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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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? Link

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? Link

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 Link

  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

    I’m meeting today with a client who wants some extremely unorthodox navigation for a website. We’ve explained the problems with this, using everything from research data to metaphors, but they’re adamant. So I’m trying to see this as a creative challenge: is it possible to take their terrible idea and still create a wonderful website?
    The only real alternative is to turn down the job in a fit of artistic temperament. That might be briefly satisfying, but the long term satisfaction of solving the creative puzzle can be more gratifying.
    Of course, if the website isn’t wonderful, thanks to the design committee, we don’t have to sign it or put it on our client list. We’ll still get paid, and the clients will get what they (and their secretary) want.

    0
    • 2

      Make your version, too. Then when their version tanks, offer your version for an A/B test.

      Bang! Extended contract AND utter vindication!

      3
    • 3

      This “smells” bad already Rebecca. If you’ve got a client who won’t listen to you and the project isn’t fully underway then it will just get worse. Is the client hiring you because you have photoshop/illustrator and “can make a webpage” or are they hiring you because you know HOW and CAN?

      The clients that demand and don’t listen create projects that suck life, time and money from us. Its not just an artistic high horse, its a matter of defining who the expert in the room is.

      They have to agree to input and guidance now or you’re sailing on a ship made of cardboard and it will sink soon.

      0
      • 4

        This certainly makes sense. I’ve had this struggle before–having to deal with a client who is hell bent on irrational functionality and design and I’ve started to wonder why did they hire me? Why wouldn’t they want to take at least some advice from someone who obviously has more knowledge and experience in the field (I’m not just a freelancer but I’ve worked in agencies, I think that validates my ability to some extent). I don’t see my job as some kind of “Assistant” where I just follow exact order of my client. I thought I was supposed to be more of a “Consultant” where they’re seeking guidance from someone who knows more than they do on the subject, not to enforce craziness upon the web. >_<

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        • 5

          I have to agree with Rebecca…I truly believe this is our challenge as designers in the commercial world, 1. by communicating our knowledge and expertise in such a way that it is taken on board and 2. applying our creative skills to produce a finished masterpiece from irrational briefs. If a client wont budge from a downright crap idea then i believe that ‘making’ it work is what separates great designers from the rest. Some of my best work has come from the worst ideas, just because I have pushed the boundaries…and like Rebecca said, the satisfaction from this is far greater than the initial buzz of telling the client where to stick their brief!

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          • 6

            Bravo, Johnny Bravo!

            This is a tough time — you’ve got someone paying your bills, you try and make them happy. Yes, you owe it to yourself to retain your artistic integrity, but perhaps you can do both.

            I had the worst idea ever thrown at me. It was from a guy who sold large commercial tractor mowers (Zero Turn Mowers, if you’re familiar, cost about $5K average)… he said he wanted “a Dead Clint Eastwood in the signature man-with-no-name outfit — driving a zero turn mower” ,… it was the design challenge from hell.

            But you know what, it went in the portfolio. I was determined to make something of it and I did.

            0
    • 7

      David Desjardins

      June 29, 2010 2:25 pm

      Hi Rebecca –

      If it’s a question of making ends meet, take the work and live with the frustrations. Heck, even we need to eat.

      But if you can live without the business, tell the prospect what you feel:

      “The navigation you are suggesting is counter-intuitive, and will actually decrease any potential business. I can’t build something that I know would hurt your business. I’m sorry – we’ll have to pass on this project.”

      David

      1
      • 8

        While that is true if they currently have no page then _any_ page will increase business.

        0
        • 9

          No it won’t. A site has a specific purpose in the process of getting your prospective clients to do something – visting your establishment, buying in your shop, hiring you for work. If it doesn’t work, then the it’s not doing its part and fact gets you no additional business whatsoever.

          1
    • 10

      Don’t get me wrong, but for enough of a fee, I will sell my design soul to the devil client. At an hourly rate, you can have a $20,000 business card…if they pay it.

      Thanks for reading and responding!

      0
    • 11

      Do you not have the technical skills to do what they ask?
      I think THAT is the real issue, which you attempt to cover up with faux superiority and disdain.

      Can you not have both?
      Many websites have a simple list menu to supplement their other flashier menu.

      -5
  2. 15

    Just at the moment i was getting pissed about another design-by-commitee decision this article appeared. Priceless.

    0
  3. 16

    Very nice article Speider, over a year ago i read a great article named, “how to ruin the design curve” from seomoz .. but you really get the point. .. great post!

