What really grinds my gears close

Bjorn Jansen
Bjorn Jansen
In Grinds My Gears
16th June 2011
What really grinds my gears

Another month, another time for ‘what really grinds my gears’: a light-hearted take on the things that get under your skin in the world of work and digital. This month: design by committee.

Design by committee happens within agencies and within clients’ organisations and sometimes even spans across both and it is one of the most frustrating things in the world for a designer. It’s not just because I don’t like being told what to do, in fact it’s the opposite of that. Obviously I don’t like “being told what to do” but as a designer I do like being given a very clear brief that everyone understands and isn’t going to get diluted a few weeks down the line.

The biggest problem with design by committee is that it ALWAYS results in the lowest common denominator. The trouble is, on the one hand, we’re all designers and on the other hand  none of us designers. What I mean by that is that we can all have an opinion on design, but we also know that we can’t actually design ourselves so we pay people like me to do it for us. So when it comes to a committee, what happens is that everyone feels they should have an opinion, but a lack of confidence means that if we’re not sure about something we tend to tone things down rather than innovate.   

Imagine you were an ice-cream maker and a customer came into your shop and said, “it’s my daughter’s birthday and I want you to make her a special ice-cream that will show her how much all her family think about her. I want her eyes to light up when she first sees it and I want her to be surprised and delighted when she firsts tastes it.”

So you work all night making what you believe to be the perfect ice-cream for a little girl’s birthday.  Mixing the ingredients, making the colour a riot of pinks and reds, adorned with crushed nuts and chocolate. You chop fondant fruit and mix it up with the cream to give added texture to the dish and you invite the customer and his family back to sample your creation.

Everyone stands back and smiles as you show them what you’ve done – they hadn’t imagined that ice-cream could look this way. But then the dad says that he feels that maybe the chocolate is a bit unnecessary, the mum is worried that one of her friends has a nut allergy so probably best to take those off too. The uncle’s view is that everything is perfect but red and pink don’t go together so maybe lose the pink, everyone nods in agreement. The cousin says he hates fruit, he doesn’t mind the flavour but hates the texture and he’s pretty sure the majority of people would share his view. The sister says she thinks that the taste is a bit too strong and points out that her sister never usually chooses anything but vanilla. Everyone congratulates her on that observation and leave you to ‘incorporate’ those suggestions into the final version…. which of course, in this case, would be a  plain vanilla ice-cream.

I know it’s hard to get consensus, especially where there are lots of stakeholders but if you think that a huge room of people shouting “left a bit, right a bit” is going to get you the best results then you are sorely mistaken. Better to give the task to a few people to work with the design team, to go through all the rationale and thinking together and to trust them to produce something that is right for the end-user rather than something that least offends a committee of onlookers.

Because as a designer, to produce great work, and I know this is a cliché, but you sometimes have to be brave and push the boundaries. Doing this with people who trust you to do that well on their behalf is great. Having your ideas go through a wash and spin cycle of a committee isn’t and it’s that, folks, that really grinds my gears.