Ideas Have Little Value

Ideas Have Little Value

Do you think your clients are paying for ideas? I don’t.

I think ideas are overvalued. Like billing design by the hour, I believe it is another misunderstanding both clients, and graphic designers have about logo design and branding. You certainly don’t need to be a good designer to have lots of ideas. Ideas are relatively easy to come by, but ideas are not the key to logo design. Describe any great logo as an idea and it sounds ridiculous.

Here are a few examples:

McDonald’s: M
Apple: Apple with a bite removed
IBM: Letters I, B, M and stripes

The ideas are of little, if any worth. The execution of the idea is where the value lies.

The ability to execute ideas is in large part what makes a great designer. As an example, thousands of logos/word marks are just type and include an arrow. The majority of these are horrible, cliché, and provide little value to the company they represent. However, the same idea of simple type and an arrow was used by Lindon Leader for FedEx and resulted in arguably one of the best logos ever.

I believe graphic designers should stop selling themselves as merely “idea providers” to clients. It’s the execution we should all be investing in.


  • Scrivs says:
    Apr 12 at 09:22

    This is a fundamental concept that I believe many people have a problem with because we all like to think that our ideas are unique and since we came up with them they must be genius. In reality, anyone could bump their head and happen upon the same idea as us. Everyone has that friend (or maybe it is you) that comes to you all the time with a great idea, but nothing ever seems to come of it because there is a lack of execution.

    If we got paid for our ideas we would all be rich or maybe we wouldn’t because so much money would be floating around, inflation would drown us.

    That is one of the reasons on my sites I don’t talk about upcoming plans and features very much because all it becomes is just talk. Do the work and make the idea something that people can actually use then they will get excited. Anything before that is just a bedtime story.

  • Bhavna Bahri says:
    Apr 13 at 01:51

    It is an art to think of an idea.
    Design is to make turn it into an innovation.
    The combination of the two is the key to success.

  • Tim Lapetino says:
    Apr 13 at 09:32

    Thanks for the great post.

    While I do think generating great ideas is part of being an excellent designer, fundamentally you’re right–it is much easier to have an idea than it is to execute it well. To me, this seems true in many places besides the world of design–people have sketchbooks filled with their ideas that will never be realized, because the follow-through is one of the most challenging parts of ideation. How many unfinished novels live in desk drawers somewhere?

    It’s hard to take an idea from genesis to completion, and even more difficult to do it well. Not only does it take focus, a head for strategy, and visual implementation, but in the design world, the idea generation is still seen as the “fun” part of the process.

    The other aspect that you mention, Steve–is the truth that in logo design, the context and assets surrounding a logo (graphical pieces, great products, clear and consistent messaging, emotional connection) have as much to do with the identity’s success as the “idea” of the original mark. Michel Bierut of Pentagram said as much in an interview about the Nike logo: “They just built so much messaging around the logo and associated it with a lot of good products as well; then it became a ‘strong’ logo. The logo itself is really nothing, it’s just two curves, and it’s not hard to do. The way identity firms earn their money is in guiding a company into making a decision about one of these things and giving them a plan for actually using it so they can start to create value around it.”

    (rest of interview here: )

  • Steve Zelle says:
    Apr 13 at 01:28

    Thanks for stopping by , I am looking forward to your post on Processed Identity.

    Well said, oh to be paid for ideas!

    Bhavna Bahr,
    Thanks, great comment. Absolutely agree that both the idea and execution are needed to create anything worthwhile.

    You always have such great comments. I think possibly one of the things that make a designer a ‘designer’ is the ability to distinguish a good idea from a bad one. A good designer can quickly envision the growth of an idea and how it will translate into a medium where the average person cannot. Designers can foresee execution.

    Great link Tim, a good read for everyone. Thanks very much.

  • Tim Lapetino says:
    Apr 13 at 02:13

    Thanks, Steve. 🙂

    I agree–being able to see “down the path” of a potential idea is a huge advantage that seasoned designers have over everyone else. It takes boldness and willingness to kill ideas and cut ties with those that aren’t working, rather than falling in love with them.

  • Walt K says:
    Apr 15 at 09:14

    Steve, you nailed it. It is always in the execution. When you think of it, implementation is all anyone ever pays for.

    An idea is, “How about showing some cheap imitations of famous logos.”

    Implementation is what you did above.

    Good stuff.

  • Brodie says:
    Apr 15 at 11:57

    Interesting points, although I think you simplify the idea by separating conception and execution – the end result is the idea, a complex combination of carefully considered executions and processes. Looking at the surface Apple with a bite taken is incorrect, in my mind. The end result is the idea. Myself, I believe great creatives are idea providers; it just depends on what you define as an idea.

  • Steve Zelle says:
    Apr 15 at 12:14

    Tim: Thanks again.

    Walt: Glad you enjoyed the post.

    Brodie: I can see your point of view and do not disagree. As designers we do provide ideas but more than that I believe we make the correct decisions in executing the idea. Those decisions give the idea its value. Great of you to comment.

  • Stuart Thursby says:
    Apr 15 at 08:47

    The idea is just as important as the execution. The fact that it’s a simple one does not nullify it’s value; in fact, the strongest ideas or the simplest. Apple’s logo ties in to all manners of subtexts — knowledge, fruit/health, food for thought, simplicity — but it’s not the logo that defines the brand, it’s the ethos the logo represents. There could be nothing simpler than an apple with a bite taken out of it to represent the company, and nothing more pertinent. Whether it’s a rainbow colour palette or sleek silver, it’s the idea *behind* it that makes the idea resonate, not the rendering of the logo itself.

