Navigating the Design Minefield

Posted by , Oct 08, 2010 2 comments

If you’ve ever worked in marketing at an organization, or if you’ve ever done graphic design work there, you know the pains and pitfalls of “design by committee.”  And unfortunately, if you’re not running the organization, you will never have the final say in the design of a marketing piece, a logo, a website, etc.  What makes one person happy can be totally wrong for another.  After all, design is subjective.  All the while, if you’re in charge of the design or the process, you can’t take it personally.  But design by committee is something that is almost unavoidable, and having to navigate it within an arts organization can be doubly hard because your colleagues often DO have at the very least a creative personality and a decent eye for art and design.  An article I read recently though, provides some good tips and tools for avoiding the worst parts of design by committee.

1. Clarify the Objective

A successful design starts with a well-defined objective that everyone understands and supports. Without one, it’s nearly impossible to complete a design project on your own, let alone as part of a large group. Be sure you also define and agree upon the target market, business objectives and criteria for success. Once you begin the feedback process, having a clear set of goals will help keep feedback on track and make it easier to disregard suggestions that are not in line with the objective.

2. Use the Right Tools

Meeting face to face to discuss a design proposal is often the most effective route, but when a meeting is not an option, it’s important to use the correct tools to facilitate an organized and productive discussion.

For example, collaborating via email often leaves a confusing string of comments and attachments which are difficult to manage and will lead to frustration.

Services like Private Feedback from Concept Feedback offer a secure environment where teams can exchange feedback in an organized and visual format (for more options, here are other feedback/critiquing tools).

3. Ask Good Questions

Instead of asking "What do you think?" which often elicits a long-winded emotional response, try to ask questions that require the participant to consider objective factors, like business goals or the end-user experience (i.e. "Does the design meet our stated business goals?").

Make sure to challenge personal opinions by asking questions that dig deeper and expose the core of the issue. Simply asking "Why?" can start the process of determining whether or not the opinion is valid and relevant to the objectives.

4. Defend with Reason

Make sure there is a purpose behind each element included in your design, and be prepared to articulate each of them. Having a well-reasoned response based on design principles and real world experience will be much better received than a defensive, emotional reaction. You should also know when to pick your battles. Some aspects of a design just aren’t worth arguing over.

5. Filter Feedback

A design committee is made up of a variety of personalities. Some people are there to see the project succeed and provide educated feedback, while others are just there to argue or add their fingerprint to the process.

Determining who is who from the outset can help you effectively manage the feedback process and focus on the suggestions and discussions that will contribute to the success of the project. If at all possible, try to limit the size of the group and only include key players to avoid added confusion.

6. Use Real World Testing

Internal discussions can only take you so far in the design process. At some point, your committee will run in to disagreements. Testing with real world users can often help resolve these disputes and determine a solution that not only works on the drawing board, but in a production environment.

2 responses for Navigating the Design Minefield


October 08, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Great post! Remember whenever you are creating a design for your organization your organization is the client. Your job is to make the client happy. As pessimistic as that sounds, the downfall of many a design project can be your own ego. Make it easier on yourself and provide a little distance between your ideas and what is finally decided on.

Also above all proofing is your friend. Check it 200 times if you have to. I've made approval forms where all members involved in the project must sign off and initial before a print piece goes to the printer. Things still can go wrong, but this way everyone shares responsibility for the project.

But in the end, I think it's good to keep some serious perspective on a design project. Usually no one will be hurt or maimed because of an error on your arts marketing piece. So roll with the mistakes, learn from them, and have fun.

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October 08, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Great post Ben! The recent unveiling of the new Gap logo and the resulting "design by public crowd sourcing" project is a very timely example of these tips. You can read more about what's happening with Gap on their Facebook page.

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