Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

Can you rescue your ideas?

Can you rescue your ideas?
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I used to think that a great idea was enough. We’d carefully run the process and develop a strategy and solution to help solve our client’s challenge. After all of this analysis, exploration and plain hard work, I figured that everything would take care of itself. In actuality, however, nothing could be further from the truth. If you can’t effectively sell your idea, it will die.

After all of your effort, the last thing you want to do is go back to the drawing board, simply due to a poor presentation. Today I’d like to present some things that we’ve learned from pitching creative. Some points will be familiar and others may prove less than useful, depending upon your process. Hopefully though, you’ll find some of them to be helpful when you next present your creative solution to a client.

Fear is the enemy

All of the excitement that the project began with is long gone by the time that the creative solution is presented. There’s a real commitment to ponder now, and the client can feel it. Actual change is in the air, and how many of us really like change when it first appears? Let’s face it; the risk is starting to set-in for the design buyer. I’ve seen it many times, and I have to say that even the most sensible people can lose their nerve at this stage.

With this fear in the air, you’ll have to do everything you can to assuage it and ensure that it doesn’t compromise an otherwise reasonable creative solution. Needless to say, to do all of this, you have to be prepared. This means being at the top of your game. Sure, you can get away with the odd stumbles, but believe me—a lack of preparedness here is tantamount to creative suicide. That being said, it’s easy to “win” in this setting; simply don’t leave anything to chance.

When I talk about “being prepared”, I’m really talking about the basics. Before we pitch creative, we’ll call ahead to check what technical limitations we may be working with on display equipment. We also make a checklist of support documents we’ll need in the presentation. This means the little stuff too. I like to have water on hand for longer talks, and I even bring mints to curb any unfortunate interruptions by my “espresso-breath.”

We often print-out our presentations in anticipation of unforeseen circumstances, and we rehearse our talk the night before. It can even be useful to reflect upon potential responses to tough questions that might arise. If you can, arrive 30 minutes early to set-up the presentation and talk to people individually as they arrive. This can “loosen you up” and help you build rapport with attendees. If it’s a particularly challenging group, you might also benefit from looking for client-side advocates (in advance of the meeting) and solicit their support.

Does this seem over-the-top? Perhaps—but in my experience this is the “make-or-break” stage. After a few hundred hours of developing a solution, I certainly wouldn’t gamble by leaving anything to chance. The client has enough to worry about; as such, you can’t allow any doubt to creep into this discussion.

It’s not about the creative

Here’s a secret about presenting creative that many designers find difficult to accept: it’s not about the visuals. Rather, it’s all about the problem you’re solving. Amateurs love to toss out visuals with a quick, “so, what do you think?” In our experience, this is a very dangerous course. Creative work is highly subjective, and people love to critique—often in knee-jerk fashion. As such, you really have to spend some time centering your audience before showing off the end product.

Everything here comes down to presenting a sound, logical solution. This is best reached by walking the group through the process you took, just to remind them where you have all been. Take some time to discuss the issues they began with, reflect upon the findings of the research and thoroughly review the strategy and direction. By first ensuring that they are reminded of the context, you’re able to move on to the solution readily.

What about your presentation style? Well, in my mind, you have to present in a way that suits your personality. There are of course things that help. For example, speak well, and in your own voice; you want your client to feel comfortable and this is best achieved when you feel so. Additionally, try to make eye contact and keep the presentation friendly. You’re not just persuading, you’re working to help them achieve their goals. Remind yourself of this fact.

Needless to say, with so much to review, you’ll serve all interests best by editing yourself and staying on track. Remain responsive to changes in the format, but don’t hesitate to control the dialogue. Misplaced questions may arise—just explain that you’ll “get to” certain points in due time.

It’s also nice to begin with a review of the points to be discussed in the meeting. This allows people a clear idea of what they can expect from the talk. And by all means, DO NOT hand out any documentation until the end of your presentation. If you do, they’ll skim it quickly and leap to conclusions. I’ve seen entire projects get the axe from a person who’s having a bad day. Take your time and get them “on side” first.

Finally, you can show some visuals

Once everyone is on the same page, you’re ready to discuss implementation options. At this stage it’s helpful to be descriptive and explain each piece carefully. For example, if there are novel treatments to be employed, talk about these in detail. Remember that what’s clear in your mind might not be as evident to others.

Keep reminding your client throughout the process, that the visuals are only implementation. They have to bear in mind that all of this has to remain centered on what is actually being accomplished. I often tell clients that I’d throw away our studio’s logo if it helped us reach our business goals. Ensure that this remains a “business” discussion; avoid allowing it to become subjective and about personal preference. So, instead of, “Do you like this?” ask, “Does this meet the project objectives?” You’ll maintain your course by doing so.