    This is the same reason that, no matter how well-executed a logo it may have, IBM has not compelled people to believe in it nearly as much as a company such as Apple. An irrelevant idea well executed is nothing more than an exercise in technique, and that applies to branding as much as it does to poster design or advertising.

  • Steve Zelle says:
    Apr 15 at 09:07


    Really appreciate the comment and you taking the time to share your point of view.

    I love simplicity. I think the best logos are simple.

    My point is that an idea without proper execution is nothing. It is just an idea. They have little value until they are well executed. It could be argued that the logo itself has little value until it is well executed.

    I thought this Tweet from today was great so here seems like a good spot to share it:

    “The project plateau is littered with the carcasses of dead ideas that never happened.” @ScottBelsky #99Conf (via @the99percent)

  • Doink @ Designioustimes says:
    Apr 16 at 04:59

    Well, you are right, the materialized idea is important. The ideas however will dampen the impact upon your execution time, thus more productivity. Not just once i had to work extra for projects because i didn’t have a clear idea of what to do, so i was just winging it along.

    I’ve learned that there is a strong synergy between ideas and execution – the hard way. Make a clear idea when you want to start materializing it, so you don’t work extra or alter it on the way just because you think it would look good.

    I’m glad you’ve started this topic, i think i’ll stick around.


  • Steve Zelle says:
    Apr 16 at 12:36

    Doink — Great point. Costly time and resources can be spent on a weak idea that has not been thought through. Knowing what ideas are worth perusing is a valuable benefit a good designer can provide to their client (hopefully the client listens).

    Glad you enjoyed the post and that you will be back.

  • Amel says:
    Apr 16 at 03:16

    Great discussion. You make a couple of good points and each one of them could be a separate discussion.

    I don’t think one can go without the other. Just as an idea without any execution has little value, the execution without an idea is just as worthless.

    To say that ideas are overvalued only makes sense, to me, in the case where an idea is perceived as a random thought that just pops into our heads. In that sense, you certainly don’t need to be a good designer to have lots of ideas, but one could also say that one certainly doesn’t need to be a good electrician either. Since ideas are relatively easy to come by, as you say, I should be able to walk down the street and ask pretty much anybody for an idea in exchange for a few bucks and then concentrate on its execution.

    Reducing anything complex this way or putting it into a couple of words indeed does make it sound ridiculous and worthless. This could then be applied not just to logo design but also to anything else in general. Following this, having an idea about fixing your car is the same as having an idea about a logo because it does not factor in anything else other than having a thought or an idea about something.

    I think what makes the FedEx logo great is the idea behind the FedEx itself and has little to do with their logo. If the Apple put the bite back into their logo it wouldn’t make much difference because they have good products and that’s what adds the most value not the design of their logo nor their branding. Look at Starbucks for example. Good product, yes. Logo, ok. Does it matter? To your later comment about logos one could argue that a logo has little value in itself, regardless whether it’s executed well or not?

    I guess it’s a little confusing because you talk about having ideas in general in order to devalue them, but when you talk about the execution of the same you are talking in a specific context, which is logo design. I think defining what we mean by an idea and what we mean by execution would help the discussion.

    Check out TAXI’s execution

  • Steve Zelle says:
    Apr 16 at 07:38


    Thanks for taking the time to post such a great and thoughtful comment.

    The idApostle site is dedicated to logo design and visual branding so my posts always speak to that discipline rather than general graphic design. When I spoke originally of ideas I was referring specifically to logo design although it may be appropriate for other forms of graphic design.

    I agree that I oversimplified things, and that success isn’t possible without both an idea and execution. I sensationalized it a fraction to point out that many designers focus on selling ideas and not execution. I hear designers say “I had the same idea” or “I did something similar” to other logos when their execution is nowhere close. There are countless design blogs and ‘inspiration’ sites littered with ‘great idea’ comments rather than commenting on the execution. In my experience, designers spend more time talking about ideas, and patting themselves on the back about ideas, than any other topic.

    This behavior, often sets ourselves up as idea providers and I believe in doing so, we sell ourselves short. When clients view us as only idea providers (and many do) they end up undervaluing everything else we provide. It’s a small step from there to one of the many $99 logo websites.

    I think in reality (without simplifying things) it is probably very difficult to define what part of design is ‘idea’ and what part is ‘execution’. They are intertwined with a final design the result of countless small ideas about what to do, and what not to do. I was speaking of what is generally considered the BIG ‘original’ idea such as “Let’s have the company name and an arrow”.

  • Dave Ansett, Brandamentalist says:
    Apr 28 at 12:16

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.
    Whilst I agree that a great idea poorly executed is a lost brand opportunity, I have to say a great design execution with no concept is of no value to an organisation. Our philosophy is very much that the brand is there to serve the business, and the brand identity must communicate the proposition of the brand. This demands the design have conceptual merit to communicate the brand proposition, as well as design merit to communicate the brand personality and connect visual language cues with the right meanings in the hearts and minds of the intended audience.
    I would argue passionately, that brand design demands both concept and design execution and cannot be effective without both working in harmony. It’s what we call Design with Purpose.

  • Steve Zelle says:
    Apr 28 at 07:34

    Hi David,

    I think you are spot on.

    Without beating a dead horse, it is the value designers and clients place on ideas without (at least) equal value being put on the execution that bothers me.

    Nice to know you visit the site!

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