As we prepared for our first meeting we did some concept art as a teaser. These drawings were digital and presented on an iPad to keep it in our control until we were under contract. In front of the entrance building there is a roundabout which is visible from anywhere in the large parking lot plus from the busy road that goes by. We suggested a large stone sculpture of a gorilla which looked very ancient.
We were now under contract for the concept design. Our first formal presentation used a similar concept to the first presentation but with much more playful animals. The building was skinned with big timbers, colorful plaster and rock work. We suggested heavy plasma-cut steel brackets to further tell the story of the animals. Our client loved the basic ideas but again said no. They didn’t like the “run down look” of the aged plaster. It was back to the drawing board.
Our client asked us to get more playful with the building and the features, with the animals now in charge of the construction. We designed a series of trees which were the animals’ home. The theme was now “animal town.” The building’s lines were softened with curves which involved some significant structural changes.
The next version was back to the straight shed roof structures in an effort to bring the project within budget. On reviewing our design, the client wanted something more organic. Back to the drawing board once more.
We integrated the raised entrance roof with the two side buildings and made a swooping curve. The number of trees was cut down with provision for the future signs which would feature the new logo. The ticket windows became large trees. This was one of our favorite iterations, but the client was fearful of the cost of the curved roofline.
When that version didn’t click with the client, I took a couple of long drives. Along the way I looked at every building, searching for inspiration. By evening I was in the mood and started drawing furiously. A couple attempts were trashed, then with Peter adding his two-cents’ worth we came up with an idea. It was a classic “West Coast building” with heavy timbers and big rocks. I liked it a lot but it didn’t make me smile a big old grin.
I was still in the mood for drawing and that evening’s concept got me to thinking. What if I based a new version on that sloping roofline, but this time I used all cartoon, oversized elements and made it a little more earthy and backwoods? I began drawing once more, including elements from a previous version as well. All the while I was thinking how we could build this thing and keep within the budget.

The challenges of concept design

By Dan Sawatzky

Posted on Saturday, February 23rd, 2019

I often get asked if we charge for design. The answer is always “Yes!”—with one caveat. We do charge upfront for design, but because our projects are sometimes very large and complex we often do a teaser drawing, at our risk, while we are still in the preliminary discussion stage. This teaser concept is never given to the client—only showed on an iPad during the meeting.

The purpose of this first concept drawing, done before we are under contract, is threefold. It’s our way of nudging our client away from their preconceived ideas toward our more creative way of thinking. It is also a great way to upsell. And lastly it gives us a good idea if we have a fair chance of selling our creative designs before we are under contract.

A case in point A recent job is a good example of these principles and illustrates very clearly why it is a good thing to charge for design services. A local zoo approached us for signage and building facade design. It quickly became apparent that this will be a massive project with the potential to go on for many years, for the client is committed to updating the entire property.


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Dan Sawatzky

Dan Sawatzky's shop, Sawatzky's Imagination Corporation, is in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. Dan shares his experience in his Sign Magic Workshops on 3-D sign making, and his Sculpting Workshop.