How Many Design Options Will You Show Me?

By Monday November 14th, 2011

There is always one "correct answer" to any design problem. Instead of asking your designer for multiple design options, help your designer give you what you want through upfront discovery and iteration of a single design.

There’s this story about when Steve Jobs was branding Next, and he hired graphic design legend Paul Rand (creator of the IBM and UPS logos, among many others) to create his logo. The story (you can read it here) has Rand insisting on presenting the logo his way with absolutely no changes. He tells Jobs to “use it or don’t use it, but either way you pay me $100,000 for my time.”

Although extreme, it reinforces a concept that I’ve advocated since founding Brolik in 2004. Designers are experts, and we do things for a reason. I don’t show clients multiple design options. A large number of people consider what a designer does as “art” or “making things pretty,” which are both subjective. In reality, a designer’s job is very objective- to produce a calculated, thoughtful and ultimately “successful” design that is goal-based and function-driven. Design is rooted in extensive research, experience, and learned skill, and it needs to persuade an audience to react emotionally and to do whatever it is you want them to do.

Presenting multiple design options just doesn’t fit that model.

There is always one “answer” that is most correct in any design problem.
Remember that good design is extremely purposeful, and a good designer doesn’t typically use the color green, for instance, just because they like it. They use it because the target audience likes it and will predictably react to it in a certain way.

In Paul Rand’s case, while dealing with Jobs, he refuses to brighten the color yellow as per Jobs’ request. That’s bold, but I can tell you one thing- he used that exact shade of a yellow for a very specific reason. Rand, an expert for decades at this point, was in a unique position to tell a paying client “no,” but most designers aren’t in that position and must compromise design for their client’s whim. To put it another way, the client can make the design less successful.

Furthermore, choice is dangerous.
There’s a TED Talk about happiness where a study group is asked to choose one of two different photos. They get to keep the one they choose, and the other is sent away. Half of the group is told they have five days to change their mind, and the other half gets no chance to rethink their decision. A few days later, participants were surveyed about how happy they were with their photos. The group that could not return their photo loved their choice. The group that got a chance to swap their photo was less satisfied. They all wonder if maybe they’d be happier with the one they didn’t choose.

That’s some crazy psychology, but it’s worth noting. There was no explicit quality difference between the actual photos. You could argue that having a choice alone made participants less happy with a product that they would have been (and should have been) content with in the first place.

Unlike Rand, I don’t believe that designers are always right and that they should be the final say when designing for someone else’s business. I do believe that instead of giving choices upfront, the best and most successful designs are arrived at through a solid discovery phase and then iteration. Show a working, functioning, real life design and then start discussing changes from there.

Lastly, time is money.
Just in case you aren’t convinced, let’s talk money. Why would you ask a designer to spend their limited hours split amongst three different designs for the same project? You’d be better served to have them spend three times as long on one design.

Furthermore, if your designer puts the required effort into the initial design, they’ll have nothing left but fluff to fill out more options for you. Once you arrive at the “correct answer,” the other designs are simply incorrect!

It all starts with you.
To get what you want from your designer, forget about forcing them to give options. Focus your time on giving them resources. Share links to things you like. Share what your competitors are doing. Show them a random magazine ad you like. Tell them about your vision for the company’s future, fill them in on your company’s history, and ask them questions. That’s how you get what you want. Give them the tools to do their job. You didn’t hire them just because they know how to use Photoshop. You hired them because they’re experts in their field, and they can use their expertise to help you excel in yours.

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About the Author

Drew Thomas is the CTO and co-founder of Brolik. He oversees Brolik's technology projects, including Leverage, Brolik’s proprietary technology platform. Drew spends most of his free time on side projects and prefers to blend work and life into a balanced, enjoyable experience. He lives in Austin, TX.
Twitter: @drewbrolik
LinkedIn: Drew Thomas
Google+: Drew Thomas