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The Right Answer

A Fortune 100 company wants to rebrand. David Weinberger, Armin Vit, Tan Le, and Bradley Gutting all put together their own separate graphic design dream teams and go at it. No budget limits, no schedule, Dual 2GHz G5s out the a**. Creative freedom. For some reason, we all come up with different solutions. The Weinberger team, a wordmark. Bradley, an abstract symbol. Tan, a literal symbol. Armin, no change recommended. In four parallel universes, they are all successful. How does this happen? We all had the same creative brief. We all had the same hard facts. Loss of market share. Low symbol recognition. High name recognition. New CEO. Shouldn’t there be one and only one right answer? Isn’t there one and only one right answer?

Doesn’t it depend on who leads the project? The ego, the education, the aesthetic, the mood, the agenda. I want it big, he wants it small. Both look good. We both can convince the client we’re right. My voice is deeper. Her hair is grayer. He has an accent. Mrs. So and So wrote a self-published book. I know I’m a better designer than that designer over there. No designer from Chicago is gonna tell me what looks good.

Look at financial services. There are abstract symbols (Chase), wordmarks (Schwab), literal symbols, (Merrill Lynch), brandmarks (Goldman Sachs). Serifs, Sans Serifs, Blue, Green, Black, Red. There is no right answer. Anything can work.

When directing someone else, do you find yourself saying, “no, it has to be this way.” Or do you say, “That’s not what I would do�good job.” Is there a right answer? Who decides? The designer? The creative director? The non-designer president of the company? Can there be two right answers? Five? Ten?

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PUBLISHED ON Dec.08.2003 BY David Weinberger
ps’s comment is:

seems to me it goes beyond the visual. its more about how they position themselves. how they differentiate themselves as a whole and not about if its wordmark or an abstract symbol only. show me the whole picture... you might actually find similarities between all of them. at least if they all got the same information through research.


On Dec.08.2003 at 10:15 AM
ps’s comment is:

to follow up on my previous post: yes there can be more than one right answer. however, some of them might be more efficient than others.

On Dec.08.2003 at 10:18 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Yes. There's one right answer, and it's mine.

Just kidding. This thread made me chuckle David. It's a good response/continuation of the previous discussions of You-Know-What.

As the (morbid) saying goes -- there's more than one way to skin a cat. So are there a thousand good solutions to any design problem? A hundred? Ten? Or one?

I'm stepping into a series of meetings starting in about 5 minutes -- but I will join the melee when I get a chance.

On Dec.08.2003 at 10:34 AM
TheDon’s comment is:

Think about who you are trying to design for. If you design for the CEO or board of directors you'll end up having a brand that sells the company to them. That's useless.

If you build a brand towards the target audience the CEO-types will ultimately be pleased with the ROI. If they can't follow along until that return then they didn't trust the designers ability from the get-go.

Bottom line: variations of a brand solution will occur when dealing with different creative forces but ultimately if they are designed with talent, know-how and geared with the proper research and understanding of the market and audience, you will have a solid brand.

On a similar note; for me, there is one thing I really can't abide by: Backseat designers. Any client that cannot trust my ability and tries to guide the project the way they think it should be are not clients I will deal with again. I appreciate suggestions and am open minded but I expect that I'm hired because I know what I'm doing.

On Dec.08.2003 at 10:43 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> Armin, no change recommended.

Oh piss-off Weinberger.

There is obviously more than one solution to a problem and, obviously as well, there are solutions that are better than others. But it's impossible to measure because it relies on what ifs and should haves. Just to fire back at you David, I am sure there was a better solution for UPS but now we will never know if it was actually better or worse.

> When directing someone else, do you find yourself saying, "no, it has to be this way."

Everybody has different understandings of what good is. We try to push our clients into what we think is the best possible solution. It is actually great that each designer/design firm/ad agency/whatever has different ways of approaching things because it allows for diversified solutions. Whether I agree with the way they do it is another, more subjective issue altogether. But it's definitely good for our profession that there are so many people taking so many different approaches.

