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.

New Punctuation: from Interrobang to SarcMark

SarcMark: to denote sarcasm

Just what we needed, more punctuation.

Well…. actually we do need more. That statement itself could have benefited from a symbol that conveyed the fact that I did not seriously want more punctuation or font problems to deal with! But digital communications have run into a few unforeseen limitations. Have you found yourself being more easily misunderstood in email and text messaging than you are face to face or by phone conversations? So much of our communication actually occurs through physical cues, expressions, body and hand gestures, intonation and vocal signals – none of which are accessible in a text message or a 140 character tweet!

Whenever a difficulty arises in communication, language begins to morph and adapt to overcome that difficulty. In this case, the use of little smiley faces and emoticons are an attempt to “add on” a little explanation of unspoken cues in symbolic form. A more formal attempt to alter the written language is an attempt at a punctuation change called the SarcMark: a registered trademarked symbol that you can purchase to use in order to denote sarcasm or irony in a statement.

The SarcMark is the creation of Paul and Doug Sak who started Sarcasm Inc. They saw the need (and business opportunity) for a punctuation mark that denotes sarcasm, especially in a digital communication. As their video says, “Only $1.99 for lifetime use… and never be misunderstood again.” It works on both Mac and PC platforms, and has both a font option for type or texting, or a graphic option if you know the person on the other end has not downloaded the symbol as well. Smark marketers, the Saks have also created branded apparel and other items to encourage the use of their new punctuation.

Punctuation marks for Sarcasm and irony

English has no standard symbol to denote irony or sarcasm, though historically there have been a few attempts put forward. The Interrobang (I love that word) is a combination of question mark and exclamation point, and is used by some to mark a rhetorical question that does not require an answer, or to show excitement or disbelief in the form of a question (“Did you just do what I think you did?!) The irony point (a backwards question mark) is a French attempt to create a punctuation mark to indicate there is a second meaning to what is being said. Also, emoticons are very much an outgrowth of the same need for additional punctuation in text or email communication to set a tone or to explain subtext in what is being said.

Overall, the appearance of these new symbols is an interesting development in the evolution of English. More change, just what you needed, right?! 😉


Smart marketing ideas – new technology – upcoming marketing trends: ASK YOUR PRINTER! They are the experts at introducing you to marketing innovations and working with you to direct your brand and reach to more people, locally or globally.


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.