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  4. 17
  5. 18

    This is a great article. Being an in-house designer can be a never-ending nightmare because of the Peter Principle. It makes me want to go into the office of the CFO and says, “Wait, how about we move more money into that account, I like it there.” If the budget is decided only by those who understand it then why is design a free-for-all?

    0
    • 19

      I’ll tell ya, as a designer, I agree with you. But one thing I’ve learned when working on team projects, is that the input of “non-designers” can sometimes be very valuable. They’ll often, unknowingly, interpret the creative as the end-user would. And that can be really helpful to aligning design with strategy.

      0
    • 20

      I think the answer to your question would be ‘because while relatively few people will claim they understand the ebb and flow of finance, MOST will claim they ‘know what they like’…..

      most folks will simply scratch their heads when asked something like ‘should the added income from our surplus supply account be added to our fiscal yada yada yada?’….

      however…show them a logo, and all of them will say ‘make it bigger’…
      ;)

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      • 21

        All great points, which is why I love the discussion on the article. I think people learn more from their peers. Sharing is how we make a united front for our creative profession. If we are all “on the same page” there will be fewer arguments an rational about why we are the Devil’s spawn…which I enjoy, actually!
        ;)

        It is very true that an untrained eye, for lack of a better description, can spot things we take for granted. One reason the age of distressed type was short-lived. We loved it but nobody could read it. Looked beautiful but took too long for the average person to decipher. Yes, there are still plenty of usage around, but I’m the king of distressed type and there’s a lot of dead fonts. Deader than Brush Script…all upper case! Some opinions have merit and some are just babble. Differentiate between them and you do make a better product.

        Thanks for reading and responding!

        0
      • 22

        Great post Spieder, both in itself and in the wealth of helpful anecdotes shared in the comments. I’m going to note many of the hard-earned lessons from peers for future dealings with client presentations myself.

        Regarding the finance vs. advertising issue that Leah, Tyson, and others commented on, I think the root problem is that the ubiquity of advertising creates familiarity, and familiarity creates the illusion of qualification. But how to delicately point out the difference between exposure and expertise–there’s the rub.

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  6. 23

    I agree 1000 times. Thanks for your article.

    0
  7. 24

    “My dog didn’t wag its tail.”

    I’ve never heard this one before.

    Nice article , and i think it’s part of the job , like a magician, to make them choose the cards that we want.
    I know It’s hard
    Cheers guys.

    0
  8. 25

    I partly agree. Letting a good designer do his work is not a bad thing, but there is a big difference between design, usability and joy of use.
    Always consider your products have to be usable too and not just nice to look at. One single person would never create a great product unless fortune helps a lot ;-)

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    • 26

      Agreed. I work in-house, and find that when my coworkers try to overstep their boundaries and give me creative feedback, it’s because they feel their agenda isn’t represented on the final piece of collateral.

      Ok, and one of them has a serious control issue.

      Basically, my job is to make it aesthetically pleasing and readable. Their jobs are to make sure it has accurate information and reflects well on their department. Keep in mind my finished product is something a lot of people have to stand by, distribute, and consult. They’re right to have a stake in it.

      In my experience, a client or coworker is right to say “that’s not readable” but is totally out of bounds to say “that should be a lighter shade of blue and moved 10px to the left.” Even if the end result of those sentences are the same, it’s their job to point out the design problem and my job to fix it.

      It can be hard to educate people on this, honestly I’m still working at it. But if I was to work on it alone my tendency is to make the most beautiful, pointless piece of shit they’d pay me for.

      0
      • 27

        A competent designer can address those challenges and if a strong and tight team, as opposed to a subjective collection of mumblings from a committee, is used, there are mountains that can be moved…hopefully covering the shallow graves of “commidiots.”

        Now, as for not competent designers, stay tuned for the next riveting, whining article entitled, “Are We Our Own Worst Enemy?”

        Thanks for reading and responding!

        0
  9. 28

    This article has forced me to return to bed for the remainder of the day. No not really, but it has definitely given me a nice reminder of the Bull$%*# that I deal with every day.

    Great article. I’m thinking about printing 120 copies of this article and handing them out to every client of mine. Of course I could email them, but I want to see their faces as they read the article.

    Go Smash…

    0
    • 29

      The aggravation of today become the articles and novels of tomorrow. Just wait for my novel on the behind the scenes hilarity at major corporations. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll commit suicide! Well, maybe just two of those.

      I dare you to give those to clients! I triple-dog-dare-you! ;)

      Thanks for reading and responding!

      0
      • 30

        Maybe just two of those?

        …you mean the last two?

