discuss designs but I’m sure that something could be arranged.

    Well done Doug for another superb post! Got me thinking again! :)

  9. Oliver

    Say you present 2/3 designs to your client. Your client chooses one. Can’t the other 1/2 designs be recycled for the next client? It’s never a waste of time that way.

  10. padawan

    Very interesting read ;-).

  11. Abdelrahman Osama

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us it is really useful.
    But I have just went through a painful experiment and I think I might share it here.
    I let one of my clients involve on the design so he keeps saying what if you do this and do that and at the end it turned out to a piece of crap he liked it a lot but frankly I didn’t put my name on it.

  12. sosa

    I’ve written about this before but more oriented to indentity design.

    We designers sell ourselves as visual communication experts, and we do briefings and meetings while claiming that we are offering “visual solutions” for “optimum communication design” and that kind of bulshit.

    But then we offer three –frecuently each one very opposed to the other two– proposals. We usually prefere one of them and hate another one so, if we are so experts as we say them why don’t give just one –near final– proposal? That’s what I do and 90% percent of times it’s accepted with almost any changes.

    Now, web design is a little different from indentity design… but not that different.

  13. Benson

    The “funnelling” process which Doug mentioned by involving the client in key points of development can only be practised on certain clients/projects. As with most creative process, it is up to designers to research, create and make sure all our due diligence and responsibilities are met.

    If a client can be part of the process, I totally agree is the best process for both client and designer. The proposed single concept would therefore more acceptable, and successful. But for most case I have experienced, RFPs and client requests in the multi-concept proposals do not want or unable to be part of the process. If you think about these client’s position, they would like a selection from a set requirement/brief so that it is easier for them to be involve and accept.

    Multi-concepts selection may be diluted but nonetheless necessary for many projects. It is wrong for concepts to be biased as you are not giving the client what they have requested. Designers should be happy to go with whichever design that was proposed, otherwise why present it? If you know the request is for two concepts then do it as if it each concept is the best solution with a particular direction.

    I see it as a case by case basis. Depending on the relationship, communication and trust between the client and designer, the process should be catered for the situation.

  14. Dallas Ransom

    When presenting multiple concepts to clients, I find they have a tendancy to choose the one that I like the least. You can’t afford to do one killer design, and then a couple of fillers because the client will walk away with them and discuss the designs with others in the office and invariably come back and ask for the worst one.

    It’s difficult to bring a client up to speed with the most important considerations when regarding web design. Sometimes they just want something that matches their own tiny experience with the web.

    I often find myself wondering where my role is as a web designer. Is it important for me to be like an imovable rock, and not sway from what I consider dood web design, or do I just play the role of providing exactly what the client wants, even if it grates against my design sensibilities?

  15. Ryan Nichols

    I think that’s why it’s important to not look at your work as presenting it to them in some final showdown for approval. We treat ourselves like we’re slaving away hoping that at the end our work appeases the business gods.

    Instead clients are partners, and design solutions should be a process you both are involved in together. No suprises. Wouldn’t that be a much better climate to work in?

    The only way a client can totally reject something is if it is a suprise to them when they see it and the direction was entirely wrong. In other words it’s a communication problem! Instead let them reject ideas or concepts in small steps, but not completely finished work after you poured blood, sweat, and tears into it.

    Clients demand it the other way? They refuse to be involved in their own project and require 23 design comps? I bet when presented this alternative 9 out of 10 CEO’s would agree. :)

  16. beto

    The whole “multiple proposals” dilemma has been around for quite some time. Some even propose to ditch the multiple presentations and present only one, but well documented and justified, to the client.

    Our approach goes a little further than that: Since we are a web consulting rather than a design firm, we do first an exhaustive analysis of client’s needs, background, and business projections / expectations, which in turn define a lot of the design approach we will take on a given project, and we send and review wireframes, rather than finished designs, with the client. We encourage active participation of the client in most of the development phases, specially at the beginning so she can see how every design decision has a solid reason and justification to be.

    Something we have learned along the way is that if we present detailed concepts to the client from the get-go, they will be focusing on the petty little details that have little to do with the overall site structure, or worse, pretending to create a Frankenstein site picking and choosing parts of several comps, which simply said that’s not the way the whole thing works.

