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One design concept, infinite revisions?

On building efficiency and flexibility into your creative process.

“How many web design concepts do you present to your client?”

I’m amazed when I hear this asked in design groups — it’s 2019 and it still comes up. And even more amazed by the variety of answers it usually receives, all from people who truly believe their process is the right one.

Is it standard to present three unique concepts and let your client choose their favourite, or mix and match between them?

Hell no!

I present one initial design concept, and never more.

But here’s the kicker, I rarely limit revisions unless I’m working on a fixed price (which is almost never, because I hate project pricing and it’s misplaced incentives). It’s all about keeping the design process efficient when less feedback is required and allowing it to be flexible when the best collaboration happens.

The fallacy of multiple concepts

Multiple concepts give your client a false sense of choice. A choice they don’t even need.

Where did we get the expectation that a designer has to spend time generating two or three different (but complete) design solutions to the same problem, and present all of those options to their client?

It comes from logo design, I presume, where it’s still common practice (even for me). But a logo is one singular concept or metaphor. A webpage, app, or other UI design is a complex collection of many layered design decisions all interconnected to make an intelligent design system. What makes perfect sense for branding doesn’t translate into UX/UI design.

What a ludicrous waste of time that would be.

It’s not that experimentation shouldn’t happen. Differing design solutions should be explored and evaluated. But much of that can happen internally or with only a few key stakeholders. Each and every potential solution doesn’t need to be developed to completeness and presented as a hi-fidelity design artifact. Those ideas should be explored in low-fidelity, and the worse ones tossed out long before they reach a polished and presentable design state.

But design efficiency starts long before that.

Better understanding = less experimentation

The luxury of producing a single concept comes from setting yourself up for success by gaining a deep and comprehensive understanding of your client’s and user’s needs.

Info architecture, personas & goals, UX wireframes, user flows, testing. All that jazz.

If you put in the effort to immerse yourself in your clients business and start from this foundation, your initial design concept should never be more than 25% off target. All that’s left are a few revisions to get the details right.

No need to waste time generating additional design concepts to fill your quota, when you already know one is better than the rest. In fact, it's detrimental to your process. What if your client prefers one of the worse options? Then you have to try to walk it back, putting yourself in a frustrating position you could have avoided.

That’s not to say you don’t consult and collaborate with your client every step of the way. I’m not recommending for a second your ignore your client’s feedback, so long as you’ve guided the critique process to ensure it’s good feedback.

You’re the design expert. Why would you present your client with an idea that you know to be worse, just to give them a sense of variety and greater choice? Your job isn’t to throw things at the way and see what sticks. You should understand the problem so well that you can a single solution and then justify why it’s a winner.

The security of unlimited revisions

Unlimited revisions give your client the security of a knowing you’re providing a guaranteed polished result. It shows you put quality and attention to detail over squeezing the most profit by limiting improvements.

Most of my work is on an hourly rate or a weekly retainer. In those situations, my project agreements never stipulate a limit on the number of design revisions I’ll produce.

Partly, this is because how do you measure what is or isn't a round of revisions?Feedback and collaboration can be a very fluid process so I like to keep things open-ended until the timeframe or budget require them to wrap up.

It’s also because I’ve learned through mistakes how to manage the feedback and iteration process to ensure it’s done as economically as possible. While I don’t limit revisions to a certain number, I won’t allow them to go on endlessly. I have enough confidence in my project management ability and communication skills to steer my client towards the best solutions within a reasonable number of iterations.

If I fail to do that, it’s on me, not them.

I’ll tell them that more revisions will slow down delivery and cost more money. But I never refuse or discourage them. Quite the opposite, in fact. I encourage it because I want to produce the best possible outcome, and each revision leads to an improved design solution. I’m happiest when my clients allow the cultivation of quality work. Why on earth would I want to stifle that with an artificially imposed limit on design improvements?

How to give and receive great design feedback

A comprehensive guide for designers and their clients to provide frustration-free feedback and create better design outcomes.

A balanced, efficient creative process

While some designers propose terms like three initial concepts and a strict limit of three rounds of revisions, I do quite the opposite. One initial concept, and then as many revisions as necessary to fine-tune it into something awesome.

The more complex your work is, the more this strategy makes sense. Many of my design projects span 6 months or longer. It would be different if they were small pieces done in a week.

This process works well for me, and it’s a win/win for everybody involved. My time is used as efficiently as possible, which leads to lower cost for my clients, AND the flexibility to ensure that no details are left unconsidered. I’m happy with the quality of design produced, and my clients are happy that their concerns have been heard. They’ve received excellent design value because nothing was wasted, and nothing forgotten.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

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