13th Nov

Design by committee: A designers worst nightmare!

Design by committee is a coined phrase to describe a collaborative approach to designing and, as I experience way to much, is bound to produce suboptimal results. Best described by the maxim “A camel looks like a horse that was planned by a committee”, I firmly believe this approach is severly handicapped. To illustrate it better let me regale you on a fictional example from the web design world, roll the tape Jack!

Design by committee

A typical design process

A tried and tested approach to efficient, time saving, quality controlled design.

  1. Initial design consultation with client
  2. Design spec developed and pre-agreed
  3. Ideas generation and presentation to client
  4. Feedback
  5. Revisions
  6. End artwork produced
  7. Signoff

A typical committee based design process

  1. Initial design consultation with client
  2. Design spec developed and pre-agreed
  3. Ideas generation and presentation to client
  4. Feedback
    • Susan gives her thoughts
    • Clive gives his thoughts that contradicts Susans
    • Malcolm gives his thoughts 2 weeks later that contradicts Susans and Clives
    • Mike loves it and doesn’t want any changes making
    • Clives wife adds her two cents
    • Two members of the committee fail to give feedback
  5. Designer makes revisions
  6. Feedback
    • Susan loves it
    • Clive hates it
    • Malcolm gives his thoughts 2 weeks later that contradicts his original changes
    • Mike wants it how it originally was
    • Clives wife adds her two cents
    • Two members of the committee fail to give feedback
  7. Designer makes some more revisions
  8. Feedback
    • Susan hates it and wants revision 2
    • Clive has a shouting match at Susan and demands further changes
    • Malcolm gives his thoughts 2 weeks later that contradicts his second set of changes
    • Mike wants it how it originally was
    • Clives wife ends up having a fight with Susan
    • Two members of the committee finally give some feedback on revision 1
  9. Designer can now either A. Quit. B. Call a design clisis meeting. C. Demand all changes funnel through one person only. D. Goes on a manic killing rampage.

Luckily the designer chose C and Susan was the designated first contact

  1. Revision 3 evaluated
  2. Amends agreed
  3. Susan passes on feedback from all comittee members
    • Clive wants to try another strategy
    • Malcolm disappears for a month to his villa in Spain
    • Mike wants it how it originally was
    • Clives wife apologises to Susan and gives her two cents
    • Two members of the committee finally give some feedback on revision 2
  4. Designer rightly demands further design budget… the committee say no!

I think by this point to see it’s not the ideal situation for any designer to be in. They can set out a strict spec, claim a deposit before the work is started but there’s always this middle grey area that can very easily go out of control. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and it takes a strong and experienced person to manage feedback. Some are changes, some are just ideas but at the end of the day it’s just not a situation a cherish being in.

Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington enlightens us further

There was a really funny exchange between Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington on his podcast the recently. They started talking about Chinese proverbs and quickly devolved the conversation into Noah’s poor decision to let similar animals onto the Ark.

This is paraphrasing, but you get the idea…

Ricky: “One of my favorites is, ‘A camel is a horse designed by committee.’”

Stephen: “Carl’s already wondering who’s on that committee.”

Karl: “I was just thinking why would you request the hump bit, cause that’s just gonna get in the way, innit?”

Ricky: “Ok, Karl. I’ll give you an animal, and you tell me where it has gone wrong. The Octopus.”

Karl: “It should have some bones. I never understood why it would like to get in a jar anyway.”

Ricky: “A Giraffe.”

Karl: “Noah should have seen some of the animals coming in and said, ‘Hold on. Just saw one like you.’ and then throw it out.”

Not sure if I captured the humor there, but, regardless, I like the premise of the initial statement. Design-by-committee is bound to produce suboptimal results, and I recommend to every designer to think carefully before accepting such projects, they can be more trouble than they’re worth.




Comments

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  • November 13, 2009 at 2:16 pm // Reply

    Totally agree with the fiasco caused by the “design by committee”. We have had a few clients go down that route over the years and these days we can spot them a mile off. Top tip is that after the first design goes out, as soon as you hear rumblings of other peoples opinions on the design you need to nip it in the bud pretty quickly. I would tend to speak to the person who’s job it is to get the site right for the company and explain that the design needs to be handled in a certain way as well as to explain the extra design cost implications…. otherwise you end up with a disjointed badly designed site and a really grumpy design team!

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  • Blogger Article
    November 18, 2009 at 1:11 am // Reply

    I think a good designer is a designer who understands what is required by the consumer.

  • Niki
    November 19, 2009 at 2:29 am // Reply

    I cannot begin to tell you that I recently went through this working with a nonprofit committee and damn near lost my mind. Thanks for this post; thought I was the only one.

  • sgorneau
    November 19, 2009 at 3:17 am // Reply

    @Blogger Article: While I agree with you, I don’t think that is relevant in this situation. No matter what the designer understands, it is the opinions/beliefs of the “committee” that get in the way. And too often these are people that don’t have defined goals and don’t understand UX. The designer’s “understanding” in this situation is the target of the firing squad, not a strength. In this type of scenario, the committee often believes the “thinking” is their part and the designer’s only responsibility is execution. They may say (often), “we really value your input and want your advice on the best approach…bla, bla”, only to disregard it completely. I think the point is, don’t get in this situation.

  • November 19, 2009 at 9:59 am // Reply

    I think it’s important to understand the difference between design by committee and getting feedback.
    Ultimately you should be designing and taking on board peoples thoughts but still have overall control and say so on changes. Provided you are sensible and explain design decisions well then I don’t think you’ll have a problem.
    But there certainly can be a case of too many cooks.

  • November 19, 2009 at 3:08 pm // Reply

    Great article! As web design company that specializes in not-for-profits, almost every design we do is a design by committee. I have found that there really is a process that works and ends up with a successful design. It requires a couple of full committee meetings, especially at the very beginning, where every committee member (and stakeholder, like Clive’s wife) is asked for input at the consultation meeting *in front of the rest of the committee*. At this meeting they are also told the rules of the process. Now when the feedback stage is reached, feedback needs to be open and shared with the rest of the committee again, so that peer pressure can be used to silence those who are now contradicting themselves, or to justify further design charges. And don’t forget the deadlines. Deadlines mean that the two committee members who did not provide feedback in time agree that their feedback will not be included without extra charges.

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