The unbearable irrelevance of three design concepts

There is a much-used trope in graphic/communication practice whereby designers are expected to create three sets of conceptual proofs in response to a creative brief. The practice is often unquestioningly expected by account handlers, marketing and salespeople, design managers and other gatekeepers of design (Meron, 2020, 2021), often believing they need such outputs to showcase to clients as part of a creative pitch.

A typical version of this approach requires one of these concepts to be ‘extravagant’. This is counterposed by a ‘boring’ design, followed by a third and final ‘balanced’ design. The expectation of this practice is that clients (assumed to be more conservative than designers) are expected to reject the ‘whacky’ design concept, as well as the ‘boring’ one, and settle on the ‘balanced’ version (Shapiro, 2014, Phillips, 2015, Heller, 2017).

Several explanations can be drawn from this practice. It can function as a sales technique or marketing trick, providing clients with the perception that all creative options have been considered by designers, perhaps also supporting a perception of ‘value for money’. It may also work to give clients the impression of having made the design decision themselves; portraying a narrative of having considered many options, before settling on the ‘safe’ middle option.

Some designers themselves also adopt this approach, even taking it further to suggest giving stakeholders and clients ‘what they want’. Others recommend taking advantage of this practice by making the extravagant design extra ‘scary’, thereby influencing stakeholders or clients to default to choosing the balanced option (Airey, 2012).

However, the three-concepts approach is contested. Some designers argue that it de-professionalises designers and wastes time (Menard, 2016). Others contest that it takes a project off course (Karjaluoto, 2014) and even symbolises a broken design process. Other designers suggest that showing one concept at a time until the stakeholder is happy can be a more productive way to manage the process (Smith, 2009, Cousins, 2017).

In my experience, such approaches largely result in stakeholders and clients micro-focussing on distractions and, in many cases, choosing the worst implementation of the design. As such, in more recent years of my practice, I tended to mainly create only one concept in response to a design brief. Unless there was a compelling reason to create more. After all, there’s either a correct response to a design brief or there isn’t.

The efficacy, or otherwise, of these different approaches is a vast and problematic topic, and clearly further research is needed. But, in my opinion, the automated requirement to create three (or more) concepts for every design brief needs to be strongly challenged by practitioners and researchers.

Airey, D. 2012. The ideal design process? Available: [Accessed 1/8/2018 2018].

Cousins, C. 2017. How Many Design Options Should You Show a Client? [Accessed 1/8/2018 2018].

Heller, S. 2017. Teaching Graphic Design, New York, Allworth Press.

Karjaluoto, E. 2014. The Design Method: A Philosophy and Process for Functional Visual Communication, New Riders.

Menard, J. 2016. Presenting Multiple Design Options to Your Clients. Just. Don’t. [Accessed 25/7/2018 2018].

Meron, Y. 2020, Re-performing Design: Using dramaturgy to uncover graphic designers’ perceptions of stakeholders, Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal, 8, 71-90.

Meron, Y. 2021, Terminology and Design Capital: Examining the Pedagogic Status of Graphic Design through Its Practitioners’ Perceptions of Their Job Titles, International Journal of Art & Design Education, 40, 374-388.

Phillips, P. L. 2015. Managing Corporate Design: Best Practices for In-House Graphic Design Departments, New York, Allworth Press.

Shapiro, E. M. 2014. The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients, New York, Allworth Press.

Smith, G. 2009. How Many Ideas Do You Show Your Clients? [Online]. Smashing Magazine. [Accessed 10/7/2018 2018].