        …why yes, I do work for a big corporation, how could you tell…

        0
  10. 31

    When dealing with people who want to be included in the decision-making process, I often use the green M&M, red M&M approach…. Try to have them focus on one decision with limited choices (do you want a green M&M or a red M&M?) where any of the outcomes are perfectly fine with me.

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    • 32

      Mark, I like this approach far better than “put a mole on the model’s face.”

      Disclosure: I’m not a designer, and in these meetings I do my best to try to first understand the creative vision and then identify the design’s problems and, if I find any, give the designer general parameters for a solution — for example, “This area needs to stand out a bit more. What can be done to make that happen?”

      But back to moles on the face. Too often I have seen it happen: the response of the Person In Charge is, “What a distinctive mole! It gives her character — a certain earthiness.”

      And then they offer a few changes that wreck everything that was right about the design.

      Oops!

      0
      • 33

        Maybe…TWO moles?
        ;)

        There is no second guessing humans. It’s just best to move ahead and explain your decisions and hope people will listen and consider the validity.

        I was doing a cheap brochure for a “good cause” not long ago and aside from them not realizing they had given me their charity’s name wrong (yes, they got their own name wrong and never noticed the mistake on their copy or the jpegs I would send), forcing me to correct everything overnight as the piece was “on the press,” it was fairly easy. There was a comment about the background color but by explaining the emotional impact of colors, using McDonald’s color palette with the emotional responses to orange yellow and red, the request was withdrawn.

        I will be the first to admit is is not easy to stay cool and think on your feet in front of a committee (another reason a team environment creates familiarity and brings people out, along with their best ideas). I consider myself fortunate to be able to use words well and have experience in debate and public speaking. Most people I know can’t do it. Just have a prepared speech and a couple of flow charts and you’ll be speaking their language. It’s akin to the “M&M” strategy — lead them where they need to be.

        0
  11. 34

    Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

    Perfect timing…although I could say that most of the time.

    0
  12. 35

    Will it ever end?

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    • 36

      If people learn the subtleties of handling coworkers, objection response and management. Creatives too often forget the uncreative side of office politics. There’s no way out of it, except for just rolling over every time you are asked to do so. That will drive you insane eventually because people will take more and more and more.

      It sounds silly, but there are plenty of business books on the subject of dealing with difficult coworkers, but they are helpful.

      Thanks for reading and responding!

      0
  13. 37

    Brilliant.

    0
  14. 38

    “…know when to pick your battles and know when to let go…” – so true. So very, very true.

    0
  15. 39

    Good read. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the term “designer”, and whether that pigeonholes us or not. For example, some clients hire designers to “make things look nice”, not understanding that GOOD design is a marriage of form & function.

    I think the term “designer”, to these clients, can sometimes be misconstrued as “guy with CS5”.

    I wish I had a solution. Perhaps, for freelancers and studio owners, it may be more beneficial to focus on the strategic planning of a communication piece and let design fall in as a part of that category. However, I’m just thinking out loud and that may be ridiculous.

    0
    • 40

      Not ridiculous. Anything to remove the perceived subjectivity from the process is a step in the right direction.

      0
    • 41

      I think part of the solution is to market yourself–whether you’re a studio or freelancer or in-house designer (and maybe even more so if you’re in house)–as a design consultant.

      we all-too-often get seen, particularly in-house, as the “make it pretty” people. the people who are given very specific directions for already concluded work, instead of the people who are asked for input all along the way because we have valuable input that affects more than just “what color that box is.”

      we need to start by perceiving ourselves as consultants and then communicate that perception to the clients so they believe it as well. until a designer can do that, they’ll be perceived as service providers, not consultants. and as “service providers,” we’re seen as more of an admin or support role, not a professional role.

      0
    • 42

      I’ve heard and even had some different titles to get around that but the bottom line is we are creatives and therefore “weirdos.” Use that to scare people into submission! ;)

      “Creative Consulting” or “Creative Solutions” still have the word creative. I wonder if “Committee Expert” would fly?

      Thanks for reading and responding!

      0
    • 43

      designer != artist.

      This is the distinction.

      0
  16. 44

    have this nearly very day as i’m only creative/marketing person in the company.
    The most annoying thing is extra time things take for example our new letterheads have taken 4 months to do due to ‘senior’ managers unable to decided what they want on them and what the Terms and Conditions say.

    Best bit of advice I can offer is listen to people and smile and ditch 99% of the ideas and keep the good ones, never shut yourself off from it totally as sometimes some very good ideas come through

    0
  17. 46

    Great article. I especially liked the link to the stop sign design process!

