80% of My Job is Throwing Good Ideas in the Garbage

In 1986, Steve Jobs needed a logo.

He’d just left Apple (this was before he’d return as CEO) to launch another computer company, NeXT. At the time, Jobs was talking to powerhouse designer Paul Rand (not to be confused with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul),

“I asked him if he would come up with a few options, and he said, ‘No, I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution. If you want options go talk to other people. But I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how. And you use it or not, that’s up to you, you’re the client.’”

To anyone familiar with the ad business, Rand’s response is off putting. That’s just not how the traditional client-creative relationship works. Typically, an agency (or designer) will provide options and let the customer choose her favorite. But Rand—who designed logos for ABC, IBM, and UPS—had the clout (and cajones) to offer just one logo. Jobs could take it or leave it.

paul rand's next logo

My own experience in advertising has been a little different (then again, I haven’t created a logo for ABC). No matter the size of the client or the size of the job, there is an expectation that I’ll come up with two or three options, every time. But, of course, the client will only choose one at the end of the day (a single TV commercial, one banner), not two or three. And so, I come up all these options knowing only one can be chosen, knowing the other two will go straight into the garbage.

At the outset, that may seem daunting and discouraging. All that work wasted. But try as you might, there’s no avoiding that eventual outcome.

First, you might say—it’s for presentation purposes, right? So you can just present rough “ideas” and then fully develop the one the client likes best? The answer is no. In many cases, I have to present three fully finished ideas—three production-ready TV scripts, three billboards that could be produced tomorrow. Why? It seems like a waste of time, but there is a danger in presenting ideas—the client may not like how it ultimately comes to life. She and I may not have seen the same thing in ours minds’ eyes. And then where does that leave you? To quote Marshall Brickman quoting a Yiddish proverb, “never show a fool something half finished.”

A second thought—if the client only needs one solution at the end of the day, why not present one that’s very good and two that are “meh?” It saves you time and forces the client to choose your preferred option since the other two aren’t as strong. But clients all share the same ability to choose the worst possible option. If you offer them platinum and banana peels, they’ll choose banana peels every time. It’s just the way it works. And then you, the creator, are in deep trouble. Not only do you have to spend time working on a terrible idea, you have to put your name on it.

A third thought—if you’ve come up with three good ideas, why not save the other two for next time? A great thought, but it’s rarely realistic. Concepts are created for a particular project with a particular objective geared toward a particular target. Next time, the parameters will be different. And in the rare case you could reuse an old idea, odds are the client would be disappointed. After all, she already had those options last time and passed on them.

Each day, I go to work knowing that most of my good ideas will end up in the garbage. Even the chosen option doesn’t go to market as is—the client will request tweaks, the legal department will muck it up. It’s the cost of working with ideas. And in your own projects (even if you don’t work at an advertising agency) you still have clients—whether they’re your customers or even yourself.

You can’t use all your good ideas all of the time. It’s disappointing and dispiriting, but it hasn’t stopped me from coming to work and pitching three sound ideas every time. And it shouldn’t stop you either. Because ideas are free. Even if you throw most of them away, you can always have more. And that’s good, because unless you’re Paul Rand, you’ll have to.

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