The One-Concept Approach for Logo Design and Branding: Why I Don't Use It

If you're a designer in 2021, you've probably come across  debates about "how many logo design (logo, brand) options to present to your clients?"

If you're an entrepreneur looking for a studio to work with to design your brand identity, then you might have seen some designers who talk about "The One-Concept Approach" and why they use it.

In this article, you'll find

  • Pros and cons from both the agency and client point of view
  • What is this all about? Who cares how many design concepts to present?
  • Why I decided in the end not to utilize this approach
  • What I do instead, and finally
  • Some factors to take into consideration for you as a business owner to make a decision about who you want to work with to design your brand

Pros for the One-Concept approach in logo design

It reduces decision fatigue.

This is important! As an entrepreneur, you have to make countless decisions throughout your days, and while building a brand takes work, our role as designers is to make this as seamless and friction-free as possible for our clients.

Designing only one option is potentially less work.

This is good for the designer, but not really a pro for the client. (In addition, from my experience if you're doing a thorough job, to get to that "one winning concept", you'll have done most of the work for multiple concepts anyway.)

Point of differentiation: helps the client decide if they want to work with me or not.

Using the One-Concept method could be a valid point of differentiation, because the client will either love or hate working with a designer under this model.

It forces me to "own" my role as an expert—being able to confidently tell my clients: "This brand design is without a doubt the right choice for you."

I want to be there as a designer. You hear stories like Paula Scher scribbling what would become the CitiBank logo on the back of a napkin in 5 minutes—and I think, "wow, I want to be that good".

However, until I'm closer to her in experience, it seems disingenuous for me to claim this when I don't have this level of expertise. (More on this later, regarding a design having certain elements that are subjective.)

Reduces possibility for "Frankendesign"

Otherwise known as a Frankenstein logo, this is something to avoid, where you take certain elements that you like from each option and try to mash them together. However, you often end up with something ugly at best, and lacking clarity and meaning at worst.

Less opportunity for personal preference of the client.

And despite what it might might sound like to a client, this is indeed a pro also for them.

The primary goal of a logo is not to be something that the CEO or owner is personally attracted to (unless they're part of their own target market), but rather to design a mark that has clarity and simplicity so it will be easier for customers both to recognize and identify your brand.

Cons to presenting only one brand concept

Client feels less involved in the process.

This is important to my philosophy. There's a level of trust that a client places in you as a designer when you're designing their brand, and it's important to me that through it, the client feels connected to the process, and therefore also the result.

From a psychological point of view, someone is more likely to be on board with the final result if they have some agency in the decision.

It isn't less work, as to get to the point where I can make the decision, I'll have explored multiple avenues. Further, I would not use this benchmark as a deciding factor.

Despite what other designers say about the one-concept approach being more efficient, and less work for them, this has not been my experience.

Any differentiation is meaningless in my opinion.

If the one-concept approach is something that is essential to the way a designer works and they have the level of expertise that bears it out—e.g. the famous story of Paul Rand and the Apple logo—then it can work for sure, if the client is also on board.

I don't think there is enough data to say confidently that a specific logo is without a doubt the right one for the company.

Where it doesn't sit right with me is that while design has certain objective standards that can't be changed due to cultural and psychological elements of how humans engage with certain colors and shapes, there will always be an element of subjectivity in designing a logo.

Where does the controversy come from with regards to whether you present 3 or 1 logos?

(For simplicity, I'm going to speak of presenting "logos" despite the fact that it's a lot more than this.)

Accepted standard for the industry

Every industry has its standards, and for years it's been industry-standard to present 3 logo designs to a client. According to the 3 options follow these lines:

Safe design: This is the expected path, often with a quite traditional style. The design mirrors other client work and uses tested and common techniques and patterns.

Adventurous, crazy design: The design may be trendy and put the client outside of their comfort zone, while maintaining brand identity.

Something-in-the-middle design: There’s a mix of components from both above ideas to meet the client halfway in the land of modern and traditional.

Recent shift to one-concept approach

In recent years there's been pushback on this accepted process, and many of the reasons are good.

However, the problem isn't with the fact that you're presenting 3 logos, but rather why you are doing this, and how. For example, in the above paradigm, you're distinguishing the concepts not by their actual meaning, but by the extremeness of their approach.

Sure if you've made one and you know without a shadow of doubt that this is correct, then why waste time coming up with more options just to fill a potentially-arbitrary quota?

One Concept Approach: what it is and why it has become more common in recent years

With the loosely-named "one concept approach, designer presents one complete brand identity which is the result of an in-depth process in which the designer and client have established (among other things) the goals for the brand, the brand personality, and what would be the benchmark of an effective identity.

According to a myriad of sources online:

  • Presenting one concept positions you as more of an expert
  • Shows that you are developing a brand as a solution to a problem
  • reduces the likelihood of creating a logo that is "Frankensteined", where you take elements from the 3 presented options and the resulting design lacks cohesion and unity, while also losing meaning by trying to "say" too-many things at once

These ideas seem to be based on the assumption that when you're designing you come to a point where you know you have the "perfect" design solution.

In real life, I think it's rare that a designer can confidently say that this logo or brand she's designed is without shadow of a doubt the right one for the client's brand.

It's obviously possible, and since there will always be an element of subjectivity in design, for practical purposes, a designer can make such a decision.