All of this is about giving the idea a fair chance. The reality is that people often respond to new ideas with discomfort. Needless to say, if your idea doesn’t work, you have to go back to the drawing board; however, you don’t want to throw it away just because people are a little unsure of something unfamiliar.

It’s in your interest to remain open to good feedback and accept that you might not have it all quite perfect yet. This means avoiding the desire to defend and instead just listen. Take in all of what your client is telling you and make clear notes of their feedback. Then, regardless of how the presentation ends, ask them to take a couple of days to reflect. This takes some of the pressure off. If they like it, it might reinforce their feelings or even uncover some areas in need of improvement. If they don’t, it might allow them a little more time to grow accustomed to the approach. Either way, you want them to feel good about this. Don’t let an unnecessary “rush” get in the way of your end goal.

Other hazards and points

It’s inevitable that your client will ask for other’s opinions in hopes of being reassured of the proposed direction. This is fair enough, but the risk lies in the solution being disheveled by one overzealous neighbor’s off-the-cuff remarks. You might find it helpful to remind your client that others may not have an understanding of the project goals as a whole. Additionally, everyone’s a critic. Ask a hundred people for feedback on a film and you’ll get a hundred responses. But, is all of this feedback relevant? (I have lots of opinions about health, but you don’t want me performing heart surgery.) The point isn’t to please everyone; instead, you’re looking to build something that works. Do what you can to keep the focus on the project goals and the informed responses of committed stakeholders.

Sometimes clients will try to “help” by building their own visuals; we call this “design by committee”. In our experience, this is always a bad sign and must be addressed immediately. You’ve been hired for your professional abilities. In turn, the client’s role is to comment upon whether your proposed solution works or does not. Allowing it to erode into a group “quilting circle” rarely produces effective results. This isn’t a creative journey; it’s about addressing defined business challenges.

Through all of this, it’s easy for a “client vs. designer” battle to result. This really shouldn’t (and mustn’t) happen. Talk to your client and explain that your goal is to help them do what’s best for them. Part of their trust will come when you acknowledge their concerns and consider them carefully. Sometimes this means carefully looking for a way to create some kind of resolve. Perhaps a minor colour shift will make them happy without compromising the overall idea. Do your best to remain flexible to simple solutions that can keep the project alive.

Moving on…

When the client is happy and ready to move forward, I urge you to remain methodical. Clearly outline what can change and what can’t (without overages) from this stage forth. Always get documented approval to proceed, whether it’s in the form of a sign-off, or even an email asking you to continue. Either way, have this documented and stored safely; not doing so is perilous and will cost you at some point.

Frankly, ideas die all the time. I’ve seen it happen on numerous occasions, and often for the wrong reasons. If you want more tips, I encourage you to read Luke Sullivan’s wonderful book: “Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This” or even this post from a few months ago.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Very important post, Eric. As usual, very well considered. After 15-plus years in business, we find it consistently interesting that the client makes a decision—based on the successes of a creative firm's previous client work—to enter into this relationship and yet, often allows too little time for the creative firm to effectively establish trust. And I'm not talking about time to develop, um, "award-winning concepts." I mean time to really get to know each other. As such, the creative partner often faces obstacles for which they are rarely aware or prepared. This establishes a poor precedent on the part of the creative firm AND the client, and I feel it's incumbent on the creative firm to enable this "dating" stage. Is it easy? No. But it's mighty risky to assume that while the work you've done for others has been so well-received (and that your referrals are glowing) that the client actually trusts that you can do it for them. To add to your point, this is where we find that ideas are most often lost. The more time spent together in the days or weeks leading up to the initial review will provide greater dividends for the creative partner. And to add to these challenges, we find that the earliest stages of presentation are most fragile because the earliest work often cannot be reasonably presented (or even fully foreseen) in its larger context. As with human development, the development of brand (or, simply ID) needs time to steady its legs and find its voice.

  2. You're spot on when you say newbies like to toss out the visuals right away. I do that! I think part of it is a confidence thing, new designers are looking to be given a pat on the back as quickly as possible. It takes a much more mature individual to put aside immediate satisfaction and go through the steps of repeating the project specs and educating them to the process and effort put into the concept presented.

    I think your process is great, but it also seems to only apply to grand scale projects that a more well established design firm would be involved in. What about freelancers or corporate art department designers that only do smaller projects? Their ideas deserve the same type of attention, but often things are done electronically and only a few people have input. What then? Any advice? How would you adapt to that situation?

  3. Hi LaurenMarie,

    I think that most of these suggestions should work on shorter projects as well. That being said, you might find that the presentation needs to be augmented slightly. We often present small projects and work for remote clients over the telephone. In settings like these, we tend to employ the same process, explaining things carefully and then showing visuals by email when everyone's on the same page.

