design by committee

Just last week, a client told us, “I know the danger of design by committee, we’ll avoid that.” Everyone believes that design by committee is bad. Even Wikipedia unequivocally says “design by committee is a disparaging term used to describe a project that has many designers involved but no unifying plan.” If you have a group tasked with a design project, everyone seems to feel that an opinion not expressed is a tragedy avoided. The epitome of the problem is expressed in the oft-quoted saying, “a camel is a horse designed by committee.”

Conversely, it’s generally believed that good design occurs most frequently when you have an autocratic, Steve Jobs-like leader, who authoritatively demands that all bend to his tastes. The notion of an alpha leader is romantically appealing, but the belief that great design is only possible with a dictator is more myth than reality.

Truth is, nearly all modern design—at some level—is design by committee. In our work, not only do we have the client, which includes at least the marketing team (not to mention the CEO), but even at our office, designers consult with each other. And the actual job title of the creative director implies “committee design”.

There are exceptions to the common concept of design by committee. Starchitects, which I wrote about in a previous newsletter, are often designers whose celebrity circumvents committee design. Such was the case for the original design of the building to take the place of the World Trade Center towers. It was a strikingly original concept by Daniel Libeskind. But given the need for stakeholder buy-in and the consequences of anything less than perfect being simply unacceptable, the project was destined to be designed by committee. Political activists, commercial, security, and engineering concerns all affected the original design. Libeskind’s idiosyncrasies were averaged out in the end—a standard by-product of design by committee. It may be argued that the final design of the building is visually less interesting, but it can also be argued that the final design is a superior solution, because it meets the needs of everyone.

On the other hand, design committees can be taken to an extreme. Apple is known for avoiding focus groups and marketing research. When creating the iPad, Steve Jobs was asked about the market research that went into creating it. Jobs responded, “None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want. It’s hard for [consumers] to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.” It’s like the quote by Henry Ford on the inside cover of our bound brand books: “If I had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Design by dictator works well under some circumstances. If the design project is straightforward, time is tight and stakeholder buy-in inconsequential, then dictators can get things done. But recognize that it’s risky and prone to errors. The customary safety nets and error correction of committee design is absent. Know also that bad dictators are probably as common as good dictators.

Academic treatises and popular literature support the power of group and committee-based decision making (see The Wisdom of Crowds). If the design project is quality-driven and it’s important to have stakeholder acceptance, then go with some form of design by committee. It’s best if the working committee is only 3–4 members and the approval committee no more than 12 members. The result may be slow and iterative, but by most critical measures, it will be more successful with less overall risk of failure.