Never Give a Client Three Choices

By Spencer Critchley
November 24, 2010 | Comments: 2

In most design fields it's conventional wisdom that you should give a client three versions or "comps" of an idea, so they can choose their favorite, or maybe combine what they like best about two or all three of them. It's been so common for so long, that it's accepted unquestioningly, like the wisdom of washing your hands or wearing a seat belt.

Well, I question it. In fact I stopped doing it a long time ago.

When a client asks me for three ideas, I reply, "I'm going to give you one really good one." You know what? It works great. Here's why I don't believe in the rule of three:

  1. You're setting out to mislead your client -- and yourself. How often have you presented three ideas, any of which you believed was exactly the right solution? Maybe... never? Too many creative professionals pretend this is a useful set of alternatives: a throwaway, which they silently pray the client won't be obtuse enough to choose, a second choice they could live with, and the one they actually believe in. Doesn't this strike you as a tiny bit deceptive? Do you really want to start a relationship that way? Isn't great design more about discovering truth?
  2. It lowers the chances of success. The odds are as bad as one in three that you'll end up working on an idea you're excited about. And what if the client goes ahead and takes parts from different ideas, Frankenstein-style? How well is that likely to work?
  3. It encourages a lack of focus.
  4. Too often, people ask for three options because they haven't thought their way to any particular sense of direction. They're taking shots in the dark.
  5. You're surrendering control to an unqualified person (i.e. your client). Why did you get hired? Presumably because you're very good at what you do. Your client has a need, and hired you to do the work to fulfill it. Listen carefully to what the client says in terms of needs, and always stay open to the fact that a genuinely good idea can come from anywhere. But, politely but firmly, keep control of the mechanics of the process. No one gets away with grabbing a pipe wrench and pushing the plumber out of the way. Why should you invite that to happen to you?

Wait, you say. What if the client doesn't like your first idea?

Give them another one. But make it another one that you really believe in.

What if your client is qualified, such as an art director you report to?

See reason #1: take the risk of committing to an idea you believe in. Soon after I hit upon the "one good idea" approach, I was composing music for the director of a video game, who, naturally, asked for three ideas. When I said "No, I'll give you one really good one," he turned his head this way and that, and squinted at me for a bit. But then he realized that I was going for excellence, and he ended up happy. If your boss still insists on three ideas, then I think you're stuck doing a whole lot of extra work: now you really do have to come up with three great ideas at one time.

What if your client says, "I'm paying you, and I say do it this way"?

Remember, there's such a thing as firing a client. I know, sometimes raw economics dictates otherwise. But if you make a habit of surrendering, over time you'll get a reputation for work that represents what your clients were capable of, not you.

And what if you are a client who happens to be reading this? I hope you'll consider that good design professionals study and work for years to master their crafts. There's probably a lot they know that you don't. And if you really don't think that's true, maybe you should be looking for other designers.

For my part, I always try to hire people who are way better at what they do than I am. As a creative director, I consider my number one skill to be recognizing what greatness looks like -- in other people.


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2 Comments

Hi Spencer,

I understand that you had worked with Danny Parks in Nashville at one point. I have also worked with Danny, although it was few years ago. Would you get back to me so that I can begin a dialog with you about where I am at right now and how I may be interested in your services? Danny is one of the best and if you were working with him, then I know your standards are very high. Hope to hear from you soon.

Best,
Rebecca

I don't buy it. In my experience it's not about offering choices, it's about provoking a great conversation, especially with a new client. I want to show people a range of approaches and give them the benefit of the doubt that they know their customers better than I do, at least at first. Besides, I rarely believe there is only one best idea. My job is to put great ideas on the table and get great feedback, and turn the next round into something even better. If I can't generate at least 3 great ideas I know will work (usually it's 10 or 20), I'm in the wrong business.

Of course if they are only paying for 1 great idea, that's another thing...

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