    The nice part with the internal projects for corporate art departments that you reference is in the opportunity to build longer-lasting relationships with those you work with. Over time you learn to understand how these people like to work, and can present things with this knowledge in mind.

    Of course, it's all personal. You just have to do what works best for you. However you do it though, I think that paying attention to this process is something to really be careful and deliberate about.



  4. ben says:

    Good stuff Eric. Peter L. Philips goes into detail on this subject in 'Creating the Perfect Design Brief' as well. He makes a good point which is to consider the client as a partner rather than a client (he writes from the perspective of an internal design group which perhaps makes this easier but I think it's still a good stance to take when working with external clients). This reinforces the idea that you are there to help their business be more successful rather than just doing some pretty but non-functional designs and running off with a pay-cheque. It all contributes towards clients taking design more seriously and recognising the true benefits it can bring to their business.

  5. Zinni says:

    I agree 100% with what you have written, but as you say unfortunately ideas still get killed. One thing that I have found to be extremely helpful if a presentation starts to get way out of control is to review the project objectives over again and have the client tell how their comments would help meet those goals. This helps combat the "can we try it in green" or "maybe a more fun font would be better?" comments. I will actually write down all the comments and then we will relate them back to the objectives together this usually removes about 75% of the "suggestions"

  6. David Mullen says:

    VERY relevant post!

    I was talking to a few of our junior art directors and copywriters a couple months or so ago about their thoughts on taking a presentation skills workshop to help them get comfortable with creative presentations.

    One of them said something along the lines of "the work speaks for itself." I said, "Not if anyone's not looking or listening because you haven't captured them. A great idea is worthless if you can't sell it to the client." He saw the point and agreed.

    Since then, we've brought in an outside expert to hold seminars for any of our folks from any expertise area to attend and polish their preso skills.

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. kadavy says:

    LaurenMarie, I have some remote clients, and I like to present my solutions in the form of a multi-page PDF, PowerPoint presentation, or a Google Docs Presentation. I make a series of slides that briefly builds through the process, and present the solution on the final side. I find that if I just attach a JPEG and explain in the e-mail, the client will often just switch right to the JPEG and draw a hasty conclusion.

  8. Eric,
    Great advice. I think anyone who presents ideas--salespeople, speakers, etc.--could pull elements from this to improve their results. (I know I will!)

  9. Zinni says:

    I was reading over this article again and it made me wonder whether smashLAB presents 1 concept or numerous ones. I am trying to get our team to do more of this and the question of "should we still show 3 concepts or just our favorite?" has come up quite a bit.

  10. Hi Zinni,

    We used to present multiple concepts, but ultimately found that it wasn't very productive to do so. Instead, we generate many concepts in the studio, and then edit down the options to the one that solves the problem best.

    Some clients find this difficult. These people want multiple flavors to select from. Unfortunately, what instead tends to happen in such situations is a lack of focus.

    Since starting to present only one option, we've found that our projects run much more smoothly. In part, this is because we're all talking about the same thing, and not a collection of different possibilities.

    I highly encourage you to do the same. It has made a world of difference for us and our clients. :-)



  11. Zinni says:


    It is exactly the way I have been leaning, we did this with one client who was completely uneducated in process of working with a design agency and it turned out for the best. I also like the idea because it forces us to make a justified decision and really own it, I like accountability because it forces people into critical thinking...

  12. Pingback: » Design Processes & Why Every Designer Needs One :: Positive Space :: The Graphic Design Blog

  13. Pingback: » Tips Designers Must Use When Working with a Committee :: Positive Space Blog

  14. says:

    I’ve found that listing the clients’ objectives and then writing the solution(s) right next to the objectives works well. It’s clear for the client, but it also keeps my team on track while we’re brainstorming. If we don’t have a concise solution that can be easily explained, it’s back to the drawing board. And I agree that handing out visuals for clients to better understand what you're saying makes a lot of sense. This approach will work well for both visual learners and less-visual folks.

  15. Chris Ritke says:

    The 1st paragraph says it all. You could have left it at that. Perfect.

  16. Greg says:

    Look, I'm glad this was helpful to everyone. But I'm not sure I've come across a more generic, trite article. The title talks about rescuing ideas, but I'm getting 101 presentation tips for designers. Then again 'Everyone's a critic' right? Or in this case, amateurish advice. Seems like the idea of this sophomoric article needs rescuing.

  17. "Amateurish" and "sophomoric" all in one article! Wow... I really out-did myself this time! Typically I aim for one or the other.

    Sorry to disappoint Greg. For you, I suggest a big box of band-aids. Better?

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