    0
    • 47

      Watch the show link (Better Off Ted) It’s well worth the 21 minutes!

      Thanks for reading and responding!

      0
  18. 48

    Nice article, and I agree that client-side design-by-committee processes tend to yield degraded design solutions.

    But, more often than not, there’s an acute lack of accountability on the part of senior Creatives if the designs they hold domain over fail to hit the mark. In fact, courage tends to lack conviction when ‘big idea’ creative solutions don’t meet the expectations of clients.

    Sure, you can hold Apple as an example, but their design process involves thousands of small ideas from several people that generate a particular product.

    And, while some design solutions could likely be the orgasmic brainchild of an ego-maniacal Art Director hell bent on winning industry marketing awards, I’d like to think the only design-by-committee process going on is within the internal design team, with each member being able to give perspective and rationale to proposed solutions.

    If your experiencing design-by-committee outside of this dynamic, then there’s a greater problem of controlling client feedback.

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  19. 49

    Thank you for writing this!

    0
  20. 50

    i didn’t even get the idea what this article is about- im so clueless.. what is it..

    -1
    • 51

      It’s about 2,700 words long. Are you one of my friends playing a trick on me? I will find you!
      ;)

      0
  21. 52

    Great article on dealing with the “peterson principle” problem within in-house designers. I’ve been working around certified pros in other disciplines. Many of which are brilliant and ignorant of their chosen profession. However, time and time again, they are considered “experts” and usually get their way. Or worse, the committee is intimidated and doesn’t debate their decisions.
    After twenty years of this, I noticed one thing. Graphic designers have no credibility on paper. No certification, even professional organizations aren’t enough to justify our career choices. I know many of you believe we can’t certify design or art. Why not? We only hurt our profession and make it vulnerable to open subjective opinion about our design.
    Another point, not all in-house graphic designers have educated bosses. So our credibility is considered more “administrative” than an essential part of the operations of a business, for example, accountant, sales manager, project manager etc..

    0
    • 53

      Paul,

      Excellent point made about the detriment to designers that there is no professional organization, certification or union. I think a professional organization or design union would help with so many issues designers encounter like certifications for skill levels, being paid by clients and how we are classified by our employers for over time.

      At the last company my husband worked for no one got over time, not even the underlings. And some of them actually slept at the office to meet aggressive deadlines. Why do we allow ourselves to be abused like this? Because we feel like there is no one to turn to; no larger organization to help set standards.

      Back on topic….. excellent article.
      When dealing with a committee sometimes I just say “no thank you” b/c it’s just not worth the stress or time that would be better spent on more productive projects.

      0
      • 54

        Somewhere in the Smashing queue there is a story that discusses unionizing. Keep checking back for “Are We Our Own Worst Enemy?”

        Thanks for reading and responding!

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  22. 55

    Thanks for the article ! The problem is that most of the time I just can’t do anything but try to make it with the awfull direction that client gave to me.
    One of them bring his wife ans say to me : “she came with me because she’s an aesthete” “sure bro, but she actually sells rings in a store…”
    And by the way, try to avoid working with people older than 60 !

    0
    • 56

      HA! Been there. The “old days” seem to be the best, when graphic design, a candy bar and a house all cost a nickel (5¢ USD – smallest coin next to the 1¢ penny).

      Thanks for reading and responding!

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      • 57

        And by the way, as you maybe notice it by my english…I’m french…just to say that this kind of problem seems to be worldwild !
        Thanks again for the article, and the video on the stop sign is just amazing !

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  23. 58

    This is one of the few articles I’ve read that has a great gauge for a real problem that exists in the creative field. Time and time again, I am shocked by individuals lending opinion on something they know nothing about. I would never stand over my mechanics shoulder and question something he was doing or lend my opinion on it. Nor would I question his hourly rate.

    Thank you for this great article. It’s nice simply from the facet that people out there can sympathize with something that we deal with daily at our company. Beyond that, the Peterson Principle and term ‘commidiot’ will be entering into my daily examples and vocabulary.

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    • 59

      “Commidiot” is mine but I place it in public domain with the exception of all written titles, movies, comic books, tattoos and rock band names.

      Thanks for reading and responding!

      0
      • 60

        I have to admit, I already used it in a discussion with a peer yesterday. Hopefully Merriam and or Webster will give you a shout out in their dictionary for the etymology.

