Why Design-By-Committee Should Die

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No matter where you go in the known universe, there is design-by-committee. It has become a pecking order of disaster for the society that used to pride itself on being a mover and shaker and that allowed its mavericks and dreamers to innovate their way to success. In a business climate fueled by fear and the “Peter Principle,” as it is today, a decision not made is a tragedy averted. So, decision by committee provides a safe and often anonymous process for finger-pointing down the line… inevitably leading to the creative, of course.

Why It Happens

Wikipedia describes it1 thus: The Peter Principle is the principle that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” It was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, a humorous treatise which also introduced the “salutary science of Hierarchiology”, “inadvertently founded” by Peter. It holds that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently.

Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their “level of incompetence”), and there they remain, being unable to earn further promotions. This principle can be modeled and has theoretical validity. Peter’s Corollary states that “in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties” and adds that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.

Whether on staff or freelance, we all walk into meetings prepared for our work to be torn to shreds. And it always is. The client sits there trying to explain to you how a logo the size of a small melon should sit on a 9×12-inch ad.

Our core competency is in creating something that is the perfect communication vehicle for the given message. But then subjectivity walks in the door, and the creative is left standing there, looking like an incompetent who needs a committee to complete their work.

Others Have Noticed Its Effects

Michael Arrington, founder and co-editor of TechCrunch, a blog covering Silicon Valley technology, and a widely respected and influential person on the Web, recently wrote2:

There’s a saying I love: “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” A variation is “a Volvo is a Porsche designed by committee.” Some of the best product advice I’ve ever heard goes something like “damn what the users want, charge towards your dream.” All of these statements are, of course, saying the same thing. When there are too many cooks in the kitchen all you get is a mess. And when too many people have product input, you’ve got lots of features but no soul.

Through it all, I’ve heard some wondrous and magical statements come from the mouths of non-creatives as they “join in on the fun” of designing in these dreaded committee meetings.

My favorite exchange to date happened in a meeting that a secretary sat in to take notes but who eventually took over the conversation. I looked at her and then the art director, who sat sheepishly quiet (from too many emotional beatings, no doubt), and asked why a secretary would be allowed to give design feedback. She pulled herself up in her chair and said, “Well, you do want this to be the best product it can be?”

“The best it can be.” She was somehow convinced that her opinion overshadowed all others, including those of the art staff. In her mind, she was actually saving the design. Stories like this abound.

You’re Not The Only One

Wanting to feel I was not alone, I posed the question to the art directors among my umpteen connections on LinkedIn. The responses were varied, passionate and maddening at times. One of my favorite Los Angeles art directors gave me a list of her favorite sayings overheard in committee meetings:

My wife wants more circles.

My husband says it doesn’t hit him in the gut.

My kids say there are too many words.

My dog didn’t wag its tail.

The waiter said he’s seen something just like that in France.

I need more oopmh 
in it.

I’ll know it when I see it. So go back and make more.

I love what _____ did. Can you do the same, but with carrots?

What are you doing after work?

The next respondent to my question asked, “Did you forget to take your meds today?” Another chimed in, “I don’t want to give you any stories because I don’t want to cry!”

One creative director added these: “Why isn’t my logo bigger?”, “Why can’t we use all of this empty space over here?” and “It’s too promotional”. He adds: “
Anything from anyone who’s ever said, ‘I’m not creative, but…’ or ‘It needs more… something.’ And anything from anyone who ‘knows what they don’t want but has to actually see what they do want because they can’t describe/direct/vocalize it.”

Plenty of responses advised us to let go and just take the fee and do whatever the client or committee wants. This is a “service industry” after all. One graphic designer wrote:

One thing I try to do is understand why certain decisions have been made, and I do this by questioning the person doing the direction (this could be a colleague, sales person, client, etc.). If that person has legitimate reasons for asking for specific things, and they can back up that it will work, I’d like to know.

Another voice added, “He who pays calls the tune, even if they’re wrong, and even if they have poor taste. That is important to keep in mind.”

As much as I agree, there is still that voice inside me that screams bloody murder at the idiocracy of group decisions. Feeling the same way, an art director in Texas wrote, “The client may pay for the work, but who takes the blame when the client campaign fails miserably because the client did not listen to the advice of the designer?”

Who Should Ultimately Decide?

For better or worse, I agree with another passage in Mr. Arrington’s article:

Product should be a dictatorship, not consensus-driven. There are casualties, hurt feelings, angry users. But all of those things are necessary if you’re going to create something unique. The iPhone is clearly a vision of a single core team, or maybe even one man. It happened to be a good dream, and that device now dominates mobile culture. But it’s extremely unlikely Apple would have ever built it if they conducted lots of focus groups and customer outreach first. No keyboard? Please.