It's important for the designer to be the art director and take the role of an expert, for their own sake and the client's. The client is seeking a design solution to what is in effect a problem, and part of that is proposing what we think are the best way

I just don't think that the only way to be the art director is by presenting one concept. Call me radical, but I don't think that there are many cases where there is one absolutely solution to a problem. Especially in brand design.

Just as there are many different ways to convey the same message, but using different words, there are different ways to convey the same message with different visual elements.

My experience with the One-Concept Approach

As I entered the branding industry in mid-2018, came across this idea and it made sense for all the reasons given in the "pros" list above.

However, I tried approaching the design process this way with clients, and found that for me it didn't work for these reasons:

  • I wasn't experienced enough to have the confidence to know that this direction is the perfect one; and was unwilling to "fake" the confidence because this seemed borderline dishonest
  • Just as when using words to say something in a way that someone can understand and that resonates with a particular person, I realized that there are in fact many ways to say the same thing, even to the same person.
  • Depending on which words you use, you will strike a different tone, and emphasize different parts of the essential meaning, but this is okay
  • Often when it came down to it, I discovered that there were usually 2 design directions that fully conveyed the client's brand message, and while they emphasized different elements of it, sometimes seeing that visually was helpful for the client to be able to make a decision about which direction to move
  • Design is somewhat subjective, and while at the end of the day the designer is the expert in branding and how to communicate visually, as a brand designer, I want you as the client to be fully on board with and even like your brand identity
  • This matters less in some cases where there is a huge corporate structure and there's less of a personal tie between the entrepreneur and the brand identity → but ideally you as the business owner or company C-suite will have at least some affinity for your brand design

What I do that avoids many of the pitfalls of both of these methods.

As with most brand designers these days, my whole design process begins with developing an in-depth brand strategy to ensure that we're hitting all the bases.

And while—as explained above—I didn't feel entirely comfortable using the One-Concept Method, I did want to avoid the drawbacks of presenting multiple concepts. So here's what I've come up with.

It's like picking the type of protein in your Thai food takeaway order. You've decided generally what you want—i.e., you've chosen to have Thai food, analogous to developing your brand strategy—but there are smaller decisions to make within that strategy that still allow for some personal preference. And while these decisions will have an effect on the final outcome, the overall strategy remains the same, it's just expressed in a slightly different way.

One of the objections to the Three-Concept Method that many designers propose is that it increases decision fatigue and makes us as designers more like a budget store than a high-end boutique.

Since designers (rightly) don't want the design industry to be a race to the bottom in terms of price, nor design to be viewed as a commodity (which is definitely isn't), they go to the opposite side of the spectrum.

Again, not a bad thing on the whole, but in my opinion it doesn't need to go to the opposite extreme to reduce the drawbacks inherent in presenting multiple concepts.

Instead, I've chosen to follow the way of a carefully curated clothing boutique (as opposed to the ladies' section in Target).

Based on the objectives and strategy we develop in the first stage, I'm present you with a couple of carefully-chosen options that would each fulfill the brand strategy requirements and objectives.

Because despite what some designers say, I stand behind the position that there can be different ways of expressing the same idea, even maintaining the same style and personality.

How this works in reality

How this plays out is that at the end of our development of the brand strategy, I present two "mood boards", that each emphasize a different aspect of what we've determined is essential to your brand and brand personality.

Once we've made this choice, that eliminates some design options (and elimination is always a good thing: it leads us one step closer to the final goal, whatever the situation!), so when I'm sketching and generating ideas for the logo, I have boundaries which enable my creativity to be more focussed and therefore more effective and efficient.

However, in the end, this usually still leads to dozens of options. I will whittle these down to 2 in order to present only the ones I think are the strongest to a client.

In addition, this ensures that you as a client are not overwhelmed with that feeling you have when trying to pick the perfect jar of jam for Sunday brunch at 9pm Saturday night (or is that just me?).

Basically, my goal is to strike a balance between making those critical decisions as an art director and giving the client agency in this decision.

Yes, I have an storehouse of knowledge regarding branding and what makes a logo or brand identity effective; but I want to empower the client to make a decision that is informed both by my expertise as a designer, and the client's knowledge of their company.

Some factors to consider if you're looking for a branding agency to work with

Another factor in this is purely personal preference: as a client, do you want to be able to have some choice and feel like you have more say in the matter?

Or would you rather take a completely hands' off approach and hand it all over to an expert?

There is no right or wrong answer here.

I've had clients take a very hands' off approach, and pretty much accepted whatever I proposed. That's fine!

A behind-the-scenes part of my process is to try to assess your desires as a client. I might start out being on the deferential side, but if I sense that the client doesn't likes making decisions or really does want to rely more solely on my opinions, I'm going to change my approach to be more assertive and guide the decision-making process.

So if you're looking around for a brand designer, and have come across this topic on a design studio's website, then ask yourself which you would prefer.

Analogously, would you rather go to a stylist, tell her that you're going to an event that has "x" level of formality, is an evening dinner in Boston in the winter, and the theme is a "Norwegian ski party" and have her pick out the perfect outfit?

Or would you rather have those same parameters and have someone show you 2 outfits that would both work, but each emphasizing a different aspect of the event?

At that point it's down to preference, so don't hesitate to ask your potential designer what their approach is and why?