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    • 61

      Sadly lots of people do exactly that. They tell their mechanics what’s wrong with the car, they go to their doctor and say “This is what the internet said is wrong with me. I need you to prescribe me this super expensive drug the TV said I need.” You don’t do it because you know what it’s like to have it done to you and you know how stupid it is, but it’s fairly common — that’s what happens when people start believing opinion is as important as fact or actual knowledge.

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  24. 62

    Fabulous! I literally have a sticky in front of my computer that says “Committees Kill Creativity”. I seriously feel that we have perpetuated a culture of indecisiveness. Sitting in on a meeting a while back, I watched in shock & awe how ideas became so “diluted” by the committee that the original concept was killed by a bunch of folks who did not know their butt end up from a whole in the ground. Kinda made me wonder if this is what happens to Bills in Congress?

    Thanks for the great post – it made my day. A nice complement to my daily visit to “Clients from Hell”.

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  25. 63

    Working as webmaster in an organisation that starts a different commitee for just about every decision to be made (seriously), i found the best thing to do is to find an ally or two who are willing to back you up on every decision you make.

    Also, commitee’s are usually impressed with reports and studies. So when you have to convince a commitee on a certain decision, make sure you can point to studies or reports in your favour. If you’re good at bullshitting, make it up.

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  26. 64

    I’ve always thought of it as design “seems” to be with in peoples grasp. We are surrounded by so much media and we learnt to draw and opinionate things at such a young age. Anyone can pick up a pen and scribble and that’s why they feel their contribution matters.

    As we all know this is never the case. I think through educating people and being stubborn (if you’ve fufilled the objective) perhaps designers can win. There are also too many designers who don’t or can’t follow an objective. Who is the piece for? What purpose does it serve? A classic is websites, developers will no doubt have been asked to produce designs that just don’t work on the web. The designer hasn’t understood their objective and therefore produced rubbish.

    We need designers that can think objectively and developers who can think subjectively.

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    • 65

      The best artist in my kindergarten was the kid with the 128 crayon set of Crayolas! Life was so simple back then…except for the milk and cookies distribution committee. We ended up starving to death. The end.
      ;)

      Competence and the ability to understand all of the elements needed to reach the objective is hard, which is why so many creatives are dubbed as needing a “watchful eye” in the process. The rest of you…I mean us, have to live with that reputation.

      Thanks for reading and responding!

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  27. 66

    nice article but that said, I have seen a lot of crappy designs too, where the Designer flipflopped the project entirely on his own @rt=tic Supremacy ;-)
    Listening is key, and (learn to) communicate. Of course “they” want a bigger favicon… deal with it ;-)

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    • 67

      I could write several articles on the subject. In fact, I believe that’s my next Smashing article.

      Thanks for reading and responding!

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  28. 68

    Great article.
    One element I disagree with is the assumption that the opinion of a “non-creative” is worthless… especially when they are footing the bill or commisioning the next paying gig. The customer may be a pain in the rear but they are always right. Most folk will trust an expert in any field based on trust. Ridiculing their (albeit) wrong opinion in front of their committee does not garner trust nor repeat orders. Beware!!

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    • 69

      I appreciate the response. Yes, there can be a great observation from someone in a committee and all opinions must be considered. There are some that contradict each other or are just loud rumblings for the sake of being heard. Always be calm, patient and explore the possibilities. People will appreciate being heard but they will also be encouraged to contribute more the next time. Better to show you are considering it and if not viable, it can’t be used. If they freak, then you must use the corporate tools to diffuse it. A delicate dance of humans dealing with other humans…and committee mutants! (Forgive me).

      Thanks for reading and responding!

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    • 71

      I disagree that the customer is ALWAYS right. It is a company’s duty to make them feel as though they are.

      If the customer were always right, there wouldn’t be over 31,000,000 results on Google for how to fire a client. The most important thing is to consider all opinions and give recourse for those ideas that you know are not in the best interest, or within the scope of the project.

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      • 72

        Hi Nulam…
        Thanks for correcting me – yes I agree with your statement. I worded my comment incorrectly. What I meant to say was that the customer needs to think that he is right and being listened to and that his comments are valued. A good designer will be able to manage expectations and carry on regardless as you suggest.

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  29. 73

    A marketing guy wanted me to create an additional version of a landing page for a website, on top of my versions. after looking at everything together he pointed to “his” version and said: “i like this one most.”
    After a brief pause he added: “Ha ha, of course i’m supposed to like this one most, it’s my own layout after all!”

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  30. 74

    I thrive on having my creative decisions usurped by someone who had previously entrusted my expertise with the given task.

    But in today’s economy, being out of a job simply isn’t worth causing waves. When the average person is wowed by work that is subpar to you in everyway, it’s easy to impress, but you end up with projects that you never want associated with yourself.

