How to Avoid Design by Committee

Written by Wholegrain Team - May 15, 2015

It’s a heart-sink moment. You’ve just presented a new design to a client, and they appear delighted. Then they utter the kiss of death: ‘I love it, but just let me run it past a few colleagues before signing it off.

Design by committee.

For website designers, and other professional creatives, that short phrase is guaranteed to strike fear in their hearts.

But why is it so bad? After all, if you’re running a company, regardless of size, there’re bound to be several people who require an input in any design, and they should be allowed their say, right? Even sole traders are likely to want to seek the advice of others before committing to a design. And with good reason – other people are likely to spot something you’ve overlooked because you’re so caught up in your vision it’s easy to miss something obvious.

The Perils of Design by Committee

There are two main problems with design by committee, if it’s handled badly. The first issue is time. Design is a subjective beast and everybody is likely to have their own opinions. So regardless of the size of your committee, when you open the floor to feedback on the design of a new website, you immediately risk a long, drawn-out decision-making process while everybody argues their point. Which is a waste of both time and money.

Secondly, and more importantly, you run the risk of trying to please everybody, and ending up with a bland, watered-down design. Essentially, it becomes design by compromise, where everybody’s comments are integrated and the end result lacks any sort of impact and has a rather short shelf life.

So how can you address these problems? After all, design is a collaborative process and your stakeholders’ contributions do have a role to play.

The good news is with a little planning and forethought you can ensure that all your stakeholders are happy with the process and your final website has the impact you require. Here’s how…

1. Choose Your Committee Wisely

This is crucial. Before starting your website design, you’ll have set out your objectives, so when you’re choosing your committee approach team members with specific areas of expertise and assign them areas of responsibility to match.

Assign a leader who has a good overall vision and the ability to make tough decisions. Give them the responsibility to review all feedback, and veto anything that’s unimportant or irrelevant to cut down on timewasting.

If you’re a sole trader, think carefully about whom to ask for advice. Remember, you don’t need to heed everybody’s advice, so don’t ask anybody who is likely to be offended if you don’t. Also, think about your target audience and invite people of similar demographics and interests.

2. Ensure Your Committee Makes an Informed Decision

Before consulting your committee, ensure that everybody is on the same page. This is especially important if your committee includes stakeholders or, if you’re a sole trader, people that don’t have the same needs as your users.

For the feedback to be useful, your committee needs to understand the history of your project, your overall aims and your success criteria. They need to judge your new design from a business perspective, which means having a thorough understanding of your objectives and your target audience. They also need to be aware of any corporate guidelines and know what your main competitors are doing.

Either hold a meeting at the start of the project, or prepare a presentation that you can circulate before asking for feedback.

3. Ask for Feedback in Stages

All too often, when a final design is presented to a committee it’s rejected for silly reasons – the shade of green is wrong, the design doesn’t feel right, or somebody doesn’t agree with the site navigation.

To prevent this from happening, separate the structure and the aesthetics of the design, and ask for feedback in stages. Use wireframes to determine the information hierarchy and structure of your site, and mood boards to get a feeling of the style, tone and colour scheme you intend using.

By presenting these to your committee separately, you will minimise the opportunities for your design being rejected for silly reasons, and help your committee focus on the important issues.

It’s also a brilliant timesaver. By asking your committee for feedback at the different stages of your design, if an element does require amending it will be much quicker than changing the entire design.

4. Don’t Meet the Committee Collectively

When you have a final design ready for consultation, approach your committee individually. This may sound counterproductive, in terms of timesaving, but it’s surprisingly effective and can actually save you time in the long run.

Discussing your design on a one-to-one basis will avoid long, fiery debates and allow you to focus on the project in hand. It also neutralises those strong personalities whose alpha-male characteristics can dominate a discussion and prevent the quieter members of your team from speaking their minds.

Taking this approach also allows you to highlight how you’ve addressed specific problems and incorporated that person’s ideas into the final design. This shows them that you’ve listened to their comments and acted upon them, and it makes them feel their opinion is valued.

5. Ask the Right Questions

It may be tempting to walk in and simply ask your committee what they think of the final design, but this approach encourages a personal response and should be avoided.

Instead, prepare some questions that encourage yes/no answers and are specific to your objectives. This includes asking whether they think the design meets your overall business objectives, and if they feel it is in line with corporate branding. Encourage them to think about whether your target audience will like it. Ask if it meets their expectations in terms of aesthetics and structure.

By seeking a yes/no response, you lessen the opportunity for people to voice their personal opinion and encourage them to judge the design on your agreed objectives. Then you can dig deeper and ask why they gave that response, so you can determine whether there is a good reason behind their argument. This also gives you a solid basis for resolving their issues.

Overcoming Design by Committee Issues

Design by committee doesn’t have to mean dull, bland websites that meet all criteria without achieving that special edge you crave to stand out from your competitors. After all, design is a collaborative process and stakeholders, colleagues and friends alike can all have a crucial say in the final design.

But to make design by committee work, you need to structure the process, setting out guidelines and shaping the information so that it’s useful to the designers and relevant to your overall objectives.

How do you deal with design-by-committee issues? Do you have any useful tips to add to our list? Join in the discussion below…