Be a Better Designer 5: Left/Middle/Right Rule

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Any good designer worth his salt is not only about to creating evocative and beautiful designs but is also a good communicator. There is no point in a designer creating these fantastic and unique designs if he/she is not able to communicate its intent or concept to see if it satisfies the client or boss’s requirements.
A lot of designers think successful communication is about selling your design well. The ability to sell ice to Eskimos eh? But how do you avoid being that so-so designer that some how is able to get with away with hawking off his crap designs?
What many designers don’t know is that the process of communicating a design to a client also boils down to, not how your present, but what you present. The trick of getting it right is at the beginning during the concept presentation phase. This works with many “clients”, people such as bosses, engineers, marketing managers, and even your design lecturer!
The concept phase is not just about showing off sketches or your best designs, you need to be consciously and actively aware that you are communicating your design solution to your client. Its not about hoping you hit the mark with your design or if your client picks your idea. Its about knowing if your concepts are going in the right direction and fulfilling the brief or solving the problem set out. In other words, you are using the concepts to pick the client’s mind, and helping you find the design that is the right solution to the problem.
To understand this more lets delve a little deeper into the design process.
Design is a reiterative process that strives to turn something intangible and subjective like a client’s brief, consumer problem, or concept into a reality. Thus its extremely difficult to get it right on the first sketch or by only showing one design. But by doing so you only sell yourself short as you will ultimately feel you have miss out something. So do you now know why people always tell you to develop and refine your designs?
Really at the end of the day, no matter what you do, detailed brief, extensive consumer research, the best designed forms, no one really knows what design is going to work except the person that approves the design. Unless you are that person, its pretty difficult knowing what that person wants!
Thus whenever I present concepts, I always adopt what I humbly call the Left/Middle/Right rule. Similar to the left/right wing concept in politics, I always present during the concept phase the most radical concept, a conservative concept that I know will be selected, and a concept that is the middle ground some where in between the both. By showing my concepts in this way I can get an accurate idea on how far a client is willing to go with his brand, budget, time and even need for design.
By showing the radical design you have also showed the client that you pushed the design to the extreme end and came back. This is a great and subtle way to tell your client that you took the effort to develop the design as far as possible. This also is a way for the client to see that the grass is not always greener. I often find if you don’t show a radical concept, I always sense the client wanting more either because of curiosity or just plan getting more bang for the buck. At the other end of the spectrum, by showing the client the conservative concept you actually cover your behind. Many clients, despite what they tell you actually can’t stomach radical designs, or designs even slightly different from the norm. However most of the client’s choices actually fall into the between category. As its a happy mix of both conservatism and radical thought.
One of the problems of this, is that often you may have to discard a design, that is almost as good, in favor of a concept that fits this rule. But don’t forget the concept development is in your control, you can always introduce and combine the dropped design with the winning design. However I often find, with the winning design, its often pretty clear cut in describing the direction you should take anyway so its pretty safe to drop that “almost as good” concept. Why not try it out in your next concept presentation and let me know?
Heres to your designing success!

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3 Comments
  • Andrew Redman

    August 15, 2006 at 9:26 pm Reply

    Hi DT
    Great post.
    I hadn’t thought about doing it that way before, although I subconcioulsy always do left/middle/right solutions – it’s a great way to describe them to the client. I have used the expensive/medium/cheap solution option as a way to present before. This does work too, but it puts more focus on the budget and probably not enough on the actual merits of the design. Useful as an additional tool. Perhaps solutions could be decribed by three sets of criteria:
    1. (Style & Risk) Left/Middle/Right
    2. (Manufacturing Cost) High/Medium/Cheap.
    3. (Impact & Scope) Big change/Medium/Little
    The last would probably refer to more complex products, that might involve changes to the business system – there was a great radio program the other day about developing the airbus A380, and how in designing the concept they realised they would also have to design a transport system (including a special ship) to bring all the main parts together in Toulouse for assembly… awesome, I guess that would fall into “Big Change” !! But this might also refer to a product that would be as simple for a company to produce, but could hit a new market that the company hadn’t previoulsy considered… also a “Big Change” for that company.
    Thanks again, very thought provoking.

  • Design Translator

    August 16, 2006 at 10:47 am Reply

    Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for your fantastic comment. It really makes me happy to see that I have help generate thought provoking ideas.
    You suggestions are a great as well and makes perfect sense when introduced in each level of the design phase. Infact many designers i know actually turn this into a matrix and selection chart to help the clients pick the best design for their needs.
    Yes you are right, by going the way i have suggested, there is a focus more on the design. Also at the same time you could inform the client that a more “left” design naturally would cost more so you could judge from the selection how much or how far the client is willing to go.
    The A380 is really an amazing product. Not only did it had problems being transported, I heard that many countries had to widen or modify their runways just to accomidate the size of that plane!
    Anyways thanks for the great post and please do suscribe to this blog for more great content!

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