    And yet they ask, “Why aren’t you proud of it?” Why? Because you didn’t allow me to put anywhere near 100% of my effort towards it. Instead, we just did what you wanted. In actuality, they shouldn’t even ask “Why?”. Because they’ll never like the answer.

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    • 75

      Kiss their a$$, take the money and if it was really painful, tell them you are too busy next time they call. I’ve dealt with delicate creative genius clients who will make a change and then insist you tell them how much you love their idea, creative ability and wish you could have their babies. Tell them you don’t like it and they will never call again. Fluff up their ego and the next time they call, tell them you had to raise your rate (to a level where you won’t get violently ill from having to listen to them). They either never call again or they pay you more to admire them and be their computer-literate hands.

      Thanks for reading and responding!

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  31. 76

    Clients pay the bills. I’ll take the check made out to “Dance monkey, dance” in favor of starving any day.

    If you’re perceived as “flexible” and “easy to work with”, a client is likely to give a good referral. Hopefully that referral is to a good client that actually hires you on your creative ability and not your ability to push pixels on command.

    Given a sturdy client base, a designer has the ability to “fire” those pesky design-by-committee clients.

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  32. 79

    Smashing Mag has done it again! Thanks for this article based on design-by-committees.

    ” 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?” ”

    A very insightful look on what a designer actually is… and their responsibilities to (hopefully) uphold good design.

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  33. 80

    Well, people are like to share opinions, until they are alerted that they are full incompetent in something (that’s like cold shower). They will either be quiet next tome or dig deeper into theme to give more «suggestions» (well, I would do that… really! I don’t like to be called incompetent in something).

    Also designer can wear «I hate design cometee» t-shirt, that may help! Or there should be poster in cabinet.

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    • 81

      Mmmm, I’m going to go with what’s behind curtain number two. You can’t actually tell someone they are incompetent unless you go to a lobby phone, call their extension and scream at them for being incompetent (disguise your voice — use a Homer Simpson voice if you can…and tell them it’s Homer Simpson calling).

      Better to smile, look like you are thinking and talk them out of what you can and do what they want. If it doesn’t make your portfolio, there will be others. Do this for a discounted rate and you get what you deserve — no money and nothing to really show for the time.

      Thanks for reading and responding!

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  34. 82

    I only had to ask my co-workers for input once… and that was all it took to learn my lesson. When I got input from my “team”, all that occurred was an increase in frustration and ambiguity on my design project. I think it’s better to have people separated into mini-projects on a design… otherwise, not only will you get too many different ideas, but your “decided” parts can be 2nd guessed by everyone…

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    • 83

      Triad teams work great and they keep the project moving quickly. Have a team or committee of 12 or more and it’s a mess.

      Thanks for reading and responding!

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  35. 84

    Reminds me of a meeting I was in a few months ago –where it seemed everyone including the janitor had input. Nothing was accomplished, I just counted the holes in the ceiling tiles.

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  36. 86

    Along the lines of your photographer friend:

    “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.”

    I always try to have two versions of a design (I make one that is real and another that just looks off, hoping that clients/committees will choose the better one) or a glaring flaw in a design, then once fixing that and getting their buy-in the process goes pretty well usually. But keep in mind they may love the glaring flaw and I have been stuck running with a bad design because they wanted it. Course, you don’t have to advertise that you made it and you still (hopefully) get paid so it all works out.

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  37. 87

    Excellent words, nice to know there are so many of us who have the same problems!

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  38. 88

    I think your article does a good job of defining what an unproductive group of people in a creative setting really is. It seems to me that the key distinction lies between what constitutes a “committee” and a “team.” The former is either a democratic notion, in which decisions are ultimately oversimplified by voting or by “pulling rank” (e.g. client pays the bills so has the final say), or a group of individualists working on the same problem. They may be in the same room together, but neither constitutes a “team.”

    I don’t think that whether a group becomes a committee or team depends strictly the number of people in question or the number of designers versus non-designers. I believe working as a good team requires a set of particular skills that are acquired (just as design may be seen as a specialized skill set and way of thinking) and a particular attitude towards work process. One firm’s work may serve as an example.

    IDEO claims that none of their work is ever done on an individual basis, but rather that all creative and innovative challenges are tackled by well-working teams of people from different disciplines (product designers, economists, architects, engineers, etc.). Because of their team-based efforts, IDEO has become arguably one of the most successful product design firms in the world, and they are so confident in their abilities that they openly publish their design methodologies. (I don’t work for them, but I wish I were good enough to.)

