To be or not to be: what happens to those ideas that get away?

Nathalie Lees,
Nathalie Lees,

Now there’s a welcome sight in my inbox: after what I assume to be a week of caffeinated and sleepless deliberation, the art director/editor/author cabal has made a decision. They’ve gone for option B! In your face, options A, C and C (alternative)! In several months’ time, it’ll be option B that appears on a handful of bookshelves across the land, all proud and printly. “It’s beautiful!” they’ll cry. “My eyes! It’s too wonderful for my precious eyes!” they’ll roar. “The type is a bit small, isn’t it?” they’ll cheer. Good for you option B, bloody good for you.

And now, my job is to clean up the debris. Behind every finished project, there is a trail of treatments, concepts and alternative covers that didn’t quite make it. Maybe they were too experimental, too far off the brief, too not in line with the client’s impeccable tastes. Or maybe they were perfectly fine, it’s just that another perfectly fine idea was just that tiny bit more perfectly fine.

The various components of the leftovers are sprawled chronologically yet incoherently across my desktop. They may be surplus to requirements now option B has been momentously ordained, but might still be of some creative value. So – where do I put these rejects?

The obvious solution: simply chuck it all in a folder with the rest of the files for the job, keep it all together, splendid idea. Except really, it’s an awful idea. As I’ve learnt from previous tidyings, it all works fine until you need to delve back into the folder again and … oh dear lord what the hell. I don’t know if I need the enigmatic 1005425784_MAYBE_BW.PSD. There was probably a reason that I kept NOTTHISONE04.INDD. And do I really need yet another thing called UNTITLED_COPY.JPG? Haven’t a clue. No, probably best to keep the stuff the client wants and the stuff I want well away from each other; avoid the risk of accidentally sending option C (redux) to print.

There’s always the portfolio solution. Just because these aren’t real covers and they won’t appear on real books in real shops, why not show them off if I like them? Where’s the harm in giving rejected designs a public airing if they demonstrate what I’m capable of?

Except … well, it all feels a bit dishonest, doesn’t it? A bit misleading at least. I may have a personal soft spot for options A, C and C (abomination), but a portfolio should be a showcase of work, not didn’t-works. Prospective clients are looking for a confident ‘this is what I have done, this is what I can do’, not a shrugged ‘here, look at this stuff from my computer’.

Never mind the scruples of self-promotion, I worry that making this stuff public could be remarkably unhelpful for the client. I’m basically undermining their decision to go for the option they went for, whilst exposing my inability to fight for what I thought was the better design. And I’m sure it’s not helpful when you’re trying to market a new book and some precious little creative spills the wrong artwork all over the web.

So what about the scorched earth solution – just delete the whole lot of it? Rejected designs are rejected for a reason, so there’s no need to linger – move on, no looking back! Get rid of it all, burn the field, make the desktop fertile again for growing … new grids … or … something … um … it’s possible this arable metaphor has run away from me somewhat. Anyway, there’s no chance it’ll happen. I can’t even bring myself to get rid of my GCSE Art coursework (I heart you, sketchbook full of totally gothic-looking eyes and stuff).

If they’re not going in the trash, how about the recycling solution? I’ll file everything away in a spare parts folder. These bits may not have been right for this particular brief, but some day they might come in handy for something. Although … that’ll feel a bit like I’m repeating myself. And what if I end up pitching a really familiar cover to the same client? Does that even matter?

Oh let’s be honest, I’m going to do what I always do: a haphazard combination of all of the above. I’ll scatter files hither and thither so that next time I really need to find That Thing I Did That One Time With The Picture Of The Horse, I’ll have no idea where to find it. But I’ll enjoy looking for it – it’s the journey that counts, right? Yes, that’s almost certainly the best option.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. See and @gray

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