Why Design By Committee Fails

Ben Groulx
Aug 30, 2013
Why Design By Committee Fails

Design by committee, or in other words the reviewing of design by a group, is a process detrimental to the final outcome of a product. This is true for all client products, not just web and digital ones. Yet design by committee continues to be a process many organizations choose to participate in, instead of going about a more refined and effective manner. Occasionally it works. Mostly, it hinders the design process. Allow me to elaborate.

Design Is About Reflecting Brand Values

Firstly, I don't like the phrase "design by committee." It implies that a group -- or dare I even call it a team -- go about actually designing. Which is never the case. Design by committee is a review by committee. Semantics aside, a design by committee aims to be a board of individuals most likely deeply rooted within the company, individuals who supposedly to have intimate knowledge of the company's values and goals, that will determine if the presented design(s) are worth pursuing.

It has been a while since we have discussed brand values here, but that doesn't mean it is not on our minds. Brand values, company goals, creative strategies are all a -- if not the -- fundamental building block of good design. How can we, a team of designers, properly reflect your values and goals if they are obscure, outdated, or (please say it isn't so) non-existent?

Design is quite simple, really. It is about communicating your essence in a meaningful way to others, all the while realizing your short- and long-term goals. See? Easy. In an ideal world, every company would have a clear definition of their core values. Many do. Which is why many companies (read "larger companies") provide new employees with a guide, a corporate manual on how they function. They often contain worlds like "synergy" and "leveraging". Haha, business! These are not honest words, nor honest traits. Of course every organizations wants these things. It is like putting "passionate" on your résumé: of course you are passionate, so is everyone else here.

These values are instilled in employees and partners because an organization has a brand, a story, and tale to tell. They have goals to accomplish and people to satisfy. Committees are often a jumbling of people who unfortunately lack this devotion to story-telling, and as such pass this mentality on to the work they are reviewing.

Design by committee will only work if all members of the committee are, as previously stated, deeply rooted in the true understanding of their organization.

Design Is Not a Matter of Taste

Design by committee brings together a grouping of people with diverse backgrounds and opinions. Ideally with the same or similar values (should they be with the organization otherwise?). This is not always the case. Instead of a truly reflective deconstruction, the committee breaks down into opinion-sharing time, where everyone notes the things they do not like. Feedback is wonderful, feedback is helpful, feedback is crucial. But feedback should be constructive and helping push the design closer (or at least in an acceptable direction) to the goals. Feedback should be not based on the individual preferences of the individual members. Companies and organizations are not individuals. Brands are not individuals. They are collections of members, ideas, experiences, and -- hey, again! -- values.

True design is not decoration. (Amateur design is.) As designers, we are responsible for bringing forth the best of your requirements. Designers' backgrounds, experiences, and research allow us to make educated choices and decide what will perform best. This is where the value comes from: the understanding of how things work, and the ability to make those things better and more in tune with your goals. (Sidenote: I am not about to go completely into the value of design: it is an article for another day.) Of course your personal preference may be difficult to see past -- "I hate orange! This will not work!" -- however design is not a matter of taste. It is about producing systems, pieces, structures, and stories that perform well.

Design by committee will only work if all members of the committee are willing to put aside their own personal preferences for the greater good of the organization's goals.

Design Is About Trust and Execution

Every organization has its own unique process and methods of action. Which is great! The discovery of process is a fundamental part of a company's story: it should be proudly displayed!

Designers, too, have their own process. Especially in the web industry in this day and age, where everything -- yes, everything -- is in a constant state of flux and change. Everyone is playing around, figuring out what works best. This is why the web industry is a beautiful thing: we are literally creating this as we go. We are learning, we are developing, we are refining. Every day there is a studio or agency or freelancer putting out an article about their process and how they manage to make it work. I challenge you to find two articles the same. We all have different manners of going about how we work, and we know what has worked and what hasn't.

If Company ABC has a clear set of values and defined goals, and Designers XYZ have the experience and know-how to create something that will tackle these challenges, why would you put a round-table in the way? Committees are often the result of an organization's distrust of the design team they have hired to produce work.  You are using your well-earned dollars for something that is sometimes difficult to attach a price tag to… you may want to see how this investment can benefit you. Allow the designer(s) to make a statement, let them persuade you as to what they are showing. You may not have envisioned it like what you are being presented, but if you let them execute and demonstrate, you will be pleased with the results.

Design by committee will only work if all members of the committee can trust the decisions of the designers, and listen to the reasoning behind the choices made.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, you know your company, but we know design. Let us bring the two together to create functional, accessible, and worthwhile design. Committees are a hurdle in the way of marrying the two.  What are your experiences of working with committees? Let us know down below in the comments, or let's strike up a conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

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