Design By Committee – How To Make It Work

Design by Committee is an inescapable situation in many corporate environments today. It’s also the bane of most designers’ existence. I can understand the thinking that two heads are better than one, but trying to please a group of four or more varying opinions can seem like an impossible and very frustrating task that frequently ends in a “too many cooks spoil the stew” scenario.

Many people, on both the committee and design side, despise this particular challenge, but in my perspective it presents an opportunity to think of some ways to improve a process that so often ends in mediocre design solutions that no one really wants.

Identify the design’s purpose for all parties
Knowing the purpose of the overall design is imperative to keeping a committee on task but it also should drive design-making decisions. A design and its elements should be tied to a specific audience and overall objective that’s agreed upon by the committee in the beginning. When presenting the design, being able to communicate why a design element was used and how it meets the overall goal or appeal to the agreed upon audience can make committee buy-in easier.

Help keep egos and politics in check
All too often, a design by committee project ends up focused on the internal structure of an organization, or worse, a decision maker’s personal tastes, rather than the audience it’s meant to engage. Having the guts to ask why an individual or group is requesting a change and if that change will help meet the objectives they defined is our responsibility. Being a “yes man” may help you gain favor initially but it will most likely fail your design project and, ultimately, your goals.

For example, choosing a specific color or font because it matches your branding is a good reason for a design change, as it will help improve brand recognition and consistency across marketing efforts. Choosing a trendy font, just because you like it, as opposed to one that is more readable for your older target audience is not a good decision. As designers, we are trained to consider such things but we need to remember that the people on the committee might not be – bringing conversations back to these tangible points helps correlate something visual with the end purpose of the design.

Ask for feedback in a constructive manner
More often than not, personal backgrounds or emotional responses can end up directing a design by committee project. Asking open-ended questions can be a lead in to these emotionally-driven responses and misguided direction.

Fortunately, there are some questions you can modify to get more valuable feedback. Instead of simply asking if the CEO approves of, or likes, a design, you can ask if he feels the design meets previously-stated project objectives or if it appeals to the target audience. His answer then becomes less about is personal feelings and more about the goals of the project.

When presenting a design in person, over the phone, or even via email, it’s easy to ensure your audience understands the goals of the project but, sometimes a design will be presented to others without your knowledge or participation. Keeping the project’s objectives and key background points with your design can give context to someone who otherwise would have none.

Use research when available
You won’t always have the luxury of market research but when you do, it is incredibly valuable to the success of a design by committee project. It can help give the group an unbiased opinion of what imagery or language appeals to your target audience and, instead of basing decisions off of assumptions or popular opinion, they can be determined by audience trends.

Wrapping it up
In my experience as both an in-house designer and someone who produces work for outside clients, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where I was designing for just one decision maker – whether they were in the room or not. Finding ways to collaborate with our clients in a goal-driven way whether they’re internal groups or outside clients is something we should all aim to do and keeping the above tips in mind should help make it easier for us in the long run.


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