When Clients Ask to Spitball

03.01.2010 / Author: Steve Zelle

It is essential that clients are involved in the creative process. I do a lot to encourage involvement as it increases the client’s investment and trust in the process. I do have my limits, though, and brainstorming with clients is definitely one of them.

As an identity designer for twenty years, I can quickly evaluate ideas. Experience allows me to imagine what a rough idea may look like once refined, to imagine its use for different mediums, the issues it may encounter, and to know if I have seen something similar before. I am quick at doing this, but no way quick enough to do it while a client is sitting across the table from me. I fear that a really bad idea will come out of my mouth before I have the chance to edit it. Worse than the bad idea coming out is the thought of a client jumping on it and hanging on for dear life.

I don’t spend time thinking about ideas until I have gathered information and reviewed it, asked more questions, done more research, fleshed out a creative brief and direction, and created a mind map and a vocabulary for the project. Even at that point I don’t think brainstorming works for logo design. For me, logo design is an exercise in minimalism, balance, and abstract forms. It is something that doesn’t lend itself to discussion but rather to exploration and experimentation on paper by one individual or a number of designers working individually and then coming together.

I believe clients risk damaging the value of the final deliverable by being involved in the early visual stages of logo design. I recommend that instead of focusing on ideas, they influence the design through information. The time they spend providing information is much more valuable than time spent throwing around ideas with me.

Perhaps brainstorming with a client works for other designers and for other forms of graphic design. Does it ever work for logo design?

Steve Zelle is a logo designer and consultant with over twenty years’ experience working with clients. Based in Ottawa, Canada, he operates as idApostle and is the founder of Processed Identity. You can reach him through his website or on Twitter.

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8 comments, please join in the discussion

  1. 03.02.2010

    This depends to a great degree on the client, your relationship with them and the project itself.

    Brainstorming of any sort can be useful if it has a clear purpose which is understood by all parties.

    In my experience where it goes wrong is when it is used to solve ‘the problem’ when the problem is not yet defined, or not defined well enough.

    In answer to the ‘is there value’ question. Yes, I think there can be. Not only can the client be more engaged and involved in (and potentially more supportive and understanding of) the project, but you can gain from the client’s specific knowledge of their market and their experience and head off bad or ill-informed choices (yours or your client’s) along the way. Always keep clear goals and parameters in mind (and in the agenda) though.

  2. 03.02.2010

    Thanks Alex, great to hear from someone that has success with it. To be clear in my approach, I do welcome sitting with a client and discussing any part of the project — with the exception of specific logo ideas in a brainstorming session. How do you go about discussing concepts with a client? Do you keep it to a verbal discussion or do you sketch ideas on paper with them? Would love to hear more from you.

  3. 03.02.2010

    I’ve never had success sketching logo ideas in front of/with a client for one of the key reasons you mention in your original post: – I’m always worried that what I sketch will be unworkable or just not as good as something I take time to think over and work through and yet will be seized upon by the client. More often than not these worries have turned out to be all too accurate.

    I have had real success sketching onto existing mock-ups and have taken to printing out multiple spare copies of logo concepts which I bring along to client meetings and keep in my bag for just such an occasion. It’s a great way of showing a client how something would look if elements were more pronounced or subtly changed (and, on occasion, for backing up your reasoning behind certain choices if the conversation goes that way).

    In terms of talking over concepts I’m really keen to try Seven25’s approach of presenting tightly sketched concepts to clients (https://processedidentity.com/study/study-03/ ) rather than computer-rendered clean versions. I can see no end of benefits to doing so, and it strikes me as the best of both worlds. You get the time to consider and refine your concepts and the client doesn’t feel like she or he’s having a finished product pushed at them which they are required to like or dislike.

  4. 03.02.2010

    Alex, thanks for the additional insight. I agree, the Seven25. sketches are a great example of finding new ways to better serve clients by sharing our processes.

  5. m@

    agree w/alex — I think this depends heavily on the client + your relationship + the project. In my experience, the common denominator to a ‘successful’ outcome is willingness to let the creative drive the creative. Easier said than done. I know we’ve all been there.

    In my opinion, the biggest hurdle comes when the client sees the project as their opportunity to ‘be creative’ and influence the visual direction vs. the information & research behind the visual direction.

    You have to have a careful balance of involvement, again, depending on the three criteria mentioned above.

  6. 03.06.2010


    Completely agree that the focus of the client should be on the information & research behind the visual direction. I would like to hear how other designers go about ensuring this occurs with clients that want to co-design?

    • andrea cutler

      I might doodle ideas during the client brief meeting, some clients do have invaluable ideas about direction, and that might spark some initial concept. I do agree is is a slippery slope to offer design direction too soon, however it can happen that the solution – the right solution does come right away. So if the creative juices are flowing and I trust the client will let me go to the drawing board and flesh it out I might share some initial thoughts, but carefully.

      I think brainstorming with the righ client can yeild a meeting of the minds, they may know what they want but are unable to execute the direction themselves. Other times the effort requires my political expertise and client management charms. A little tactful presentation of ideas – “yours” “mine” and “ours” to find the right balance. At the end of the day you want to solve a problem, be clever, creative and have a great portfolio piece – but you want the client to be happy too, hopefully not at the expense of the design though.

  7. 03.12.2010

    Great discussion. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where there was an opportunity for sketching in front of the client. If there was, I think I would probably turn it down. The sketches we show clients in the first iteration of an identity are edited down to—usually—2 or 3 threads or conceptual directions. This way if the form does not hit the mark entirely in the client’s opinion we still have an entry point to begin the discussion.

    I did have one instance however where, whilst presenting to a committee, one of the members asked to go back to one of the loose sketches rather than considering one of the 3 proposed directions. A little harrowing when it happens.