One question we get from new clients while drafting industrial design proposals is how many concepts they’ll be reviewing in the early phases of a project. Every client and every project challenge is different, but more often than not we agree on an expectation of between four and six concepts for the first phase of design exploration.
Proposed effort and cost play into this decision, but the number of well-considered concepts we deliver is linked to more than that. Fewer than four, and you’re probably not exploring the full range of possible outcomes; more than six, and your client may be prone to make a poor selection—and end up with a failed product. This conclusion is backed up not just by our own experience over hundreds of projects, but by a healthy dose of cognitive research into the way people make decisions. More on that research later.
There are exceptions to the four-to-six-concepts pattern, of course. Some clients are looking to generate a large number of design concepts (think 20 to 30) early on. These tend to be the more design-savvy clients with strong in-house creative teams who hire us to bring a fresh, external perspective to a problem. Here we’re comfortable delivering a high number of often rawer concepts, knowing that the client has the experience and resources to filter that many concepts themselves.
The other exception is when functional and aesthetic concepts are explored in parallel during a design phase. Different technologies can stimulate widely varying configurations; different user interface control options can create numerous ergonomic layouts. Combine these with aesthetic variants, and concepts quickly multiply into the double digits. We find that focusing on functional, ergonomic and interaction preferences first, followed by visual exploration second, keeps the number of concepts manageable. This also helps by staging the decision process for the client.
In the retail world, the “paradox of choice” is something we’ve known about for years. Famously described by Barry Schwartz in his book (and TED talk) of the same name, the paradox explains the paralysis that grips us when we try to pick one ice cream flavor out of an available 32, and why we’re often more satisfied after choosing a shirt from four options rather than 40.
The reasons are surprisingly straightforward: Having more options over-inflates expectations, gives more cause to doubt the outcome and increases the mental work needed to come to a conclusion.
This principle works the same way in an industrial design concept review, where choice paralysis can be equally disastrous. The client who demands 20 or more concepts is likely to have a heightened expectation that more must be better even before they’ve seen the first concept. Schwartz described how higher expectations often lead to a higher chance of disappointment (even if there are good options buried in those 20 to 30 concepts).
Besides having to spend more time simply learning about all of the possible design directions, the client’s choice is burdened by high stakes (significant production costs can ride on the outcome) and a reduced level of differentiation between the options. When people are faced with too many options, Schwartz found that they will begin to consider hypothetical trade-offs. Psychologically, these become framed as missed opportunities rather than potential rewards, and the resulting negative emotion affects the level of satisfaction we experience from the decision. More often than not, the review ends with a confused compromise on a not-as-good alternative, leaving the best concept on the wall.
The client who demands 20 or more concepts is likely to have a heightened expectation that more must be better even before they’ve seen the first concept.
By contrast, a concept review limited to four to six options lets each one stand boldly apart, so time need not be spent teasing out the subtleties between them. It also allows them to be directly compared in a way that makes it more likely you’re picking the concept that can be measured against the original goals and objectives of the project.
This is largely because of a cognitive mechanism known as Miller’s Law, which states that most human brains are incapable of keeping more than seven or so unique ideas in immediate consciousness at once—fewer if the ideas are complex. Miller’s Law is why PowerPoint slides tend to top out at five or six bullet points, and why it’s easier to remember a phone number than a credit card number.
It’s possible to evaluate more than seven items, of course, but only by “chunking” the options into subcategories, and winnowing them down through abstract comparison. This works OK when choosing salad dressing (eliminate all but the bleu cheese options), but when designing a product it often leads clients to elevate certain concepts because they fit the right criteria, not because they’ll actually work better.
When a review team is faced with dozens of options, their first instinct is to narrow them down. False processes of elimination ensue. The team might cling to an abstract quality like “rugged,” “professional” or “Apple-like” (always a favorite) and eliminate options that don’t adhere to it, even if those options are ultimately more appropriate to the audience and the brand. It’s much easier to make deeper, and ultimately better, assessments when the options are limited to a more palatable handful.
When a review team is faced with dozens of options, their first instinct is to narrow them down. False processes of elimination ensue. The team might cling to an abstract quality like “rugged,” “professional” or “Apple-like” (always a favorite).
In all these scenarios, let creativity take its course and generate a plethora of rough ideas for internal consideration. For the client, filter them down to a digestible number that clearly stand apart and that can be measured against the original goals of the project. Or, to paraphrase Einstein, make your design reviews as simple as possible, but never simpler.
I’m interested to hear if other designers have found a sweet spot with the four-to-six concepts approach.
Note: Bresslergroup advertises through Core77’s Design Directory. This essay was independently evaluated by Core77’s editorial team.
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Hi Andreas, thanks for the feedback. So you mention striving towards one final concept but how many "sketches, ideas and mockups" can your clients typically digest in the "very beginning"?
This is what we put on our website: "No overload of possible concepts from which you have to choose yourself, but a solid design strategy, thorough research, powerful design tools, high-quality industrial design, tested functional models and a 'look-in-the-kitchen' session in which we make choices as equal partners. "
So we involve our partners in the very beginning, showing them around in our kitchen, with many sketches, idea's and mockups on the walls, explaining what works, what does not work design wise or functionally, leading them towards one best concept that we develop further. And that works very well.
Design proposals are part of an on-going dialogue with the client. There might be more than one concept in each but I always used the model of minimal cost/change, maximum change and one or two options in between. This always gave the client an idea of what bang they could expect for their buck!
Hi Gavin, so what minimum number of concepts is your typical starting point with a client to ensure that a project is being sufficiently being explored?
Nice, Chris, thanks for sharing!
Thanks Karl - I appreciate the feedback
Good article. I agree with you 100%. I explain to my clients that a I will select four or five concepts out of a large design study...and then present six solutions. It helps to over deliver by one!
When I worked with W Dorwin Teague, we would only present one "best" solution to the client, and it worked most of the time but I felt the client should have a choice of the "best" ideas.
Thanks Gary (it's been a long time) - I've always wondered about the "present only your best concept" mantra - is it more myth than reality? I've always believed that multiple concepts (but not too many....) create essential dialogue with the client.
Hi Jonathon, thanks for the feedback & good to hear your similar experience.
I agree very much with this (with a strong article to back it up). I recently presented 6 concepts to my client more than that and it would have been too much. The 6 concepts provided enough variety and talking points to help form a stronger opinion about the correct strategy moving forward.