    The difference between IDEO’s teams and the client committees mentioned in your article is that IDEO’s employees have learned how to work together creatively, that is, how to brainstorm properly, to identify and prioritize the issues impersonally, and to follow a process that leads from a fuzzy situation to a concrete solution. I’ve seen so many teams of designers and creatives fall apart, even when they share the same “vision,” because they don’t first address how they will work together. Egos are bruised, tensions rise, ownership of ideas prevails, and the loud overrule the thoughtful.

    But overall, your article does a fine job of detailing the difficulties of working in or with groups that are definitively committees of the worst kind, and you have great suggestions for when in such a situation and you can’t form a team, about how to navigate through listening and thoughtful prodding.

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  39. 89

    This is a stupid and whiny article.
    You need to be able to speak TWO LANGUAGES, that of Art and design, and that of the common man, YOUR EMPLOYER.

    Anyone who has a craft and works directly to the user, it always has been thus.
    The wailings uttered (and endorsed here) are those of incompetents.
    To succeed, your skill is to be more than manipulating pixels and light sources, it is manipulating PEOPLE. Seen the simple add that just JUMPS at you? that made you want to buy what it was selling, or believe what it was preaching or hate what it was deriding?

    The customer comments, tho inelegant, though unframed in our friendly jargon of Ems, and CYMK and color palettes are nonetheless words of gold, ignored at your petulant peril.

    “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.”

    That is certainly one psychological ploy and there are many others. LEARN THEM. USE THEM. Stop whining about things wholly under your control like little bitches.
    Examine the psychology of your opposition. WHY are they doing this?
    Is it because you scheduled (or had scheduled) this meeting @ 4pm on a Friday?

    What if you ‘splurged’ on a box of donuts?

    What if you noticed a white skin area on somebodies ring finger? what does that tell you? BE AWARE, you may be working with computers, but you get paid-and sell to- PEOPLE. Know your medium, and manipulate just like clay and watercolors!

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    • 90

      Ok I’ll bite…

      I believe as a reader you’ve definitely under appreciated the article’s point and like a typical *commidiot* reaction shot it down because you have your view. Of course, you essentially are the target.

      This article is far from whining. It brings to conclusion the exact paradox that most designers face with their work against such a group and have to admit the best I’ve read so far.

      Mind you I’m not denouncing your own opinion either, as what you say is in part true, it seems like whenever there’s a design article regarding clients it tends to always morph into a rant from the writer. However, not this one, this brings into light facts that are worth noting (and a good piece of advice worth remembering).

      Touching on the point of shaping and molding your clients – even with the mere power of suggestion, there are absolute *commidiots* out there that do not care what you say or believe regarding their ideas for which their company pays you to produce.

      By the end of the day… there’s a decision maker in that committee – there is a leader. Work with them closely if you can… Get them on your side and it may make the project a whole lot more manageable.

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    • 91

      @Steve –

      I appreciate your response and was hoping for an opposing viewpoint to add to the discussion. If you would be so kind, I would love to engage you in a friendly discussion so the readers can see what other opinions are and understand those opinions.

      Are you a creative or work with creatives?

      Why is it you believe a creative cannot speak the “two languages” as you described?

      Yes, the work is for the employer, but has everyone on a committee an “employer?” Certainly on a staff position, does everyone in the room become an “employer?”

      Yes, there is a psychology to dealing with other people. I have suggested reading up on the subject as there are many fine books and articles on people politics.

      I have no idea what you are talking about with the donuts and wedding ring but I would love to discuss your other points and please, watch the insults and keep it professional.

      Thanks for reading and responding!

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    • 92

      I agree with Steve. The mark of a good designer or art director, is someone who can ask the right questions, and then integrate the clients needs and wants into the piece. I NEVER design something that I wouldn’t want in my portfolio. I work at finding the right solution that works for them, but is still elegant enough for my tastes. One of the first things I learned is to never design something that you don’t like, or with a “mistake” on it. You’ll only make yourself look bad, or end up spending time designing something you hate. If the client hates orange, find a way to NOT use it. If they love poodles, well, find a way to illustrate the poodle so that YOU like it too.

      I used to work in-house for an AD who said other designers always complained that she got the best projects to work on. She said it wasn’t that she got the best projects to start with, but because she MADE them into the best projects SHE could. Isn’t that the mark of a great designer? Someone who can take the worst project assignment and make it into something amazing…even with the client’s interaction or committee.