On Dec.08.2003 at 10:52 AM
David W’s comment is:

Armin and Tan, I wasn't referencing UPS so much as I was asking about internal decision making processes. Maybe it's about empowerment. Internally, who decides what's right? I once had a creative director say to me, "You have certain intuitive feelings about this design because you created it. If anyone else really understood it, they would have created it. You do what you think is right." I have also known creative directors who would demand changes of say Pantone 137 to 1375 because that was "right".

On Dec.08.2003 at 11:35 AM
Brian Warren’s comment is:

Look at it like a chess game - there are billions of different ways a chess game can go. Design is much like that. Are there 10 different solutions? 100? I'd suggest thousands or millions. Some better than others.

There are billions of ways for Black to win in a chess game. By opening with his king pawn, Black is eliminating billions of ways it could happen. It's like life - maybe you choose to shave (your face/legs?) today, maybe you dont. Maybe that affects how you design that day. Maybe that changes whether or not you got in a car accident on the way to work.

I dont think life is all dependent on chance. Quite the opposite actually. But in this realm, design is pretty stinkin' subjective.

On Dec.08.2003 at 11:53 AM
marian’s comment is:

I think there are an infinite number of "right" solutions, and which right solution gets chosen depends largely on the personalities involved. This is where selling and people-skills becomes all-important. Whoever has the best rationale and the best rapport with e.g. the CEO is the one most likely to "win"--unless of course their product (logo) is actually crap.

When I'm directing someone else, I tell them what strengths I see in their design, where I think it could be improved, and I always ask them why they did what they did. Once I know that I might say "Have you thought of [exploring this idea]?" They are either receptive to my comments or not. Often I find they're resistant at first, but when I go back later they say "You know I tried that, and look!" If they say, "No, it has to be this way because of this," or some other variant of "piss off," I leave them to it, provided they can articulate their reasoning, because those are the tools that will be needed in the boardroom.

On Dec.08.2003 at 11:56 AM
marian’s comment is:

Hmmm. Armin did you just censor yourself?

On Dec.08.2003 at 11:57 AM
David W’s comment is:

I took it out with part of my last post. Unnecessary taunting. 15 yd penalty.

On Dec.08.2003 at 12:05 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

I'm only a little offended that I wasn't invited to be part of this theoretical design competition. ;-)

Seriously, though...

We're humans. That's what makes it interesting. If a CEO could pull up the IdentifyMe4000�, insert his credit card and get a new logo spit out, he'd do it. But humans have ideas, not computers. And, since we're all different, our ideas and solutions will always differ.

I agree with the others that there is never only one solution to a design problem, especially when you factor in aesthetics and personality. But, there is only one preferred result, and that is what's most important. It's a little of the ends vs. means. If the right result is achieved (i.e. increased market share, greater sales, better recognition) then the means must be correct.

On Dec.08.2003 at 12:15 PM
Armin’s comment is:

I was wondering the same thing Marian, for a moment there I thought I might have hit cancel. Anyway, good call David. And I ain't pissed at you of course, just friendly taunting.

> internal decision making processes. Maybe it's about empowerment. Internally, who decides what's right?

If you work in a big firm and work under the direction of creative directors it can be a nightmare. Trying to please their "vision" can sometimes be next to impossible for little pissy things like what you mentioned David, about one PMS being the only right one. There are the exceptions where you get to work with great CD's but the majority of the time is about satisfying their egos. Which is not a bad thing if they have the right idea and vision and can lead it with decency.

If you are indeed working under someone's direction just make sure that you explain your idea well (salesmanship, as mentioned above) and have confidence in your abilities. If the work is good and the CD knows what good work is you should have no problem in getting your idea through to the next level.

If you work for yourself, kick-ass! You don't have to worry about internal cat-fights and competitions.

On Dec.08.2003 at 12:52 PM
Tom’s comment is:

Just because there are different possibilities for solutions does that mean they are all equal in results. Sure some can be close in quality, and the "best" solution may not always be the chosen one because of power plays and egos or any number of reasons.

How can we as a profession claim that we add value; that we, through intelligent thought processes and experience can provide what our clients really need. Do we recommend our competitors to potential clients for something we can do just as well if not better, because it's all subjective?

