On a recent, large(ish) identity redesign project we found ourselves at the proverbial crossroads of waiting for our client to pick between two strong logos. Similar in premise, but different in execution, both of the proposed logos had their own merits and detriments and they equally fulfilled the brief, as well as reflected the path so far traveled. From the beginning of the project it was made clear that many interested parties, on our client’s end, would be involved and their opinions heard. So it wasn’t a surprise when a few weeks were spent on circulating the contending logos. What did come as a surprise was the result of that merry go round: We received an e-mail with a PowerPoint attachment titled Logo_Compromise.ppt. Our collective double-clicking fingers trembled at what awaited us once we opened the file.
As you may have already imagined, the file — the result of conversations, discussions and agreements of the aforementioned interested parties — showed a spliced graphic of the two logos, creating one new logo. Of course, the gut reaction is to be offended by something like this, a Frankenstein. The nerve! After the initial shock, we looked at the PowerPoint file, in all its blotchiness… and the combination of the two logos made perfect sense. We redrew the logo, tightened the typography, selected the PMS colors and sent it back for more circulation. After extremely thorough deliberation, involving literally dozens of screenings of the logo (and other elements of the identity), it was finally approved. We were happy, they were happy. It took two or three months to get to this point and it was a consistent back-and-forth between us and our direct clients, and between them and a myriad of constituents with opinions that were logged in a lengthy Word document — many of which we had to address. In other words, it was designed by committee.
Those three little words, a simple description of a common process, turn into venom when uttered by designers. When critiquing any kind of design project — but specifically identities — saying that “it looks as if it was designed by committee” is the ultimate offense, making it clear that the result is not up to the critic’s own design standards. Or, possibly, meaning that the designers were defenseless against the tasteless wrath of design-illiterate clients — begotten by their significant others’ love of the color blue — with the sole intention of watering down the design through bad decisions and lack of understanding of how much more effective Mrs. Eaves is at 9 pts. than at 11 pts, who don’t respect the professional advice of a graphic designer, but are happy to bring in more and more account executives and marketing senior vice presidents to make decisions hovering around what they think their boss wants… which is usually the opposite, anyway. Whatever the insinuation, one thing is certainly clear, “design by committee” is never meant as a compliment. Too bad for us designers, since the majority of the work we do is initiated, executed, resolved and troubleshot through collaboration with our clients, who, as a single individual or a group of vested folks make up committees.
If your vision of a career in graphic design does not involve clients and you have the resources to maintain a sustainable practice of self-initiated projects then you don’t have to worry about committees. Lucky you. Otherwise, your work life hinges on the rapport and dynamic between you and any given committee. Mythically, the committee is the evil association of people sarcastically portrayed in the previous paragraph, faceless drones that eat away at good graphic design like termites at yummy wood. Realistically, they are the group of people you work with, to varying degrees of involvement, from the start of a project until the end. Whether they are note-takers, brand managers, vice presidents or CEOs, they are the people that you talk to and e-mail with, they are the ones that brief you on the project and sit through the presentations of your work, they are responsible for informing your process and ensuring that the work is beneficial to their organization… they are the ones you celebrate with once the project is completed. They are real and they make or break your days, weeks, months and years. And this is why using “designed by committee” as an insult or an explanation for poor work, even if meant as a joke, is detrimental to our profession, and perhaps an underlying thread of why graphic designers are less prone to be taken seriously — if we don’t respect the decisions made by those we work with, why would anyone want to respect ours?
When, by default, we assign fault to our clients, the committee, for not allowing us to do our most “creative” work, we are insinuating that they don’t know any better, and we do — that we are, indeed, better but the shortsighted fools would never notice our greatness. We are questioning their expertise and understanding of their client base. We are placing blame on their decisions and input — granted, sometimes good, sometimes bad — instead of taking responsibility for the work we do based on the feedback we receive from them. We are putting emphasis on the stylings of the finished product as opposed to the process that brought it there. We are forgetting that design is not about us, but about them. And we seem to neglect that everything we do is designed, to differing extents, by committee. No designer can claim to have done everything his or her way, and if they could, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to work with them. Graphic design can’t be practiced as a touchy-feely one way street where it’s our way or it’s a dead end. When we use the “committee” as a scapegoat for pointing out our profession’s failings we are rejecting the idea of graphic design as an inherently collaborative process. Unless we want to add Narcissism to our service offerings, we need to realize that committees shape, for better or for worse, the work we do. And any insult on them is an insult, above all, on us as we fail to honor the working relationship we establish consistently with our clients. So the next time you are ready to crack that “designed by committee” zinger, think about the people that you work with and allow you to do what you love.