creative concepting

Creative Concept Vs. Creative Concepting

When a client decides to engage a creative agency, they do so based on many factors beyond the strength of the agency’s portfolio. These may include: the firm’s possible specialty in the client’s business sector (hospitals) or the deliverable needed (annual report); alignment of budget constraints; and the rapport of personnel. Beyond that, design being a creative endeavor, the client hopes for the best and designer hopes that they will come up with a design that the client will like.

Clients and designers agree to the presentation of 3 design options, choosing one to refine to final. Because it’s easier to grasp what is tangible, client and designer tend to focus on the end product—the creative concepts that the designer produces. Here, the RESULTS of creative process—the creative concepts—are presented to the client. How the designer actually came up with the designs remains a bit of a mystery.

I am going to describe why there are pitfalls to this approach and how we at Mission Critical Creative use creative concepting as a collaborative process that practically guarantees an outcome that will hit the mark.

3 Design Concepts Approach Can be Hit or Miss

After getting hired for a project, the timeline typically goes like this: First, the designer listens to the client’s desires as far as some deliverable is concerned. The designer takes that information, goes away and works on a minimum of 3 designs. She presents the best 3 designs to the client, and ideally, the client likes one and this is what will be refined into the final product.

There’s nothing really wrong with this approach. And, we did this, too, early on in our career. But there are inherent risks.

First, clients rely on the designer’s portfolio as evidence of talent and skill. There’s no way around it, but it’s risky to judge a designer’s skill based on past work, no matter how good it looks. What is more important but likely unknown is how well that past work actually fulfilled the past clients’ objectives.

Second, there are limits to verbal communication—how well designers listen AND how well the client is able to articulate their needs. Most of the time there’s good communication between the client and designer. Other times, there’s a gap caused by a number of factors from the client not knowing what they want, or not being able to state their desires effectively, to assumptions on the part of the designer about what the client might like. The designer tries to infer, interpret, surmise, deduce, glean, intuit—and dang well wish she could mind read!—to try to understand what will please the client.

And lastly, there is a blind faith in the alchemy of the creative process, which may or may not result in a great design. Designers pray inspiration will come and clients anxiously wait for the design presentation to find out whether their choice of designer will be justified.

Creative Concepting as a Collaborative Process

What if there were a less risky way to get the best results? Creative concepting is coming up with an overarching idea that drives the design, the choice of images, the color scheme, and the layout. Usually this process is mostly hidden to the client. Our approach at Mission Critical Creative is to bring the client along as collaborators in creative concepting. There’s no magic. We lay bare the creative concepting process to the client and our clients actively participate in it.

Consistent good results are the outcome of a rigorous creative process. Over my career as a designer, I’ve had many successes and my share of misses. I’ve learned that when process is not followed because of lack of time or budget, is when trouble can hit. Sticking to a creative concepting process means that we minimize the hazards that can sink a project.

Research, Research, Research

The first step in creative concepting involves lots of research. Regardless of what we are producing, we need to spend time learning about the client organization. We need to understand how they are structured, who the stakeholders are, who their customers are. We need to know about their mission, their brand attributes. We also want to see what the client has produced in the past. We inventory as much as we can gather. We also want to see examples of what the client has seen that they like or don’t like. Finally, we look at what the client’s competitors are doing as well. All of this information guides us as we go forward in creative concepting.

The Creative Brief is the Map

If the client has a lot of experience working with designers, they are usually well acquainted with the creative brief. We like to create a succinct, one-page brief that contains the essentials needed to go forward with the project. The brief outlines: what the project objective is, who the client is, what the deliverables are, the features of the client’s products or services, who the target audience is, what the client’s customer benefits are, who the client’s competitors are, what the design goals are, what the primary message is, and any other essential information.

This document goes back and forth to the client for editing until the terms of what we set out to do are absolutely clear and agreed upon. We can’t start until we are in agreement about where we are going. Not only does the brief become the guide for going forward, we also use it to evaluate design options. How well does our design fulfill the objectives we set out to obtain? Does design B fulfill those objectives better than design C?

Lastly, the creative brief keeps us on track and moving forward. It’s not uncommon for a client (or a client’s staff member unfamiliar with the project) to suggest something out of left field. So, when someone suggests, “What about using pictures of our employees/our employees’ pets/the boss’s vacation?” (Ok, I’m being slightly ridiculous, but we’ve all been there!) We can point to the brief and say “We agreed that we would use images of your customers using your product.”


mood board samples

4 individual mood boards for annual report design showing image style options and color palettes.


Mood Boards Show the Possibilities

While the creative brief provides a verbal description, we are engaged in visual design, and words have inherent limitations. Raise your hand if you’re a client who’s uttered these words: “I’ll know what I like when I see it.” So, we use mood boards to SHOW examples of what was described. Mood boards are simply collages of images and typography that illustrate a design or style direction. We look for images that convey the client’s brand qualities and show examples in a variety of styles.

Before we actually set out to design that brochure or annual report, we present the mood boards. We explain our thinking behind our choices that we present. The client is brought along in this concepting and provides feedback. We decide together where to go based on the mood boards. If needed, we can do another round of mood boards.

Design, Art Direction, Layout

Once the design direction has been established by the mood boards, the creative concept is carried through the development of copy, the design of the elements, the art direction of images and photoshoots, and to the final page layout. All of these pieces are given to the client for editing, comments, and approval.

The (not so) Big Reveal

When all the copy has been written and the photos have been taken and everything has been laid out, the complete design layout is presented to the client. It’s always exciting to see everything come together at this point. But, there shouldn’t be any big surprises because the client has been a full participant in developing a vision of the final product that fulfills the objectives we outlined in the creative brief.

Let’s Brand Together!

We think we’ve reinvented creative concepting as a collaborative process. Tell us what you think. Contact us to learn more.