  17. Ms. Jen

    Most of my clients are small businesses on a limited budget and I have found that giving them a “homework” assignment cuts out multiple designs and frustration on both sides. I have the client show me 5 websites of competitors that they like & why and 5 they don’t like and why.

    It helps me to get to the essence of their aesthetic, their otherwise unspoken expectations, and what they really want to convey with their website. Then I mock up a few design choices for them.

  18. dan

    It’s all salesmanship. If you can persuade your client to buy your medecine without the “rigor” of showing three “options” then you can probably charm the socks off a cold bear.

    IMO, most great problem-solvers know the answer five minutes into the brief and all the other process tricks are longcuts. So as I said… it’s all salesmanship.

  19. Mark Priestap

    Regarding Oliver’s post (#9)

    I agree. I don’t know how many “throw-away” designs I’ve reused for other sites. Also, if you’re getting paid per design or per hour, there’s even less to complain about.

    That said, I think Doug’s point was more along the lines of what Mike D. said (#6).

    Nice comments by Ms. Jen. (#17) I may use that excellent idea.

  20. Garrett

    I have a couple of points. With regards to throwaway designs…if you are really creating a quality solution for a single client, you shouldn’t be able to reuse it for the next client unless all of your clients are in the exact same industry. Reuse parts of it? Yes, probably, but recycling the whole comp seems like you aren’t giving the second client the time and thought they deserve (and are paying for).

    Also, if you have clients that expect you to deliver something of high quality without their involvement, they are sadly mistaken. In this situation, you’re in for a rough ride regardless of your process. It’s their website, and without their input it doesn’t matter if you create one, two, three, or even more comps. When it comes down to it, you’re using a baseball bat to hit a fly while you’re blindfolded. It’s just not going to happen.

    You understand the web. They understand their business. You have to work together. Anything short of full cooperation and flexible availability on both your parts is selling both yourself and the client short.

    Then there’s the subject of bias and favored choices. As a designer, it’s not your job to use your favorite color or layout. Your favorite comp should be the one that best supports the business goals of your client. If you have a favorite for other reasons, you’re missing the point. That being said, having a favorite for the right reasons is completely acceptable and will actually help your client, and they will appreciate it. If you’re just putting lipstick on pigs for your 2nd and 3rd comps to fill space, you are doing yourself and your client an injustice. Spend that time making the best idea better.

    Ms. Jen – Having tried that and understanding the benefits, I’ve had bad luck with that approach. Do you ever find that your clients end up getting too attached to the style of a web site that they become close-minded?

    By the way, Doug, thanks for the link, it was a great kickoff for the new site.

  21. Ms. Jen

    Garrett –
    My design / art style tends towards minimalism. I would be happy with color, type and photos. By having the client show me what they like and dislike, we are able to discuss openly what they hope for, what they can get on their budget, what I can realistically offer them, and it gives me an opportunity to inform them on how their site choices would or would not work for their goals. It is a meet and greet without the wine and cheese.

    This is a very successful approach with my art and rock’n’roll clients as their aesthetic is very definitive to their businesses. It is a revealing for both sides approach with my more corporate clients.

    Why did I institute this? I had a seemingly rockabilly/roots band approach me for a website, and I worked hard to give them what I thought was appropriate to their music and audience appeal. It turned out that what they really wanted was black, chrome and leather – a Motely Crue website. Funny enough within the month they changed their name and started playing out as a metal band and another designer with more Photoshop chrome skills did the website. All were happy in the end.

  22. Roan Lavery

    Excellent discussion.

    I used to always present a number of options to the client but recently have been shying away from this more and more, largely due to the issues already discussed here.

    Invariably, one of the designs was the better than the others, but unfortunately the client rarely seemed to pick it. It left me creating sites, I wasn’t totally happy, and I felt I was losing integrity.

    Now I try, where possible, to create a single mock then use that as a starting point for discussion. The design usually undergoes several rounds of alterations from there, until both the client (and importantly myself) are happy with it.

