The Evil that is the ‘Multiple Choice Design Proposal’

When I started out as a designer one of the first things I encountered that was different to university project work was the ‘multiple choice design proposal’. The job had already been secured during the quote/proposal phase and now it was time to do the work. I’d be given the brief and asked to start designing. I’d start off sketching, then take the more promising ideas and start to work them up in Photoshop or Illustrator. Along the way some would quickly show themselves to be dead ends and be swiftly rejected. Inevitably, a couple would be developed further, with one emerging as the stronger design. This design would receive greater consideration and thought, and would become my proposal. Then my boss would come along and ask for second and third options; often this would happen a day or so before the design was due to be presented.

Given the short timescale, the second option would be derived from the last idea to fall by the wayside. As the recipient of extra attention it would become workable, but not as good, or considered, as the main design, and usually more conservative. The third option would often be a weak idea which had been discarded much earlier. Repeated defibrillation would eventually resuscitate it, though it would be clear that life for it outside the design studio ICU would be parlous – it was never really intended to have an independent life anyway, but to fulfill the role of ‘third option’, thus providing the illusion of ‘choice’.

What would follow was a depressingly repetitive story. My boss would return from the client meeting to inform me that either the second or third option was the one the client liked, in spite of them being inferior. After a while this aggravated me to the extent that I started seriously exploring the idea of setting up a ‘Design Graveyard’ website for designs that lost out to inferior, less considered, more conservative designs in the client proposal beauty pageant; sadly, my boss convinced me that without copyright authorisation from clients I would never be able to publish the still-born designs, and so it never happened.

My experience in those early days convinced me that the ‘multiple choice design proposal’ was bad for the client and bad for design. Working, mostly, in HE since those early days I encounter this issue much less often, but it still raises its ugly head from time-to-time.

So, what could be wrong with choice? Politicians constantly talk about choice, as if it were a panacea for every problem. So why shouldn’t clients get a choice?

The first problem with the ‘multiple choice design proposal’ is it reduces design to a beauty pageant, with the selection of the winning design being heavily influence by the character of those doing the chosing and their desire not to get it ‘wrong’ (an especially strong desire in large organisations); which inevitably leads to a more conservative, ‘safe’ choice, regardless of whether this meets the needs of the client fully, or those of the audience.

Secondly, it leads to some interesting intra-team discussions. Usually, the design team will have a preferred design. This will most likely be the stronger design. It will usually have been given greater consideration and thought, and is seen as meeting the client’s needs best.  But the ‘multiple choice design proposal’ runs the risk that an inferior design will be selected by the client. So, the design team starts to talk about how the designs can be presented to ensure the client picks the stronger design. Running order is often at forefront, the idea being that the client can be manipulated by showing them the stronger design before the weaker designs, or vice versa. Inevitably, there will be a discussion on the use of language to talk up the stronger design, while running down the weaker designs. Which, if the client picks a weaker designer, leads you to the position of, in effect, telling the client they’ve picked a shit solution. Further discussion will cover the use or avoidance of certain words which are thought to play to the client’s prejudices, both positively and negatively. Interestingly, there’s never a discussion about how condescending, patronising and insulting this discussion is to the client – thankfully they never get to hear it.

I’ve yet to hear a coherent justification for the ‘multiple choice design proposal’. Usually, the response is a load of bluster about the client ‘liking choice’; as if they were going into a shop to buy a shirt where the choice comes down to the buyer’s subjective colour preference.

As designers we’re employed/contracted for our expertise in design, and we should be trusted to propose the best solution for the client’s needs. If we can’t be trusted then we shouldn’t have been employed/contracted in the first place, and should be fired. I think the problem here stems from the idea that we’re presenting a ‘design’ which exists in a vacuum, separate from us as designers. What we’re really presenting when we propose a design is not a ‘pretty picture’, but our expert opinion on what best meets the client’s needs. The trouble is a piece of Photoshop/Illustrator artwork can look like it’s just a ‘pretty picture’, which can make it feel like a piece of art. Most people tend to have a subjective, surface level response to pictures – generally they like or dislike art without any attempt at understanding the artist’s intent. It follows then that the rationale and thinking behind the design is lost and we enter a superficial beauty pageant; I’ve heard anecdotes of clients rejecting design proposals because their wife doesn’t like the colour used.

Maybe some of this is our fault as designers. Often, we talk of inspiration and creativity as if they’re magical substances to be found at the end of a rainbow. Maybe this encourages clients to think of design as a magical, mystical process conducted by sorcerers; magic being an enemy of science and reason. The truth is that while we get inspired, our design decisions are informed by thought, reading and practice in our discipline. From experience (our own and others’) we learn what works and why. We spend time trying to understand how and why users act as they do, so that we can meet their needs better.

Therefore, when we respond to a brief, what we’re producing is not a ‘pretty picture’, but a considered and informed response that is our expert opinion. Which is why we should present our expert opinion on what meets the needs of the client best and nothing else. I can’t think of a situation where you’d go to an expert for their expert advice and be given some good advice and some shit advice.

This is not to say that we should be arrogant and assume that our response will fully meet the needs of the client. But instead of having a discussion about which design the client ‘likes’ better, we can have a discussion about why the client feels their needs haven’t been met. Then, through discussion we can discover the issues and address them properly.

Maybe we also need to trust our clients more. Maybe we view them, unfairly(?), as conservative and risk averse. But if presented with a strong design, accompanied by an explanation of why the design meets their needs (with the possibly of addressing un-met needs), then maybe they would be more confident to accept it.

What I do know is that the ‘multiple choice design proposal’, in the majority of cases, leads to clients selecting weaker designs, which fail to meet their needs fully and leave designers frustrated and cursing clients.

The ‘multiple choice design proposal’ is evil and should be resisted which as much strength as you can muster. You owe it to yourself as designer. But most importantly you owe it to your clients.

If you have any thoughts on this, feel free to discuss them with me on Twitter: @barry_richards