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Mount Hope : Shopping For a Prom Dress

It is always the hope of the designer that a client will commission them as an expert in visual messaging, interpretation, and communication rather than a stenographer merely taking dictation. A partnership where the client is the authority in their business, and the designer is the authority in the visual translation of that business to the rest of the world is the ultimate goal. From the very beginning designers endure a rigorous training and education regimen that delves deeply into every aspect of typography, image, concept, composition, shape, style, perception and color. These elements are filtered through a left and right-brained process to create a proprietary language that speaks to viewers from a page, screen, or myriad of other materials and formats. The designer learns to manipulate these pieces in such a manner that very distinct information, persuasion, ideas, and meanings engage the clients’ customer base, and specific business objectives are obtained.

When this relationship between client and designer is in balance, great work can be accomplished: objectives can be met in fresh, innovative ways, differentiation of the clients business occurs, and savvy recollection and understanding of the clients brand exists in the minds of their consumers.

When the client decides that they are also the definitive expert in how to visually communicate their business the designer is in for a long, difficult, and often unsuccessful road. Unsuccessful for everyone involved.

Unfortunately it is all too often that clients hire a designer, claiming the need for visual expertise, only to ultimately end up treating the designer like a computer-monkey on a leash.


Mount Hope is a mega-church the size of a college campus in East Lansing, Michigan. They felt behind the times and wanted a complete rebranding from the ground up: logo, collateral, brochures, website, banners, posters, signage and more. They even had an in-house creative staff that they wanted to train in the appropriate methods of using these newly designed materials once completed. There were no “mandates” per-se to adhere to. No pre-existing colors, no specified typography, no expected symbology, and nobody’s nephew camped out in the basement that had played with Photoshop to build a “website” that had now become a visual cornerstone. For all intents and purposes the slate was clean and awaiting new brush strokes. This was the beginning of what promised to be a good relationship, and a great series of projects. To kick off this ideal rebranding was a new logo. This would set the tone for the remaining pieces and serve as a springboard for the new identity.


As is the case with virtually any new logo, an interview was conducted in the beginning to gather as much information from the client as possible. History of the organization, core beliefs, values, mission statements, organizational focus, competitive differences, existing perception and desired perception were all discussed in the interest of getting on the same page and setting the conceptual direction of the brainstorming to come. All the expected answers were in place. All key players were speaking strategically. This would be a modern symbol for a modern church. Not necessarily the same, expected iconography utilized in virtually all other religious institutions. We would practice what we preached (from a design point-of-view) and create a fresh, unique brand for this institution as opposed to regurgitating existing Christian symbols. There were no outlandish responses, no unreasonable requests, and no indication that this would soon turn into a design buffet.


Depending on any number of potential circumstances (timeframe, budget, expectations, sparks of creativity, or even conviction) paying clients will generally be presented an appropriate number of options. The wisdom of the industry often sets this starting point at three. Although the designer has, more than likely, worked on dozens of concepts behind-the-scenes, they will generally narrow this field down to a select few solutions that contain more magic than the others. These are the pieces that are more unique, more innovative, more clever, and more aesthetic than the others. They are the designs that will most intelligently and appropriately capture the hearts and minds of the viewers.

Each format, whether business card, letterhead, or envelope would compose the requisite information and elements in a pure, crisp manner. The canvas of these pieces would stay clean as a reflection of the nature of the service. The boxes and star used in the logo would carry through to other areas in order to assist in the sense of overall identity and cohesion. And type would be chosen that was a blend of clarity and style.


Brainstorming began and ideas were tested. From dozens upon dozens of initial sketches approximately 3 logos were rendered out to a fairly complete state and presented back to the client.

No luck. The first 3 did not work for them.

With very vague feedback, more brainstorming and sketching was done accompanied by another round of polished marks.

Again the result was an unsatisfied client. And again there followed nondescript feedback.

On and on this pattern went for days, then weeks, and then months. With each round of new icons the response that followed was some form of: “there is something not quite right”, “I just don’t like it”, “Can we try some with blue…I like blue”, or “I’ll know it when I see it”.

The first Creative Director I designed for very early in my design career had a saying: “when a client has no idea what they want, when any semblance of visual strategy disappears, and when they will only know it when they see it, but they know that this isn’t it, they are shopping for a prom dress”. The design becomes a subjective popularity contest rather than a strategic message.

Unfortunately, as imagined, the designs worsened both conceptually and aesthetically with each of these shotgun approaches. Before it was all said and done, approximately 65 entirely unique logos were designed. From these 65 distinct directions, an unprecedented 314 variations were rendered. And in the end, a sketch nobody felt worthy of showing, slapped together in desperation over a mere minutes, was chosen and tweaked to specific dictation.

What began as a great and promising partnership took a wrong turn, turning into a runaway train that forsook strategy in place of subjectivity-by-committee. Most unfortunate of all was the missed opportunity for a smart, distinct, and memorable rebranding. The key learning taken away from this painful experience is the value of both client and designer utilizing the others expertise in what should be a true partnership. When this is done, amazing results can occur. When the expertise of the designer is disallowed, sadly, more substandard noise is contributed to the already overly saturated market.

Circa 2000 Poster

Above: The recommended Mount Hope logo options. The logo on the left arguably met all the strategic objectives of creating an iconic, intelligent, and memorable brand, while the logo at right idealized existing on-site architecture while simultaneously evoking an 'M' and 'H'. Both were flatly rejected.

Circa 2000 Poster

38 ever-worsening logo samples dictated by the client. Excerpted from workfiles totaling approximately 314 variations. For a sampling of logos exhibiting an appropriate level of quality, view the Logo section of 723 Design.

Circa 2000 Poster

The unfortunate final logo dictated by the client. This mark began as a throwaway skecth deemed unworthy to refine or present. Somehow the client viewed it, and determined this was the right direction. Not all case studies end with brilliant, immaculate work. This client-dictated process was referred to as "Shopping for a Prom Dress" by my first Creative Director.

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