The Psychology of Infinite Revisions

Marilyn Monroe  by Andy Warhol

Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol

This week I had the pleasure of sitting down to lunch with my old boss and creative director, Fabian Geyrhalter. These days, he's running FINIEN, a brand consultancy in the heart of Long Beach. His office is nestled on the penthouse floor of the historic Farmers & Merchants Bank building. It's the sort of place that still hand paints the manager names in gold leaf on the windows.

In stark contrast, Fabian's office is modern and minimal, with clean white walls and expensive Danish furniture. Much like Fabian himself, it's a testament to the simplicity and efficiency of European design. If you're a creative in the branding field, you may have read his book, How To Launch A Brand, which should be standard issue on every agency bookshelf. 

Fabian is as much of a mentor as he is a friend. Much of what I learned about running my own design consultancy I picked up over a decade ago as an Art Director at Geyrhalter Design. Sitting down for artisan pizzas and espresso, I continued to be inspired by the stories and lessons he shared with me as we caught up on old times and new.

We were discussing the idea of getting better clients, doing more rewarding work as a designer, and spending less time dealing with the parts of the business that we hate. That's when he dropped this massive knowledge bomb that I am about to share with you.

The fallacy of free will.

A typical design education will tell you that when you're negotiating a project with a client, it is customary to include about two or three rounds of revisions with everything that you do. It affords the client some necessary breathing room to ensure a satisfactory deliverable, all the while maintaining a predictable workload for the designer. Everyone is happy, right?

When FINIEN designs an identity, the client gets infinite revisions. And since implementing this policy, Fabian tells me that not one client has taken advantage of it, and more clients walk away happy with fewer, not more revisions. To understand why this is, we must examine how the client's free will is shaped by the terms of our contracts.

When you structure a project to include a set number of revisions, what you are signaling to the client is that those revisions should be used, because they are paying for them. The client may be inclined to use those revisions whether or not you nailed it in the first round of design.

This is bad for the client. Projects that run through more changes take longer to complete, and the final deliverable may not always be the best choice. The client may be compelled to keep offering suggestions that may diverge away from the original intent or goal of the project just to feel like they're getting their money's worth.

This is bad for the designer. If the client feels a need to just see more, you may inadvertently be walking away from your best ideas. Client feedback tends to add, not subtract from design, which means ownership, purity, and simplicity are sacrificed. Structured rounds also suggest a linear process, where the last round is the right choice, even if it's not.

In short, you’re no longer putting the focus on the quality of the product, but on the labor it takes to make it.

When you offer infinite revisions, on the other hand, you are positioning yourself as a premium service provider. You are not burdening your client with keeping score of trivialities because your are utterly confident that your product will satisfy. That instills confidence in your client, and takes the anxiety caused by risk right off of their back. That confidence usually translates as a deeper respect for your time and services, strengthening your relationship and the final product.

A caveat, of course.

This is obviously not going to be the case for every client. If your client is trying to design by committee, or if every stakeholder is giving you round-robin feedback, this might not be a good strategy for you. Likewise, complicated projects involving cross-disciplinary teams (such as building a website) might not be a good fit for this. Use your own discretion if you're going to try this yourself.

Bobby Dragulescu

With a background in branding, advertising, and themed entertainment, Bobby is the Creative Director, lead designer, and (sometimes) photographer of Dragulescu Studio. He's worked in a variety of mediums, ranging from interactive design for companies like Apple, Magento, and Fandango to theme park signage for Warner Brothers, The Walt Disney Company, 20th Century Fox, DreamWorks Animation, and the Thea Award winning NatureQuest exhibit at Fernbank Museum of Natural History.