Recently I got in touch with three designers I greatly respect; not only for their quality of work, but also for the constant stream of educational and inspirational resources they offer through their blogs and other curated sites.
What follows is my inquiry and each of their appreciated answers. I trust this proves helpful for you, the readers.
(Feel free to click each designer’s name to check out their respective design blogs. And, to note briefly: all the text below Graham’s name, down to the horizontal line, is his response.)
I’d like to gather each of your opinions on a subject that designers and artists across the board doubtless struggle with: the issue of “knowing when to quit.” That is, knowing when a design is completed—when the brush stroke is the last one to connect with the canvas. I’m not referring to when the client pronounces a project “done”, but how and when you decide within yourselves that there’s nothing more that can be done for the design you’re working on.
I’m thinking your answers could help others prevent wasted time—i.e. designers “over-designing”, spending time working on things that really can’t or shouldn’t be added to. I think a lot about how some designs seem to take decades, while others seem to take shape within a few seconds; so your responses will be very interesting for me as well. Ideation is a very interesting science.
Saul Bass said about the “instantaneous idea”,
Sometimes when an idea flashes, you distrust it because it seems too easy. You qualify it with all kinds of evasive phrases because you’re timid about it. But often, this turns out to be the best idea of all.
Regarding “knowing when to quit” when it comes to designing, this more often than not comes down to deadlines. Sure we could work on more variations, perfect a stroke or even explore totally new directions as there are thousands of possible solutions for any given problem, but in the end you must present something before the deadline. Due to this fact, we have to be our own curator and present the solutions that we believe best solve the problem at hand, and in the given time frame. To answer your question bluntly, it’s over when you’re done.
I’m happy with an idea when I’ve been able to rule out every alternative that comes to mind. The strongest idea might well be the first on the table, but I won’t know for sure until I’ve evaluated the others — there are always others.
Referring to Saul Bass’ quote: I’m a firm believer in the value of that first logo idea, or more accurately, that first general direction that you sketch or write down is, more often than not, the idea that ends up being the one selected.
A fair number of my logo projects are based around that first idea/direction to be explored. I won’t necessarily tell the client this fact, as it can negatively influence their decision. But often than not, trusting your gut can lead to a more productive and fruitful project allowing time to explore subtle different variations of this idea, or simply having time to polish and refine it.
A lot of how that first idea might come to you is down to how you assimilate, and understand, the information from the client. If you don’t ask the right questions, then you’re unlikely to have the level of understanding and appreciation of the personality and visual identity that is most suitable for the clients’ needs.
Let’s be clear: what is suitable for the clients’ needs is often not the same as what is suitable for the clients’ personal taste, and therein lies the most challenging part of presenting, and justifying, that one idea to the client.
It’s important that the client understands that they are selecting a logo and identity for the, let’s say business, and its customers, rather than for them personally. If they love the idea on a personal level, then grande. If they can appreciate and accept the idea is good for the business, but might not be liked on a personal level, then even better.
The worse time sinker is battling with a client that refuses to accept a solid idea purely based on their personal subjective views, and are unable to differentiate this between what is right for the business. An exception to this is when you are creating a more personal brand, or something that literally is a personal reflection of the business owner.
‘Knowing when to quit with a client’
‘Knowing when to quit’ is, I have found not always as easy as it should be when there are somewhat stubborn/untrusting clients involved.
If you are fortunate enough to be working with a client who completely trusts in you, then it’s often easier to stop looking or searching for more ideas, and/or to stop tinkering and polishing the approved idea/direction.
When you are literally battling the stubborn will of a client, then it’s almost never going to be ‘the end’.
‘Knowing when to quit with yourself’
I think it would be relatively safe to say that many creatives are perfectionists, and as such it’s an ongoing challenge to know when to draw the line. Knowing when to end is one thing, but finding that will to put the ‘pen’ down, and have the courage of ones conviction to say, “there, that’s done”, is often incredibly hard to do.
When I first started out as a freelance logo designer, it was almost impossible to stop myself wasting away hours and days doing the most tinniest of tweaks and changes. But as my confidence in my work grew, and also the realisation that on a business level, wasting any amount of time what so over is not a sustainable business model.
‘Knowing when to quit’ does require an internal dialogue with oneself, constantly asking oneself if the design is good-to-go right now, or if spending a few more hours is without shadow of a doubt going to end in a ‘better’ end result.
One of the best motivators in bringing the project to a natural conclusion is having a client imposed deadline. Even if they say there isn’t one, ask them to make one up, and then ensure you keep to that as much as possible.
If you don’t have a deadline, and you don’t have any other client work booked in, then the danger of falling into the ‘just one more tweak’ loop is high.
I also found that I’m most likely to go slip into ‘perfectionist mode’ when I feel tired, burnt out and looking for ways to feel busy, also commonly known as ‘procrastination’.
Having a schedule, and meaningful tasks to take-up once the project is wrapped up, is so important in beating ‘not knowing when to quit’, and having a trusting and respectful client.
Jacob, David, Graham, thanks so much for taking the time to provide these responses.