Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

AIGA On Committees and Design Projects

October 15, 2009

It is a sad but inescapable fact that one cannot be a responsible writer on issues of design professionalism without being compelled to take to task and repair damage done regularly to design education and professional standards by AIGA. I’ve endeavored to do so quite a few times in the past and there is once more need to correct what passes for wisdom or instruction in the insular and unfathomable world of that organization.

The latest salvo of destructive misdirection from AIGA comes from Gregory M. Donley in his article, Committees Commit, Designers Design. In the article, published, yesterday on the AIGA site, Donley holds up the frightening context of design by committee as red meat for his examination. He then proceeds to completely avoid actually relevant issues and spins meat into straw, building a series of straw men that he knocks over in succession. His central theme is that because committees are not generally populated with stupid, evil people, designers would do well not to ignore the wide range of ideas and opinions a committee can bring to a design project process. The moral of his misdirected story is that design by committee is actually a good thing if one first allows the committee to articulate the various needs and wants, and then the designer responds by articulating the design. See, it’s simple!

Here I’m going to offer a bit more responsible examination of this context and address the appropriate issues. First, however, let’s examine the irrelevancies and useless distractions offered up in Donley’s essay.

Donley’s straw men:

1) Client-side committee members “…are not idiots, nor evildoers, not even distracted administrators, but well-intentioned, competent people who are legitimately trying to help.”
A generalization, but even in cases where this is an accurate depiction of the involved committee, these facts have nothing to do with the reasons that projects that are run by committees become failed prospects.

2) “…To approach that ideal it may be helpful to re-frame the endeavor so it is no longer about who has decision-making authority, but rather about crafting a design-positive process and giving the process itself authority. The goal is not that any constituency wins, but that design itself wins. A victory for design is a victory for everyone.”
Due to the specific purpose a committee serves (explained later), involvement of a committee in the ongoing design project process renders this awesome-sounding utopian ideal impossible.

3) Paraphrasing: The way to allow the committee to work correctly with the ongoing process is to first allow the members to articulate their various wants and needs, and then the designer does the articulation of the design to address these requirements.
This idea is not at issue, for just about every designer on earth already knows that this is how a design project should proceed. Stating it like this, as if that makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy, ignores the reality of the mechanisms and outcomes where a committee is involved in the ongoing project.

4) “…Thus the much-maligned ‘committee’ can be a great asset if its collective intelligence is channeled into clear articulation of goals.”
Intelligent people already understand this …in the context of discovery. We all want the rich input that many voices can provide in that initial step of the process. This has nothing to do with the reality of “design by committee,” however.

5) Paraphrasing: The rich input that can come from a committee is preferable to the single voice of the primary stakeholder.
Of course …in the discovery phase of the project. No responsible designer would argue against that.

By solving or justifying away these contextually irrelevant issues, Donley has done nothing to address the relevant ones. So this AIGA article offers no useful meat to hungry design professionals and is instead distraction from what a developing professional should know and consider. Donley even goes so far as to describe a couple of examples of how, despite your best efforts, the committee situation can deteriorate into an unworkable state. However, instead of using this as a springboard toward more responsible examination, he apparently cannot see beyond the situation and offers capitulation instead of guidance or wisdom.

So where Donley and AIGA would try and suggest that a failed and unprofessional situation is to be expected and is really not all that bad, I suggest that it is the design professional’s responsibility to expect and craft a professional context to client work. To do this, a professional must have a clear understanding of the mechanisms and issues involved, so I’m going to present them for you here.

The purpose of a committee

Despite what you might read on a website or in public literature or in the organization documents, the purpose for having a committee is to create shared involvement in decisions while diluting responsibility. It’s important to note that the committee’s purpose is to make decisions. But with individual responsibility replaced by shared responsibility (meaning: no responsibility), the concept of consequences becomes distorted or obscured by the irrational basis for the members’ activities. The single operational mandate of a committee is its members’ entitlement to contribution. With this mandate for entitlement and no possibility for individual responsibility, all deliberation and evaluation is reduced to mere negotiation. Therefore, a committee is inherently predisposed to arrive at a negotiated, multi-faceted result rather than an optimal or successful result.

Design success cannot be achieved by negotiation. Furthermore, in the context of the committee members knowing that their purpose is to make decisions, the designer’s decisions are irrelevant to a committee. Both design and professionalism fail in this context.

Committee involvement in the design process

Donley is correct insomuch as a committee’s contribution of rich input in the definition of goals and constraints is valuable to a design project. What Donley apparently fails to understand is that at that point the committee’s usefulness ends and a responsible context does not allow its further direct involvement. Donley makes no note of the fact that once the needs, wants, and constraints have been presented, there’s not even a need for further committee involvement. Instead, the client should have one individual saddled with responsibility for decision making and the project’s success in the context of the presented requirements and constraints.

It is, of course, possible that the client’s primary agent in the project will have to deal with committee influence. However, with one individual responsible for making the decisions, the destructive influence of the committee is appropriately constrained to an advisory role. A designer can explain to, cooperate with, and reason with a capable, responsible individual, but cannot do so with a group robbed of responsibility and “entitled” to negotiate. Every professional must understand this fact.

Just as a design professional takes on great responsibility and must be competent enough to live up to it, the client must select an individual on its side responsible enough to hold up the client’s end for the project. This standard is more thoroughly examined in previous articles, but there is no responsible alternative to this sort of designer/client relationship. When only one side is behaving responsibly, the context is unprofessional and there is little hope for success.

Note to designers and aspiring professionals:
If the client is unwilling to select an individual to take responsibility for its end of the project, it communicates something important about the company/organization and the people involved. A professional should not deal with such a client. And, no, taking on such work rather than dismissing the potential client does not positively serve the interests of the designer or the agency.

AIGA’s guidance on this front would seem to be useful only to unprofessional designers who possess no responsible standards. Apparently, we should all simply be grateful to be in front of the client at all. Once there, we should assume that the client will have its way with what are surely our inappropriately-creative efforts. We’re beggars at the client’s door and the client is doing us a favor.

Well, beggars can’t be choosers. Or professionals. If you’re reading something published by AIGA and it deals with issues of design professionalism, take it with a grain of salt. Or better yet, discount it altogether and refer instead to actually relevant issues, professional fundamentals, and responsible standards.