If design does not have the potential to solve a problem fully and completely(meaning the best that it can be) then why do we even try? The attempt to a solution can be subjective, but out of four attempts, one has got to be more "right".

There will always be a solution that is better than all the rest.

On Dec.08.2003 at 01:12 PM
Paul’s comment is:

As a related tangent: has anyone here ever sold a design that was "right" for its intended audience when the client(s) did not themselves find it appealling? An example would be a company marketing a product to teen girls but made up of sixty-something men.

The issue of a theoretical best solution makes me wonder about this, since whomever is doing the judging will obviously have a different version of what solution is the best. All parties are being asked to imagine the audience's POV, and it is the designer's responsibility to imagine it with the greatest accuracy.

On Dec.08.2003 at 02:12 PM
Brady’s comment is:


First... Great post.

I feel like your questions are specifically concerning outward esthetics and their relation to our personal tastes. But what I believe in is this: if we as professionals - along with our clients - take a passionate, critical role in our work — how can the result be truly wrong?

While we - as graphic designers - may collectively be illustrators, brand strategists, typographers, art directors and so on, we are ultimately paid for our opinions. (Yet, here on SU, I as well as everyone else have yet to see a dime.)

This creates a wonderful conundrum - there is no single right answer, but does that mean there are wrong answers?

What’s important is that we ensure our opinions are based on intuition from education (not necessarily formal), experience and passionate, deep research. The research I speak of does not mean focus testing an idea until there is no intuition, gut, intellect and a sense of discovery and we are left with homogenous pabulum that speaks to the lowest common denominator. The research I speak of involves becoming ingrained in the client’s business in such a way that its corporate culture, processes, history, competitive attributes and etc. become the world you live and breath in for the not only the life of the project, but beyond the delivery date.

This of course may not bring forth the single right answer. Unfortunately, it may even bring a �wrong’ answer. Wrong in the sense that it did not work. It did not raise sales; it did not make people aware; it did not change people’s opinions. While these problems may result not from our work, rather from it’s subsequent application through marketing, public relations and advertising that may be off brand. This situation does not exclude us because our work is part and parcel to the success of any brand and therefore we should be diligent in helping our clients understand the pitfalls of inconsistent follow through. . Just the same, we should never claim that our new package design or trademark is the reason why a product saw a surge in sales.

The logo is not the brand - there are always other players involved.

Even though I thought the old UPS trademark was quaint and approachable, why did I not use them? Do I choose not use UPS now because I think their new trademark is sterile, banal and expected? Did Mr. Rand not do enough to draw me to the big brown machine? Did Mr. Weinberger ensure that I would never use UPS? No, I choose not to use UPS because there are huge flaws in their in their processes, procedures and customer relations that keep me using FedEx. And no new-fangled trademark, tagline or clever NASCAR market advertising is going to change my mind about that.

Again, if we as professionals - along with our clients - take a passionate, critical role in our work — how can the result be truly wrong?

I believe that the new Hershey’s wrap is wrong because I believe it does nothing to elevate the brand and may actually be detrimental. But is it truly wrong?

That's the beauty of opinions. You have them, disseminate them and people — colleagues and clients — may or may not take stock in them.

And, finally David, as for directing someone, I don’t say, “no, it has to be this way.” I never claim to have the answers — only what are ideas based on what I spoke of previously. I do challenge and demand to be challenged in order to take numerous ideas to what we believe is the best idea.

Hopefully it is the right answer.

On Dec.08.2003 at 02:36 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

This is always so damn difficult, but, its one of those extraordinarily relevant conversations that's kinda hard to have.

When developing things internally, I think its anti-creative for someone to say "I know what the solution is" before anything has been designed or written--I've had creative directors in the past that have been so directive that you end up doing what they want done, rather than what might work best. Sometimes this is because there's a certain style used by the firm, other times its something else--ego or whatever, and they want one or both filled.

