Design by committee – what do you think?

A camel is a horse designed by a committee

Old adage: a camel is a horse designed by a committee. And it’s true – good design struggles to survive the committee. In the art world, creativity is generally under the direction of one artist or auteur, occasionally it’s a collaboration or the work of a highly skilled, carefully chosen team. But in the world of graphic and commercial design, when a new product, print project or website is presented, generally a committee of people unfamiliar with design is brought together or asked for input. The result, not surprisingly, is less that it could have been. The challenge… to recognize where the committee approach lacks effectiveness and direct the project with a clear focus.

When presented with design, the committee approach starts on the wrong foot by asking the wrong question: “What do you think?” Can you imagine the financial forecast of a business being placed in front of people unskilled in finance and asking them for an off-the-cuff gut reaction at first glance? What this solicits is a round of strange, subjective reactions: “I don’t like blue.” “Why is it so busy.” “Can we put more ‘oompf’ into it?” “I want it to look more modern, but with an old-fashioned flavor.” All reactions may have some truth to them, but are unfocused, random impressions that are not guided by a sense of the overall purpose of the project.

Misstep 2 follows in the wake of these comments when the committee doesn’t really know how to process their own critique or trust their spoken and unspoken reactions. Typically, any real decision gets tabled. “Hmmmm. Let’s think about this for a while. I want to show it to a few folks.”

Now the committee expands. People go home and show the design to their spouse, their kids, their dog. They stop people at the checkout line, email it to Aunt Gladys in Pensacola, post it on Facebook. Again, the question: “What do you think?” And all of that feedback, whether pro or con, begins to color their decision on the design. It’s like crowdsourcing an opinion rather than relying on the skill and aesthetic of a design/marketing team who have worked through the process of why a design is what it is.

In this process, I often struggle with what I would call “invalid” feedback. Yes, everyone can have an opinion on how a design project “looks.” But unless they have some insight into what their reaction means, how the project can be improved, why a certain aspect fails while another succeeds, then their input is what I must deem invalid. For example, I once worked on a committee where someone’s first response to design proposals was: “I don’t like them. I can’t really tell you why I don’t like them, but I think we need to see other choices.” That is not valid feedback. It serves no purpose in furthering the work. Someone has to take the initiative and have the vision to say what they want and why.

Also, some people think the “perfect” design concept will leap out at them if they only see it. It follows that same line of thought that designers dread: “I can’t tell you what I want until I see it, I’m a very visual person.” I once encountered a client who requested a design by saying “Show us 25 or so examples and we’ll pick which ones we prefer.” 25? If only they had agreed to an unlimited budget to create that scenario.

Committees often tend to pick and pull at details rather than controlling the overall vision. They rarely see the entire picture or have all the information necessary to evaluate decisions about function and form, and the process suffers. Feedback can often be colored by the inherent power sturcture: the need to impress superiors or establish authority, to appear knowledgeable rather than uninformed, to contribute something… anything rather than be perceived as not participating. In such a situation, who is accountable if the project fails? Everyone chipped in an opinion but no one claimed to be in charge. This “anonymous” or leaderless decision making leaves no one accountable. The result? Bad design, failed projects… and another committee meeting.

So it’s clear I have no solutions here. The committee approach isn’t going away. Facing the pitfalls of the “design by committee” approach can be a good start however. Good design decisions are unique, informed “leaps of faith” that rely on an understanding of the desired aesthetic, full knowledge of a project and ultimately the bravery of making the call on what the design will be. For some great analysis of the topic check out Smashing Mag’s article “Why Design by Committee Should Die”, or another great one from Boag called “Death to Design-by-Committee.”

For help? Rely on your printer for advice and direction in making branding and design decisions. They should have years of experience to share with you. If they can’t, you have the wrong printer! The best advice, always, is to ASK YOUR PRINTER!

ImageSmith is a full-service print and marketing provider located in Arden, North Carolina. Contact us at ImageSmith for quotes on all your marketing projects, and more useful tips on how to create custom, effective, high impact marketing solutions.