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      • 93

        Interesting point with a lot of validity but did the art director have more pull in committee to defend design decisions? It also sounds as if the art director wasn’t involved in the work of designers, if they didn’t get that same talented mentoring. Was it a team or a collection of individuals vying for the “best projects?”

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    • 94

      This is a stupid and whiny comment.

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    • 95

      I used to work with this guy that wasn’t a creative at all, but liked to think he was. He saw himself as a business maverick and a creative powerhouse. He was actually just a inept business man with an interesting sort of napoleon complex. Reading your reply i was sure that you were him come to bring the thunder and kick sand in the eyes of the whiny creative people. It made me smile. I’m not gonna attack the use of words out of context or the grammar, that would be petty. And I’m not gonna point out that you are obviously a one man show in a one horse town, because that is apparent to anyone that has ever had to work with you or has read your comment. But i will say that the problems addressed in this article apply to people doing the kind of work in the kind of places that your attitude will never let you reach. Also.. ” petulant peril” seriously?

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  40. 96

    When you’re web designer or firm refuses to sign or brand a website with their link at the bottom; that’s when a client should stop, back up, and wonder if they are morons and should listen to the web designer (you know, the people that do this for a living). I get the customer is always right, but sometimes you just want to smack them and say, “wth?”

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  41. 97

    I love the timing of your article. I just turned down a project that would have caused me more grief than needed. Yes, we serve users and we get paid by our employers/client, but designers still get the blame if the campaign is a pitfall, even AFTER the committee has made their decision. It is a constant battle to defend ourselves as “experts” in the game. We are also seen as an added “expense” in many industries–we are not engineers, scientists, lawyers or doctors. I choose my client(s), not the other way around. I am AWARE that my self-worth as a designer is more important than collecting a paycheck or serving people.

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  42. 98

    haha, I just through a hissy fit about this with my last issue. haha. I read an email about what a client “wants” and through something across the room. My hubby, was like what just happened? haha. Sigh. I also like the youtube video about how people don’t want to pay the price for what they are buying from a designer, lol.

    This article reminded me I am not alone. Thanks!

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  43. 99

    Anytime I build a site, I ask the client: “What do your users want?” rather than ask what the client wants… puts the focus on the end user and helps them realize what they “want” is tied to a personal (not a business) preference.

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  44. 100

    DazzleCat Digital Agency

    June 29, 2010 12:04 pm

    Having been through the design by committee process numerous times and just a few weeks ago the pains are obvious.

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  45. 101

    Schalk Neethling

    June 29, 2010 12:05 pm

    This rings so true with the current I am on, it is scary ;-) Thanks for the great article.

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  46. 102

    Awesome article. But it’s “committee,” not “commitee.”

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    • 103

      You should have seen it before it was edited and proofed. Drinking and writing worked for Hemingway…and most other great authors but I just write the word “penguin” at the end of every sentence and drove the proofreader insane. One typo is still better than the mainstream news media sites.
      ;)

      Thanks for reading and responding!

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  47. 105

    “Make it pop”… I know I’m in for an awful ride when I hear these words.

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    • 106

      That, and “be creative” are the cause for many a facepalm.

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      • 107

        I love, “do something different.”

        It’s sometimes a little “too different.” I’d rather swing for the fence and be pulled back than falling short, second guessing “different.”

        Thanks for reading and responding!

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  48. 108

    This is exactly what I think you are talking about: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/design_hell

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    • 109

      I’d swear someone illustrated one of my articles! How about, “can the site be round?”

      Thanks for reading and responding!

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  49. 110

    I’ve seen quite a few articles like this on design blogs, and I agree with what most of them say, as I’ve experienced the headaches that come from dealing with difficult clients who “just don’t get it” or “know enough to be dangerous”.

    But at the end of the day, how do these articles really help with the problems they spotlight if they are published within the “choir” of the design community? Why aren’t design bloggers trying to get articles on this subject published in business publications or mainstream media that their clients will read? Wouldn’t that be more effective in combating the problems we face when dealing with clients?

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  50. 111

    The phrase ‘the customer is always right’ is utter garbage.

    If the customer is always right, you should do a $50,000 job for $0. Cause the customer says they don’t want to pay, and they are right. Making the customer think they have complete and utter control over even compensation is never a good idea.

    It’s not that a non-creative’s input shouldn’t be weighed; of course it should. But just because they are footing the bill doesn’t mean what they say is what should be. If the customer wants crap, and they are insistent on crap, you make them pay for the crap, and then give them crap. But don’t put your name on the project. Once they take creative control from you, it’s nothing you’d want to associate with your name/reputation.

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