Design By Committee: Making It Hurt Less


Design-by-committee sucks! Ask any creative professional who’s been in the industry longer than a couple of months. They’ll tell you — unanimously — that it’s worse than being covered with jam and set free in a cage full of hungry bears. Too much of it ruins projects, makes good people hate each other, ends careers, and brings the reign of Cthulthu e̥v̩͔̪e͈͖̬r̭̙̲̼̦ ̫͉̼̩clo͉͇͎̮̻̫s̘͉ͅͅe̖͉͕r͚̩.

The sad truth is it’s not going away any time soon. So how can you mitigate inescapable design-by-committee situations?

I recently came across this old article from Smashing Magazine by Speider Schneider, entitled Why Design-By-Committee Should Die, and it hadn’t lost any of its relevance:

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.

The whole article is really worth reading if you do any kind of creative work. If nothing else it might remind you that you’re not alone. When I read it the first time around I remember feeling comforted by that. Especially if you’re working solo without a team of similarly-minded designers, it can feel like you’re losing your mind sometimes. If you’re not careful you can even start doubting yourself or your career, for the wrong reasons. It’s good to realize that you are not the only person who’s had to deal with these issues. It’s not you, it’s the culture.1

Since then, however, I’ve been thinking a lot more about how to actually execute the advice that the article closes with. There might be a better world out there, but until it bursts from the clouds in a spray of skittles and trumpets, you need to work with what you have.

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.

What an epic balancing act! I’ve concentrated on each of these separately over the past few years. Each of them comes down to a core balance between humility, on the one hand, and a desire to create the absolute best thing you can, on the other. At different times during my career I’ve given in to one or the other. Too far in either direction is a mistake.

This is hard enough when you’re working one-on-one with a client, and it becomes exponentially harder when you’re working with a group of people. Often it can seem like there’s nothing you can do. But here are three things you can push for that might make life a little easier, whether you’re a designer or a project leader.

1. Constructive Feedback needs to be taught

If you’re working with a group of people who’ve never had to design something that others had a say in, they often haven’t learned how to give constructive criticism. It’s generally fairly easy to say what you don’t like about something. Unfortunately this is next to useless as feedback.

The worst feedback you could give someone who’s worked hard to create something is “we don’t like it”, without any kind of explanation. Not only is this impossible to build on, if your designer is a human being, they’ll be pretty offended. You do not want to do this, if you care about having a good relationship with your designer. Only slightly better is actually being able to list what it is you object to. The compiled laundry list of “do not wants” is the most common response I’ve gotten from groups in response to a design draft.

The best kind of criticism isn’t a paean of praise, it’s a balanced evaluation: what was good, what wasn’t. This means that your critique can be built into something better — it’s difficult to achieve a better result just by subtracting the bad.

2. Every design was new at some point

It’s easy to fall into the trap of automatically replicating what’s worked in the past. This seems like a safe bet: if it worked then it’ll work now. Why rock the boat? It’s a safe position to take in a group situation because you have the weight of actual results behind you.

This is an absolutely brilliant strategy, if you want to be in the lowest common denominator. If you want to be even slightly better than average, then you’re going to have to try something new, at some point. It seems fairly evident to a designer, because every success story they’ve studied has been a result of pushing the envelope. I’m not advocating that you accept every crazy idea that’s put forward. Your organization might not be willing to take the biggest risks, and sometimes designers get caught up in what’s new and exciting because they’ve already done the traditional things more than a few times.

The biggest challenge that faces design-by-group dynamics is that because most people aren’t good at giving constructive feedback (as above) new ideas get whittled away at from all directions until they’ve become safe, palatable, inoffensive, boring and banal. At this point you are paying way too much for your designer: you should have just brought in a high-school intern to push around those pixels for you.

3. Everyone has their place

The ideal group dynamic would consist of a perfectly efficient balancing of skills and experience such that there was as little unnecessary overlap as possible. You might have noticed that this isn’t always the case.

Instead, often everyone wants a finger in as many pies as possible, especially if they don’t have personal responsibility for those areas. The most attractive pie on the shelf is usually the design component of a project. That’s because it looks subjective, easy, and fun.

Speider Schneider has something to say about this, too:

The “design by committee” is not a helping hand but a slap in the face that daily sends a message to the entire staff that a creative is incompetent in their ability to do the job for which they were hired. If a creative, however, joins in with suggestions for marketing, writing or sales for the “team vision,” they are “out of their league” or “stepping on toes.”

The only way to avoid this is to have a strong leader who defines the roles of those participating in the effort. Probably the single most important prep you can do for a project of any type or scope is define expectations. If there isn’t dependable leadership then not only will there be hurt feelings, you’re going to end up with a product that, whilst it might satisfy requirements, isn’t going to be a good as it could have been.

The bigger the group, the more expectations there are in the mix, and the harder it becomes for even a skilled leader to manage them. Keep your groups as small as you can! More input does not necessarily imply better quality input. There is a definite point at which feedback becomes impossible to synthesize.

Conclusion

There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to effect the changes listed above. There’s still a long way to go before the business culture will carve out an equal place for creative professionals. But at least articulating some of the above can start a dialogue that hopefully will help you enjoy your job a little bit better, and give you a bit more room to do the great work you’re capable of. If you find that dialogue doesn’t take you anywhere — you just might need to pack your bags and find somewhere that suits you better.


  1. If you want more of the same validation you might enjoy Clients From Hell, “a collection of anonymously contributed client horror stories from designers.” I had to stop reading it because it brought back too many traumatic memories. But, you know, have a look.