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Why Design-By-Committee Should Die

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. The always classic “Process (aka Designing the Stop Sign)4” 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.


Footnotes Link

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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).

  1. 1

    Rebecca Haden

    June 29, 2010 5:48 am

    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.

    • 2

      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.

      • 3

        Mohawk Kellye

        July 1, 2010 9:42 am

        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. >_<

        • 4

          Jonny Bravo

          July 5, 2010 3:06 pm

          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!

          • 5

            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.

    • 6

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

      Bang! Extended contract AND utter vindication!

    • 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.”


      • 8

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

        • 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.

    • 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!

    • 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.

      • 12

        I think that you’re a moron.

      • 13

        Stanley Brown

        July 5, 2010 5:07 pm

        I also think he is a moron.

      • 14

        Hahaha, I think he’s a moron too, but these replies are, you must admit (somewhat ironically) however, these replies are dripping with disdain.

  2. 15

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

  3. 16

    frederick Luna

    June 29, 2010 5:52 am

    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!

  4. 17


  5. 18

    Leah Sidwell

    June 29, 2010 5:58 am

    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?

    • 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.

    • 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’…

      • 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!

      • 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.

  6. 23

    I agree 1000 times. Thanks for your article.

  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.

  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 ;-)

    • 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.

      • 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!

  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…

    • 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!

      • 30

        Maybe just two of those?

        …you mean the last two?

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

  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.

    • 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.


      • 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.

  11. 34

    Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

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

  12. 35

    Will it ever end?

    • 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!

  13. 37


  14. 38

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

  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.

    • 40

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

    • 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.

    • 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!

    • 43

      designer != artist.

      This is the distinction.

  16. 44

    Stephen Dyson

    June 29, 2010 6:56 am

    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

  17. 46

    Jamie Brewer

    June 29, 2010 6:58 am

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

    • 47

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

      Thanks for reading and responding!

  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.

  19. 49

    Thank you for writing this!

  20. 50

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

    • 51

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


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