Design by committee

Gary Ennis, director of NSDesign Ltd, explains the trials and tribulations of design by committee and how to manage the process

The phrase ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ certainly applies when it comes to designing websites, yet it is a problem that web agencies often face when working with clients that choose to ‘design by committee’.

Many organisations – and particularly those with traditional hierarchical structures – opt to form committees when embarking on a new website project to ensure that all business functions are represented. Whilst this is viewed as good practice from an internal perspective, it can often be detrimental to the overall effectiveness of the end product – the website itself.

Balancing interests

Heading up a digital design agency, I regularly attend meetings with newly formed ‘website committees’, whereby each representative comes to the table with his or her own agenda. While the marketing person is eager to ensure the website branding meets company guidelines, the creative representative is most intent on showcasing his team’s visual skills, and finance has been tasked with ensuring the project all falls within budget. It becomes the job of the web design agency to represent all the different interests accordingly, whilst still coming up with the goods – an effective website that fulfils the client’s remit.

In addition to professional interests, there are also personal preferences that come into play and have to be managed accordingly. It may be the case that the company’s director thinks a bold, colourful background is imperative, yet another employee may have an objection to the use of colour. An employee with a flair for design may have a preference for a contemporary font like FF Meta Serif, whereas another would prefer the more traditional Times New Roman.

Of course, both business interests and personal tastes all have a role to play, but without one person taking strategic ownership of the project, there is a risk that the final website will end up meeting the demands of everyone on the committee, but will not cater for the most important audience – the end customer.

Illusion of agreement

From a web designer's point of view, managing the design by committee process is one of the most challenging aspects of the job. It is often the case that members of the committee will “agree” at a meeting when sitting around the table, only to send an email later to say that they think something should be changed.

Nobody likes to offend others after all, but as a result, the web designer has a much greater role to play – ensuring diplomacy between colleagues and maintaining harmony within the committee.

As with most things, there is no easy solution for web designers managing the design by committee process. However, the following three pieces of advice should offer some assistance.

Keep it small

Firstly, the designer should recommend that the committee group be as small as possible. With fewer people, getting the consensus to agree is a much easier task for all parties involved. Each representative will still have his or her own opinions, but it will be easier to reach a decision that will hopefully still fit with the original concept. To suggest this, the designer should aim to speak to the chair of the committee, or to a member of the management team of the company involved.

Secondly, the designer should proactively offer advice and reassurance to the committee, and provide examples of previous work in order to do so. In most cases, the members of the group have little practical design experience and can require guidance to put them at ease. Rather than send the committee emails entitled “draft web design version 1.0”, I’ve found it often works best to arrange a meeting with the group and present the design to them. Explain in layman terms the reasons why you made the design and colour choices you did, explain why the focus was given to the customer sign-in box, and not the banner adverts, and explain why you chose the big impact graphic at the top.

It is easy to assume that clients will understand why you have made a certain decision, but it is often the case that they won’t, and a little bit of simple reassurance can go a long way.
Thirdly, the designer should always seek to put his or her decisions into a business context. Explain your rationale from the committee's point of view - you did this part because it will increase signups for the company newsletter…or because it suits the company’s customer demographic better… or because it reinforces the company’s branding and message consistency.

Personal opinions

I often find it helps to explain to a design committee that the business website is not designed for them and that personal opinions shouldn’t come into the equation. It is not important to the customer whether the design committee prefers the colour blue or the Times New Roman font. The most important aspect of a website is the users – their customers and potential customers – the people who buy from the company, and the people that visit the site for help and support. Once the committee understands that very simple piece of information, agreements quickly begin to take shape.

Design by committee is something that web designers are always going to experience operating in a corporate environment like ours. However, it’s our job as designers to make it as easy as possible for the committee to reach informed decisions for the good of the business, the website, and most importantly for its users. Take the lead and provide reassurance: there is no doubt that the company’s directors will thank you for it in the end.