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Design Process: The Rule of Three

Having a solid web design process is critical for efficiently creating quality work. On Happycog’s Cognition Blog, Chris Cashdollar posted about their process of creating three unique designs to present to a client. When I first started doing freelance work for clients I followed the rule of three without question, but over time I’ve changed my process based on the project that I’m working on.

The Benefit of Three

Overall, following the rule of creating three mockup designs for a project is useful for many of the reasons that Chris mentions in his article. Creating multiple designs forces you to solve the same problem in a variety of ways and each subsequent design is informed by your previous discoveries. It also shows your client that you’re focused on delivering options that best fit their goals and helps foster discussion over the solutions.

Third Wheel

While creating three designs has many benefits, I no longer follow it as a hard rule. There are two reasons I suspect that the rule of three is more effective in Chris’s case:

  1. Happy Cog’s projects are likely larger in time and scope than mine
  2. Chris mentions having a separate designer for each design

Nearly all of my projects are designed by myself with input only from the client (and sometimes friends if I want some other feedback). This, combined with most projects being quicker and on a smaller budget, means that often presenting three full designs isn’t always an effective option. I feel with the total hours allotted to the project, my time is often better spent focusing on one or two well thought-out designs. Also on smaller projects the third iteration can feel like a chore, and it isn’t as innovative as the first concepts where a lot of the discovery took place.

An Alternative Process for Freelancers

The number of concepts I present to a client depends on the project. For a small job, I typically focus on generating one or two concepts and then iterating based on feedback. I find that much of the creativity lost by not doing three designs can be generated in the initial sketching phase. By sketching out designs before getting onto the computer, I can quickly come up with many different ideas and then take several into a larger, more detailed sketches. Following this process, it’s easy to see what is going to work and what doesn’t work so well. Sketches can also be shown to the client for feedback before coming up with your final concept to present. Working this way also helps prevent clients requesting a “frankendesign” combining elements of each of the three designs you show them. I prefer to work this way, rather than trying to force three designs, as each client has a different budget, different expectations and a different level of involvement in the process.

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