He also illustrates his point3 brutally with this hard fact:

Digg is sort of on the opposite end of the spectrum. The company has been standing still now for years as Facebook, Twitter and others have run laps around it. But the company is famous for listening to its hard core fanatical users.

My point is best made through the brilliant, funny, intelligent Better Off Ted. In one adventure, the corporation empowers everyone to make decisions about products in committee. See what happens to the simple product.4 The always classic “Process (aka Designing the Stop Sign)5” is another frightening example soaked in truth.

Marketing aims to create consumer interest in goods and services based on the assumption that the target consumer is buying a lifestyle or habit, with some income, location and loyalty considerations thrown in. It draws from information about the target demographic; however, personal preferences about color, type size, logos and so on do not represent those of the target demographic. One person on a committee might be a target consumer, but certainly not the committee as a whole. Should people from disparate demographics second-guess the visual approach taken by the designer to the target consumer?

Mr. Arrington believes that the plan trumps all voices. His article ends with a very assertive video about winners and losers. Most creatives choose to let it wash over them and collect their pay check. I suppose I don’t agree because I haven’t seen many pay checks made out to “Dance, monkey, dance!”

What’s The Solution?

From all the responses and stories, it seems there are few ways to live with the design-by-committee lifestyle. Suggesting what a marketing plan or piece of copy is missing or implying that the secretary is unable to spell will only get you pegged as “difficult” and make you appear as though you “overstep boundaries.” Asking a non-creative who gives you excruciating input why they think you’re incapable of doing your job will brand you as “defensive” and “combative.” Give in, and you’ll earn descriptions like “flexible” and “easy to direct.”

The sensible answer is to listen, absorb, discuss, be able to defend any design decision with clarity and reason, know when to pick your battles and know when to let go.

A photographer I know once said, “I’ll give the model a big mole on her face, and the committee focuses on that and are usually satisfied with the momentous change of removing it and leave everything else as is.”

Whether you’re on staff or freelance, the political dance of correctness and cooperation brings a new story and new experience every day. And isn’t that one of the great things about this business… even if it goes around and around sometimes? You can just blame someone using the new buzzword, “Commidiot,” which is a committee member who has no idea what is going on in front of them but feels they have to say something of importance to justify their presence in the room.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle
  2. 2 http://techcrunch.com/2010/05/12/diggs-biggest-problem-are-its-users-and-their-constant-opinions-on-things/
  3. 3 http://techcrunch.com/2010/05/12/diggs-biggest-problem-are-its-users-and-their-constant-opinions-on-things/
  4. 4 http://www.hulu.com/watch/119287/better-off-ted-impertence-of-communicationizing
  5. 5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wac3aGn5twc

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Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices and telling frightening stories that make students question their career choice (just kidding).

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  1. 1

    To answer the past few comments would take the length of an article, so wait for me to write it and have it posted.

    Thanks for joining the discussion but let’s keep it calm and collected.

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  2. 102

    “It’s certainly not, it’s a core business resource, not a service. In the same way as a Marketing team doesn’t provide a ’service’, but an expertise.”

    ROFL
    hey.. you better make ME a cup of coffee too!

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  3. 203

    It’s really relieving that I’m not the only one struggling with this every day. ^^
    A while ago I’ve read a great article where the author compared designing by committee with a doctor: it’s as if you have your appendix removed and then you ask everyone you meet if they think the doctor has done a good job.
    People would never do that because they think doctors must have the expertise to do it right, but when it comes to design EVERYONE thinks they have expertise and therefore the right to make changes.

    I think sometimes it can be helpful when you get a lot of feedback, but at the end of the day the designer should be the one to make the final decision.

    3
    • 304

      I believe that was one of my articles, too. Was this the first paragraph?

      “I needed my appendix removed so while being wheeled into surgery, I told the doctor I only budgeted $200 for the operation but if I liked his work, I had other organs he could remove down the line at a higher fee. I asked if he wouldn’t mind if I had a few people look over his work and make some suggestions on how he performed the operation. One of them was my 10 year-old son because he was a whiz at the game “Operation.” When I came to, I was in the gutter wearing nothing but a hospital gown and my appendix still rupturing.”

      The rest is here: http://www.processedidentity.com/article/that-dirty-word-creative/

      2
  4. 405

    *sniff*

    Funny,
    THATS THE SAME THING INSURANCE COMPANIES DO!*

    *No lie nor hyperbole. I have worked in the Medical Industry for 20+ years :(

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  5. 506

    I think you have to focus less on how the creatives’ are the ones always taking input they don’t want and focus more on the basic problem. Had the secretary gathered the rote technical skills needed to deliver a design, if she could have done it without any creatives and others muddling with it the result could have been as good as a creatives’ design done without similar muddling. The problem is that vision can’t result from herding cats.