The definition of creativity is doing something that hasn't been done before--and if you create a shell from the outset and then expect your designers to fill it just so, well...that's pretty limiting. You don't know what the best thing is until its done; if you're so unimaginative to consider only what you yourself have already imagined, then you probably aren't landing on the most effective solution. A lot can happen in the process of exploring and creating, but you won't discover much by staying on a single road.

As far as presenting to the client, I do believe in the one-solution approach, for several reasons. Fundamentally, I believe that there is a "best" and a "not as good." It's a black-and-white approach, but the alternative is giving your client a big gray area where even though they approached you to make the decision, they end up making it even though they have no expertise on the subject. We're professionals, we should know what we're talking about--other professionals, be they lawyers, accountants, or management consultants (who are frequently more loosey-goosey than designers) give one solution. The best one. Also, if you come up with three concepts in the initial stages, one of them is going to be better than the other two so its a waste of time and resources to spend energy developing two that you know to be weaker. Of course, I have seen instances where a designer presents multiple options to a client and they end up getting more business because the client wants to use his "second choice" or whatever for another piece. The single-solution approach is, because of the context we operate in, a tough way to do business and I've seen people suffer horribly for it. Not every client wants that sort of mentality from their designers.

I suppose this deviates from what David is talking about, though I wanted to mention it anyway. So back to the topic at hand, I believe that you can't create anything that creative if you box it in from the get-go, and you can only pass yes/no judgments on something that already exists. Constant analysis and evaluation of every little move or step forward in the early stages rapidly confines and restricts what something could have been.

This is a good conversation to have, because if you don't talk about it, you end up in that dreaded area where you do things simply because that's how someone "wants" them, or because "they've always been that way." Neither of which lead to the most engaging, dynamic, memorable works.

On Dec.08.2003 at 05:51 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

Bradley, I'm torn over this single-solution issue. You are absolutely correct that many times we create several options, but only one of them is truly great (if we're that lucky!). I feel presumptious, though, to suggest to the client that I know, for a fact, that "this" is the right, true, and only answer to their problem. Why? Because of all the issues we've talked about: aesthetics, ego, personality. Despite explaining how each piece works strategically to support their goals, they may still hate the color, or the form, or the typeface and be unable to get past that. So I think it behooves us to play that game with them. Offer them up several designs, then lead them where you want them to go. By showing 3 designs, you strike a balance between what will work and what they will accept. In the end, I've done my job by showing them what I think is the right answer, and they have every right not to go there. To use your examples of lawyers and accountants, their clients have every right to reject their legal or tax-sheltering strategy. You can lead a horse to water, as they say. (And, of course, I have every right to look for different horses.)

To show my desire to grow, I'll give it a shot. Here is my goal, my pre-new year's resolution if you will. I'm going to find one client next year, and attempt this. I will tell them, upfront, that I will show them the right answer. If I find that two designs could each do the job, albeit in different ways, then I'll show both. If not, then they get "my final answer." I'll tell you all this scares the crap out of me, but I'm game to see if it works.

On Dec.08.2003 at 06:15 PM
Lucien’s comment is:

I think there can be more then one answer, especially when there is more then one team working on the project. When we arrive at the final design it is our own creation. If some othe group completely separate arrives at a final design, in no way will it be the same. Simply because people's minds are different. No matter if education, experience is the same. Minds are different. "Doesn't it depend on who leads the project? The ego, the education, the aesthetic, the mood, the agenda. " I think this is absolutley true. Thats why there can be more then one right answer.

but no matter what there will always be only one right answer in design. Thats the answer the client chooses. If they don't like it .. then its wrong. So if four teams design, they all get looked at . they all may be correct to the designer, but only one will be correct for the client.

On Dec.08.2003 at 06:51 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

I'll tell you all this scares the crap out of me, but I'm game to see if it works.

Hell, dude, I understand the risk involved with that--it's really never a comfortable thing to do, because, quite simply, you won't hit a homerun everytime. Who can? I remember M. Kingsley saying one time that his "best ideas only come rarely," and I really agree with that. So thus, yes, absolutely, its a tougher proposition to give just ONE solution.

