Shepherding Designs Through Committee: Part 1

UCDA Designer MagazineYou have a BFA and some award winning designs in your portfolio. You are a valued member of an in-house creative team and have worked on your campus for many years. You are passionate about what you do and you understand the culture of your institution. But, several times a year, you begin the day filled with dread. Several times a year, you and your designs are the sole agenda item for the campus-wide communications advisory committee. You dread it but there’s no way out. Sometimes, you are a victim of Design by Committee.

Sound familiar? Not said lovingly, design by committee is an often heard phrase on college and university campuses. The phrase is popular on Google too and the Wikipedia entry implies it is a mainstream process even outside of higher education. “Design by committee is a disparaging term for a design process in which a team of persons, often representing organizations with an interest in the outcome, produce a design in collaboration with written proposals and meetings as the primary tools, or the outcome of such a process.”

Have you ever wondered why you fear the committee review process? After all, designers are a collaborative and openminded bunch; you don’t expect to make all the decisions in your world of work. So why does design by committee bring dread? What are the risks?

Committee Review
When a committee takes control, designers fear that the opinions of non-experts will result in an inferior product. Worse yet, the design submitted for committee review might be purposely bland just to “get it through committee.” Designers are also concerned that too much attention will be given to the subjective views of committee members. Often, the personal preferences of the most senior, or loudest, members are given more credence than the preferences of the target audience.

Setting the concerns of designers aside, campuses use committees to make decisions. Someday, committees may be more effective. Someday, design choices may be left fully to the communications professionals. Today’s designer must manage within today’s reality. And, for the moment, that reality includes design decisions that are made by, or at least influenced by, committees.

Beyond the dread and rolling of eyes, what can you do? How can designers influence a committee review process? What up front planning or along the way actions will result in a design review that is more effective and more successful? How can you shepherd designs through committee? Here are five recommendations to be examined in more detail.

  1. Lay the groundwork early on.
  2. Make it real. Don’t rely on the imagination of the committee.
  3. Don’t just prepare comps. Prepare for the presentation.
  4. Provide the committee with the relevant context.
  5. Guide the committee toward providing useful and structured feedback.

In Parts 2 and 3, I’ll explore the five recommendations in more detail. More to come.

(This first appeared as a feature in the Summer 2013 edition UCDA Designer Magazine. “Shepherding Designs Through Committee” was published as Vol. 38, No. 2.)

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