Imagine that you and your ten closest friends are put into an industrial kitchen and told to make food item that contains everyone’s favorite ingredients. If you all like exactly the same types of food, you might wind up with something that’s not half-bad. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. You would more likely end up with a goulash that contained beef, candy, soy, milk, chocolate and cheese. When prepared properly with appropriate and complimentary ingredients, any of those items could be great. When people with divergent opinions get together and try to make a work of art that everyone has their hands into, the result is more often than not failure.
An analogous situation happens on a regular basis when a company or non-profit decides they need a new website. They get a group of people together (often contained at least partially of non-tech savvy people) and try to get something done. Often they will work with a designer and provide a few ideas to start with. The designer will come back with his or her best idea of what the client’s website should look like based on their design experience and expertise, as well as the initial suggestions provided by the committee.
On a committee of ten people, it’s likely that two people will like the initial design, two people will hate it, three or four people will be totally clueless about it, and the rest will have some “minor suggestions” to improve the look and feel of the website. Usually the committee will meet and come up with a list of changes and different ideas for the designer to work with. This is typically where things go downhill.
Sometimes the designer will take everyone’s suggestions and implement all of them without question, potentially leaving the client happy, but with a very bad website. Some designers will push back, try to explain their reasoning behind the design and resist change requests. Others will try to make key players in the committee happen and some will implement the better suggestions while leaving the not-so-good change requests un-done.
Although I’m not a great graphic designer, I do know that design by committee doesn’t work that well, especially when there are a lot of divergent opinions about what the website should look like. When dealing with committees, I’ve found that being up-front with clients about why working with committees tends to not work very well goes along way into making sure that the client gets a great website. You can encourage them to have a smaller committee or have a few members of the committee focus on the design aspect of the site. It really helps if the committee is aware of the issues that come up when a committee works on a website, they are much less likely to send you an a list of inconsistent change requests.
I think I had some really good success in working with a committee of around 10 church staff members on the Central Baptist Church website. We used 99 designs to get an array of designs from designers. I picked 5 of the best designs and instructed the staff to pick which one they liked the most and gave them strict instructions not to pick and choose the parts they liked from the different designs to make a 6th design. I did give them some flexibility in making minor changes, all of which were necessary and appropriate.
As a designer, your best bet is to help your client understand why “design by committee” tends to lead to failure and help set a path for your client to follow. Develop a task list that contains who is responsible for doing the work and when it should be done by. Also give the committee a few good choices so that the members feel like they have input into the design, but discourage them from having a free for all list of change requests.