If I was in a position to do this, I would--but even if I'm not told to create more than one solution, at least two other teams in the office are given the same missive and the client sees all of them. And its not the worst thing in the world to present a few options and then lead your clients to the best one; you could always hedge your bets and "show your thinking," and show other designs but make it clear that they're not options. I think its probably best just to go one way or the other, make a decision and stick with it: either go with one, or go with several.

There's an agency here in St. Louis that gives just one solution to every client, but, before they creat anything they develop a strategy for their client and forge an agreement on it--thus making it a bit easier to justify the one answer approach. I like that.

Internally, one thing I've been seeing a bit more of is a competitive then collaborative process--separate teams, or sometimes individuals, work on a project, chasing down the same strategy but in different directions. Then they all look at what's been done, agree on what works best, and everyone can contribute ideas that will improve it. It's interesting and takes unusually good chemistry to function properly and effectively, but when the mix is right it can be pretty powerful. There's an aura of constantly building and exploring, making the ideas and messages as sharp as possible. It also takes a good, open-minded creative director who hasn't made up his/her mind before the process has started--if everyone's running around looking for what the CD wants, its pointless.

On Dec.08.2003 at 10:12 PM
Tan’s comment is:

ve time to get back to this thread -- it's a good one.


First, I'll have to say that I believe that there is only one best solution for any design problem. There are many acceptable solutions, but there is always one that is the most right.

Here's where I get a little Zen.

Design is part intellectual, part intuitive, part serendipity. Strategies, creative briefs, facts and focus groups will only take you so far -- just to the point of functionality and justified reasoning. But a good logo design -- a right logo design -- is more than reason. It is more than just the sum of its functions and billing value.

You hear designers talk about it all the time -- that moment when something "just feels right," or when it "glows," or when "It just couldn't be any other way." That's the one right answer.

Now, this moment of right doesn't always happen -- in fact, it rarely happens. But you have to have faith that the one best solution exists. And it's easier to know when something is not right, then how to make it right. It's unreasonable -- but that's design.

Ric Valicenti once spoke of design as "the search for right" -- to me, this is a part of that. It's about not losing faith in the search for that one right design solution.

Designers are trained -- and gifted -- with the ability to create and ascertain that right solution. It's our responsibility to lead and guide our clients to that point, not to follow and always acquiesce to business reasoning and bottom lines. Remember why clients hired you in the first place. Don't sell yourself short.

On Dec.12.2003 at 11:34 PM
Jonathan Gouthier’s comment is:

There is usually one right answer or many acceptable answers as Tan puts it. However clients do not understand what designers do eventhough we are educated. So to really answer this question one has to go back to education factor of the client and we have not even touched the surface of educating the client. Until we have done this part can we in fact say to our clients, this IS the answer and the only answer.

On Dec.15.2003 at 12:04 PM
Scott Banks’s comment is:

There actually is no right answer. We look for the best answer given the environment.

On Dec.15.2003 at 02:55 PM
marian’s comment is:

From infinity to one to none.

Is there no right answer to this question?

On Dec.15.2003 at 05:46 PM
joy olivia’s comment is:

A great layout requires a graphic designer in pursuit of a great idea. Graphic design solutions should supplement the messaging. It’s hard for me to imagine that things can be simplified into groupings of black and white (with a smattering of gray — read: “acceptable”).

It is when designers feel unrestrained enough to explore the gray areas and try out different layout solutions that style reveals itself. For me, approaching new projects with a mindset that there will only be one right design solution is a bit too inhibiting.

On Dec.16.2003 at 10:29 AM
joy olivia’s comment is:

Great thread, David. And great posts everyone. I suppose I should have started my last post with this, but I've really found all of the comments to be quite interesting. It's cool to see fellow designers' prospectives.

On Dec.16.2003 at 10:39 AM
joy olivia’s comment is:

I meant perspectives. Sorry about that. Now I'm trashing up your thread, David. Sorry.

On Dec.16.2003 at 10:39 AM
David W’s comment is:

Three posts in a row. That may be a record.

On Dec.16.2003 at 10:48 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Design Maven had six in a row once� they were all the same to the naked eye, but each had its own nuances that made them each unique.

On Dec.16.2003 at 11:28 AM