EchoDitto Blog

Design Concepts: one or two?

This was post was co-authored by Neal Maher. For more info on Neal and his portfolio, visit:

I love the show Mad Men. I admit it. As someone who works with clients everyday, I especially love the scenes where Don Draper pitches a really cool idea to a client. He and his team work for days or weeks, late nights and weekends, coming up with a concept for an advertising campaign that will sweep the client and their customers off their feet. Then Don goes in and presents it, so cool and suave, and the clients, more often than not, love it.

While we don’t do three-martini lunches or smoke cigars during client meetings, we do go about the process of designing the look and feel of a new website in kind of the same ways as Don Draper. We put a lot of effort into planning and thinking about the strategy for the new site, and along with our creative partners, we come up with the design that we think best fits the vision of the new site. Neal Maher, who co-authored this piece with me, is a longtime friend of EchoDitto, and one of the best web designers I’ve ever worked with. He and I got into a conversation recently about the idea of presenting one design concept to clients, and why we prefer that over creating two different design approaches for the first presentation. Sometimes our clients ask for the latter, wanting to see two different options to choose from, so we’ve been talking about why it is that we strongly suggest sticking with one design direction from the beginning.

This post is a distillation of that conversation, and aims to explain the three reasons why we think that presenting one design direction is the best approach.

1. Expertise
There's a great quote from Steve Jobs about working with the designer Paul Rand (one of America's great modernist graphic designers throughout the 50's-80's—he designed the logos for ABC network, UPS, IBM, etc.) who Jobs hired in the late 80's to design the logo for NeXT computers. He said:

"I asked [Rand] if he would come up with a few options. And he said, 'No. I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people. But I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how. And you use it or not. That’s up to you. You’re the client.' And there was a clarity about the relationship that was refreshing."

Neither EchoDitto nor Neal have that much hubris to think we can solve every problem a client ever approaches us with. As so many clients of ours can attest to, we put tremendous weight in the process to arrive at that solution. Through all of our early, strategic work on a project—our creative briefs, meetings, and wireframes, for example—we suss out the “symptom” and our one design concept is our “prescription.” Will it be perfect right off the bat? Not usually. That’s why we plan for multiple rounds of revision after the initial concept is presented. But the relationship we value with our clients is one where they trust us to work on and focus on the solution (creative or otherwise) that’s most appropriate for them. Because, indeed, that is what they come to us for. When we’re making design decisions in a project, there’s always one direction that’s more appropriate, strategic, and on-brief. And it’s our job to know what that is. It, frankly, is what we’re good at. It’s what we’ve learned over years practicing our craft. It’s what we’ve studied, researched, and are passionate about. It’s what we do.

2. Complexity
Over the years, we’ve found that showing multiple versions often muddies the water and makes a decision or approval more difficult and complicated for the client. For example, it can often split a client team (where half prefer one option, half another) and lead to them focus on differences and personal biases, rather than using their time to help move the design forward with the project’s audience in mind. A multiple-version presentation is also more likely to lead to a client then advocating for a mixed-bag, Franken-design approach with a little from column A and a little from column B. This sort of hybrid approach to a design problem almost never results in a design solution that's as clear and as appropriate for the audience and the project goals.

3. Efficiency
All design projects start with multiple versions. Sometimes these are just sketches that only the designer or the internal team sees. Sometimes they make it to half-formed homepage mockups. But, with one eye always on the creative brief and other notes, they're abandoned early in the process because another option is more strategic. Doing this internal filtering early-on to then focus on just one direction (as opposed to having to take two or three directions all the way to completion), allows that direction to get the full benefit of our team’s attention, and makes the whole process more efficient overall. We are able to spend time not only making the single direction truly shine and reflect the strategic briefs and wireframes from a visual perspective, but we can also spend some of the gained time thinking about feasibility from a coding perspective, or how the sub-navigation/menu system will work on subpages, etc.

Some design firms are perfectly okay with delivering two concepts to a client and that can be successful. Some go so far as to have one designer work on one concept and another designer on a second. This debate—1 vs. 2—isn’t about what’s right or wrong. We have a position that we’ve thought through a lot of over the years and we’ve seen it work. Can a two concept process work? Absolutely. It’s just not the best use of our client’s limited resources and we think that a single concept process is what more consistently results in the best final design.

Please feel free to disagree using the comments below!

—Tony & Neal