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    • 607

      “Had the secretary…” but she didn’t and that’s the point. She had no eye for design, ability to manage the project (which is why the fee increased so quickly) and aside from a dishonest professional attitude which included lying to her boss, she just thought being a creative…an art director, was a key to hold power over others. That’s a common but still horrific desire for humans.

      If I touched on the basic problem any further, I would need therapy and heavy medication.

      3
  6. 708

    My personal favourite that I’ve received is:

    ‘Its too… er … too designy! Can you make it edgyer!’

    4
  7. 809

    James Fenton
    July 8th, 2010 4:38 am

    My personal favourite that I’ve received is:

    ‘Its too… er … too designy! Can you make it edgyer!’”

    ^
    It’s one of my favorites as well, specifically because it is so easy to remedy!

    Most times with clients, there is NO PROBLEM – other than a Cool Hand Luke issue : “What we have here is a failure to communicate!”

    What does “designy” mean?
    That the lines look to contrived? In nature, there is never a perfect *anything* when viewed close up, it is only when seen from a distance does the perfect recursive fractals of river delta present itself. Lines are too straight, colors to ‘pure’. Using subtle gradients, grunginess, a background “bluish” image repeated x,y vs a #FFEE00 goes a long way to smoothing out that oft sterile perfection which people approach then recoil from.

    Maintaining a nice grid pattern then abruptly departing from it for one element makes it ‘pop’ – the effect can be jarring/disconcerting or edgy/dynamic, depending on context, relevance for the approach, and client/user point of view.

    Looking forward to an insightful article on communication from the Speidermensch himself, with perhaps a Client “garble-speak”/Designer English translator!

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  8. 910

    This is honestly one of the best and most well thought out articles I’ve read in a long time. I’ve been subjected to “Design by Committee” more times than I can count. It needs to die.

    0
  9. 1011

    Chicken Awesome

    July 9, 2010 10:50 am

    Great article. Here is a nice example of a what you’re talking about:

    http://www.underconsideration.com/brandnew/archives/most_boring_childrens_museum_in_the_world.php

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  10. 1112

    Speider, you nailed it. I’ve had my stuff pecked and gutted by committees since forever.

    But here’s a flip side to consider.

    What if a client (or committee) said, “You have free reign. Whatever you design, we will implement. Without change, without comment. What you say, goes. We’ll then meet up in 30 days. You get full credit, or full blame, for whatever happens, in terms of sales, web hits, page views, sign-ups, customer comments, whatever.”

    Clients did that to me a few times. Shut me right up. All of a sudden, I’m thinking of disclaimers and caveats and out-of-my-control, footnotes and asterisks.

    Committees save us from having to put our stuff on the line like that.

    1
  11. 1213

    Walt K “Committees save us from having to put our stuff on the line like that.”

    Spoken like a true pussy.

    1
    • 1314

      Speider Schneider

      July 11, 2010 11:40 pm

      Play nicely, please! We are all entitled to our opinion and they are all welcomed in this forum.

      0
      • 1415

        I meant that in the cute, furry feline way! (NOT in the cute furry “not feline” way :)

        I’ve been the happy recipient of two such ‘Carte Blanche’ projects and cried happy tears of joy. Arent those moments that we live for?

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  12. 1617

    Read these lines somewhere & they fit here perfectly.
    “My creativity wasn’t killed. It was tortured & then hung till death”.
    ;)

    4
  13. 1718

    Another excellent article at Smashing Magazine, this one will definitely get a bookmark :)
    As a freelance designer I’ve been in that same situation, I would like to share my advice on the matter:

    My first rule when dealing with difficult committees is the “time is money rule”. If the design/review process equals the amount of hours I would’ve spent delivering a finished product with a less complicated client I let the client go. After that point is a loss/loss situation anyway, the client loses money by not having a finished design and you’re wasting valuable time. Under no circumstances you should throw an “artsy fit”. I usually tell my clients “I think you need a better person for this job, someone with more experience in your particular field”. If you work in-house, you can use this rule by reminding the committee they have already spent too much time reviewing a design and that equals to money lost on not having something done.

    The other rule is the “surgeon rule” which is reminding them the reason why they hired you in the first place : They needed you because you know better than they do. There’s many approaches for this scenario, the most convenient I think, is to show them successful stories (specially involving their competition) done “your way”, or if you feel bold, you can go straight to the surgeon tale and tell them: “if this wasn’t a design but a heart surgery, would you let someone who’s not a surgeon to have the final word on what to do?, then why you let people with no expertise on this field overrule the whole process by turning their advice into monolithic commands?”