    However, there are still occasions where multiple designs are a must, or the client feels short changed. It just depends on the client.

  23. Andy Budd

    After talking to the client about their goals, users, likes and dislikes, I’ll work up several versions of one design concept. I’ll show them to the client as early as possible to get their feedback and check I’m on the right track. If the designs aren’t quite right, it’s early enough to change tack. If they are really off (which they shouldn’t be) you’ve not invested much time in them so can bin them and start again.

    I think the whole “three designs” thing is a hangover from the print world. Clients like it because they feel they are getting value for money and are taking an active part in the decision making process. However they aren’t really getting value for money as they have just paid for two designs they will never use. It would make much more sense to spend three times as long on a single design and make sure you get it 100% right.

    Also clients usually aren’t trained in design and decisions are usually made for subjective rather than objective reasons. By showing just one design, with variations, you help control the experience and take some of the subjectivity out of it. You also avoid the situation where the client likes various things from each design, creating a Frankensteins Monster of a design.

  24. Tinus

    And what if the cliënt chooses the concept you like the least?

  25. Bruno Miranda

    I usually get a detailed description of what the client would like the site to look like, colors, shapes, sizes, fonts, etc.
    From there I come with with what I call one hour photo design, which is a photoshop rough draft of the site’s basic design scheme.

    I then meet with the client and after a brief but necessary explanation I ask for comments, input, suggestion and if he likes the direction the project is going.

    After that, I go back to the photoshop file and make necessary changes to the design for a final (almost) final template showing. Once the like what they see I can move on to all the other aspects that 98% of the time only matter to the designer and 100% of the time have to be addressed by the designer.

    this usually works out pretty good. I only have to work on one design, which of course, is my favorite and spend all the time perfecting it.

  26. Eric Sohn

    I’m not a designer (my wife is), but I have a question that seems relevant:

    Is a design firm hired to create a great design, or hired to create the client’s vision?

    Not being a pro in this field, but as a potential consumer, I wonder about the concept of a “best” design. I respect the idea of co-creating work, but I wonder how much of a self-fulfilling prophecy it is to only present one starting point. How much wiggle room is there really with only one comp?

    I assume it also depends on how much spadework is done before production, that you can hone in better with more early dialogue with the customer. I also like the idea expressed of “show me 5 websites you like” – that does help you get a better sense of the client’s aesthetic.

    Disclosure: my wife ( just told me (before I hit send, thank goodness) that, depending on the client, may only do 1 comp. Shows what I know – that’s why she’s the designer in the house.

  27. Alexis Bellido

    Great article Doug, as usual, and very helpful comments.

    I’ve recently got a client who asked me to design six websites in a very short timeframe: less than 2 weeks.

    Even if the sites were the typicial small company corporate looking ones (home/who we are/services/contact use) and my client told me they didn’t need something too fancy I felt that I couldn’t work that way and decided to do my best to deliver good designs.

    I agree that working together with the client in only one direction with each party providing expertise is the best way to go, however, not all clients can provide valuable feedback and sometimes they don’t even know what they like or want.

    For example, I had some designs when my client told me he liked color X and feature Y, I included his ideas in my mockup and he didn’t like it, even if I did exactly what he asked for. I have found out, after spending many hours, that following your client’s directions could be a big problem, with this client I decided that if I didn’t had freedom to create we weren’t going anywhere, so I just told him:

    “Look, I can do better than this but I need you to let me create without following your ‘suggestions’, I know about your company, services and audience and I can put that into a good design”. He accepted.

    It took me some hours to put my ideas into Photoshop and the client liked what I did, he just commented about little changes and that was all, design approved and everyone happy.

    If one client is hiring a designer is because they realize they need help and don’t know much about design, of course they have the vision of their business but maybe they don’t know how to turn that into a website design, they must trust the designer (a good designer of course) to do that.

    Imagine that you go to a doctor and “suggest” what the doctor should do about your illness, then why are you going to the doctor?

    Doing your best design and talking honestly with your client is the way to go, every designer wants to have great, and original, work in his portfolio, doing “filler” designs just for the money or “because the client liked it so” won’t help you grow.


  28. Great post…I think that I actually learned something today.

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