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Nov 27, 2012

Project Killers – Part 3: Scattershot Design

Some years ago I worked at an agency where I was one of three designers. It was my first experience working in an agency and I found many of the basic practices there odd. One of these practices was the way in which the designers were employed in projects. We didn’t work together. Quite the opposite, in fact. We competed against each other. That approach fostered frequent disappointment and low-grade resentment among us and led us to focus our creative attention on the wrong things. By Andy Rutledge


It was a stupid way to use designers.

One of the features of the design process at this agency was scattershot design. For a typical project, two or three of us would be assigned to produce designs; one or two design candidates each. Anywhere from three to six design options would be offered up to the client who would then, at their own discretion, choose the design they liked the best. The author of that design would then complete the design portion of the project. The other one or two designers were left to consider how to make their designs better liked, and waited for the next competition.


Yes, that’s something of an obtuse example, but there are still many agencies that use this method of “design” for their client projects. I’ll leave the competitive/antagonistic qualities of that process for another day in order to focus on the other sad component.

Scattershot Design

You’ve heard about it and you’ve probably even participated in it: that sort of design pageant that parades a bevy of website design contestants in front of a client. It’s an approach that says…

We have some cool and sexy ideas, but we really don’t know which approach is best. Here, you decide!

The scattershot approach to design is typically born of a sales process whereby the potential client asks, “So how many design options will we get for our money?” The dutiful salesperson trying to secure the project will usually proceed with a cost-benefit bargaining process that secures the maximum number of design options for the maximum amount of money from the client (mo profit is mo profit!). So now instead of a sensible and functional one or two design strategies to present, the designer(s) is now required to produce three or four or five or six or […] “designs” for the client. Only they’re not really designs.

Aside: (…and among other things, this is item number 76 on the list of reasons design professionals should determine many of the project sales criteria. But I digress.)

Skin Deep

No, not designs, but rather decorated forays. Scattershot design ensures the presentation of essays in the effort to craft an actually suitable and effective design. These beauty contestants are what might otherwise have been steps in the design process, rightly culled and left on the cutting room floor, so to speak. These candidates might have been tried, evaluated, pressure tested against the constraints, and all but one (possibly two) eliminated as inadequate, structurally flawed …all hat and no cattle.

Indeed, scattershot might describe the more creative portion of the design process where every possible whim and idea is given its due consideration. But that process must, according to the constraints, kill all of the inadequate, misguided, and only-skin-deep options in order to seize upon the foundation and culmination of the actually viable design strategy.

Useful constraints cannot allow for three or four or more design strategies. If they do, then they are inadequate constraints, in number and scope. Dig deeper! Do. Your. Job.

Blurry Focus

Another detrimental aspect of scattershot design is that it generally ensures that most of the creative attention is focused on the aesthetics of the design effort. So instead of crafting design strategies, in taking the scattershot approach one mostly works to impose varied decoration choices upon some layout or interface strategy.

If you were bothered by that word in the previous sentence, good on ya. “Choices” is not what your design effort should eventuate. You are paid to craft strategic solutions, not choices. Your clients don’t hire you or your studio to come up with choices. At least you’d better hope they don’t. Rather, you should be hired to bring your expertise to bear on the challenges they face in a strategic effort to meet those challenges in a positive, contextual, useful, and engaging way. The design choices in a project should be made by you and you alone. It is your considered choices that are required in a design project and they’d better darn well be based on expert skill, understanding, and practiced intuition. Leaving choices up to a client is a feature of one specific sort of design project: the failed kind.

Thankfully, this sort of scattershot approach is really a relic of a bygone era where design strategies were conceived and presented in static, visual mockup form. Except for very tiny projects of a specific type, this alone is no longer a viable way to arrive at a suitable design strategy. Note, however, that since the scattershot approach is still widely employed, it exists as something of an indictment of too many agencies regarding the backward nature of their process.

One Shot One Kill

The more responsible approach to effective design is to weed through all of your ideas in whatever volume and fashion suits you and the specific context, and in doing so eliminate all but the clear winner(s). Only the design strategy that contextually addresses the client’s and brand’s challenges and needs as well as the needs, desires, requirements, expectations, and perhaps even delight of the other (user) constituencies should ever be presented to a client. The other trials are just that: trials that failed to measure up.

If you and your client have done your jobs right, the constraints and context will allow one or perhaps two appropriate strategies to survive your process. If you have two strategies to offer, you client may rightly have to decide which strategy’s emphasis is most appropriate, but that’s a business strategy decision, not a design decision. That sort of option can only be available to them after you’ve done your design job well.

Don’t end up offering design choices to your clients. Design choices are what designers make and what they get paid for. Part of the reason for professional standards and practices is that they rightly place the onus of responsibility and choice upon the designer’s shoulders. Don’t deliberately or even by omission relinquish that burden, for your client’s fortunes rest on your ability to shoulder it competently.


Needless to say, in the first few months of my employment at that agency I worked to change their stupid process. Through my efforts and those of Angela, my business partner here at Unit, we adopted a process that involved a focus on the client’s needs rather than on the designer’s desire to “win.” If you’re working under similar conditions, don’t be afraid to institute change. You can do it. You must, in fact; else you should find actually professional employment. Elsewhere.


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