    None of the above means you should never listen to client’s feedback, in the end you’re being paid to do what they want, not what you think it should be done, but it’s really easy to identify those jobs where the design is stuck in a loop process: the third time your client says “let’s try this to see how it looks” be prepared, because you’re heading straight to that loop.

    UPDATE: I finished reading the comments and noticed someone already brought the “surgeon rule” teehee…

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  14. 1819

    So, you write this article…then 2 months later post this:

    http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/09/01/the-case-for-open-source-design-can-design-by-committee-work/comment-page-1/#comment-482008

    Should we design by committee or kill them?
    Make up your mind Smashing Mag!

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  15. 1920

    I want to both hug you and cry at the same time. Thank you for describing my work life & letting me know that I am not alone.

    1
  16. 2021

    There are times when I’ve created what I KNOW is the perfect solution and then it’s time to make the client happy. I truly believe that many of the changes I’ve made to my work is so that the person in charge can have his thrill that the logo was designed by the two of us. “James and I did this!” he exclaims when the piece comes back from the printer.

    What do I do in order to stay sane? I take the design I did before the goons chimed in and changed it all and THAT’S what goes in the portfolio. The portfolio that always takes me to a new job, more money and new design monkeys in committee.

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  17. 2122

    What about all the research that claims a diverse staff generates a unique team dynamic that is more wide-ranging in its scope, breadth, and depth, and thus better equipped to tackle complex problems and challenges?
    “According to Scott E. Page, author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies , some of the most striking divergences can be seen in the areas of problem-solving, conflict resolution, and creativity. In these three crucial skill sets, diverse groups have been shown consistently to outperform their homogenous counterparts.”
    Multiple opinions and feedback has proven to be just as effective as “Product should be a dictatorship, not consensus-driven”.

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  18. 2223

    When “Design by Committee” fails I believe it’s because it’s true potential was not realised and may have even been undermined by those who hold a cynical opinion of it.

    In my experience I can think of many examples where something had unnecessary flaws or shortcomings because of a lack of input form those who will actually be the ones using it.

    While I don’t dispute the examples given in the article above, I also believe that to foresee countless scenarios when designing something can often be beyond any one person or team.

    Let’s turn the perspective around… Can anyone think of examples where broad input has lead to a better outcome? I can.

    How about open source software or Wikipedia?

    The author mentioned the iPhone. One of the greatest strengths of the iPhone is it’s App Store that is filled with hundreds of thousands of apps created by millions of people. No one person or team could have created this.

    The Earth its self is the ultimate design by committee, yes it’s complex but it’s also near perfect. More perfect than anything created by an individual. (Disregard this point if you believe in God).

    I regard design by committee as being like the light bulb, it didn’t work first time for Edison, not because it was a flawed concept but because he didn’t initially find how to make it work. In fact it took him 10,000 attempts before he cracked it. But there was no going back to candles once he had.

    I’m convinced there is immense power in collaboration and the collective conscience… it just needs to be harnessed the right way.

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    • 2324

      I think your comment is missing the point, big time.

      Things like Wikipedia are generated by groups, yes, sometimes collaboratively. But the best articles are created by the EXPERTS in those fields. Say there’s an article about typography – do you think that the typeface designer or the corporate secretary would do a better job at writing the article? Or that the article could be bettered by the secretary changing the type designers article about Helvetica? She’d likely add in “Helvetica is boring, I like Comic Sans”.

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  19. 2425

    I had to come and read this article after completing version umpteenth of a simple gift Tag that’s apparently urgent. Each iteration redesigned by proxy, by committee.

    The bold baseless statements extend to moving a barcode “a bit up” while the printer screams in a void for the artwork to get to press.

    Not one comment on the stock images used. Purely pointless changes to relatively insignificant bits of type.

    The only way around it either a zillion options. Or designing in a change. One obvious omission or error, logo too big, too small etc. Thus the decision maker is validated the core design is left in tact. Sadly not every design lends itself to this approach.

    A design team can comprise different skillsets and professional experience. This isn’t what we’re railing against its precisely the example of the appendix removal.

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  20. 2526

    This article nails a couple of things perfectly. I’ve had to sit and listen to the opinion of stakeholders who don’t understand the subtlety and complexities of what is trying to be achieved on numerous occasions and it does get my ruddy goat. My problem is not so much with ‘Design By Committee’, (I love ideation and iterative design with informed colleagues and designers) as it is with designing for ‘Wannabe Designers’ who have a passing interest in playing designer for the day to get out of answering emails.

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  21. 2627

    Thanks! It needs to be said. Now to address Steve’s post below.

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  22. 2728

    Look at it this way, @Wilbur, at least we’re not burned as witches anymore. Ha!

    See you at the coven on Friday and bring some bat wings, eye of newt and Miracle Whip.

    Thanks for reading and responding and practicing the dark art of design and witchery!

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