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

The Dumbest Guys in the Room

December 15, 2006

It is unfortunate and frustrating, but it’s a fact: getting design approval and then a project completed for a large corporate client is seldom about convincing the smartest people in the room of anything. Instead it’s usually about trying to keep the dumbest people in the room (or in the company) from shooting themselves in the foot. And that’s if the designer even gets the chance to communicate with them at all. Sadly, this makes the business of design less about appealing to people’s better ideals and more about achieving victory over stupidity.

This is rather a cynical article, but know that i'm not suggesting that all projects are so bleak. It is, however, a common circumstance in our line of work and it's worth examining and certainly worth preparing for.

Now when I say “dumbest,” I’m not necessarily talking about people’s intellect. Instead, I’m talking about their willingness to rely on good information from experts rather than their own limited understanding when it comes to important matters. I’m talking about the ability to make decisions in the appropriate context rather than the most familiar context. Face it; for many cases I’m talking about the nearly impossible.

There’s no getting around the fact that when company leadership distrusts mid-management (a common circumstance), and mid-management runs the design project, designers are to be second-guessed and their suggestions and solutions picked over and “committeed into shape.”

By way of example, over the past year I’ve seen at least three large corporations dismantle, in–part or entirely, compelling website strategies and designs that could have positively set them apart from the competition while boosting their respective bottom lines. In each case, the initial design concept won over the project team and the approved design was then developed into a complete website. Then, after the fact, corporate leadership (or their agents) swooped in and mandated irresponsible changes that prevented their website from effectively serving their own business needs.

These changes were implemented at the worst possible time – after the sites and strategies were defined and fleshed out – allowing for very little in the way of mitigation. Apart from wrecking their respective online brand articulations, these changes also created time and cost overruns that harmed each of the businesses (and mine). The inevitable result of this sort of behavior is a regrettably mediocre and ineffective online presence. Not to mention a colossal waste of money (these contracts ranged from $45k to almost $200k).

Why?

The reason this sort of thing is allowed to happen is because the corporate model for projects does not work for a design project. Design can only succeed when all of the relevant business needs and expectations: for the brand, end-users, marketing, conversion, as well as decision-maker concerns are communicated to the designers. And it helps to know just who the ultimate decision makers are. But this so seldom happens in the corporate world, as decision makers are hidden behind layers of administration and process, so designers often end up working without the information necessary to satisfy them.

In so many cases designers are, as outsiders, considered to possess little relevant understanding. Therefore it is believed that designers are to be managed, not trusted - filtered, not listened to. Furthermore, there’s no getting around the fact that when company leadership distrusts mid-management (a common circumstance), and mid-management runs the design project, designers are to be second-guessed and their suggestions and solutions picked over and “committeed into shape.”

And by all means make every effort to know exactly who the ultimate decision maker is – and learn how best to connect with them and gain their confidence. Your success, and likely their fortunes, depend on this (whether they know it or not).

We designers know that this is why we have a discovery process and why designers should work directly with the decision makers. This is why designers are in the habit of spending lots of time observing and picking the brains of people whose opinions matter. This is why design concepts are presented rather than merely shown. We need these conventions so that we can learn about the relevant concerns, aims and constraints that impact the project. We do this so that we can personally build the client’s confidence in our abilities and their understanding of our approach. We do this so that we can address questions that, left unanswered, could erode confidence in contextually important elements of the design solution.

None of this, however, is possible when the designer is not allowed access to the real decisions makers. But merely asking that this sort of access and involvement be granted does not always work. Sometimes a sort of shell game ensues, where the actual decision maker is never clearly defined, though the title may be passed around periodically to keep the design agency guessing. The ultimate reveal near the project’s close can often be surprising, when all manner of hilarity ensues because the joke’s on you.

Don’t be the dumb guy

Ultimately… responsibility lies with the design agency. We’re supposed to be the smart ones. We’re supposed to be well versed in dealing with this sort of idiotic hijinx and at penetrating the layers of bureaucracy to communicate to/with the vital principals. But more specifically, responsibility to really figure things out lies with the designer.

Step up. It is the designer’s responsibility to be the smartest person in the room, or at the very least one of the smartest people in the room. Sitting at the project kickoff meeting table is quite similar to sitting at a high stakes poker table. To paraphrase from the movie, if you can’t spot the dumbest guy in the room in the first half hour of the first meeting, then you are the dumbest guy in the room.

All kidding aside (not sure that I was kidding), it’s not always easy to discern who on the client’s team is going to pose the biggest problem to your being allowed to do your best work for them. And that’s what all this is really about: ensuring that the client allows you to do your best work for them. You cannot leave this vital aspect of your job to chance. So while it’s not always easy to find the troublemaker(s), it is your job to do so.

You’re going to fail at this job sometimes. I certainly have on occasion. But we’ve got to work proactively on this front every time. Don’t get lulled into believing all the nice people at the table totally “get you” and will be receptive to your ideas and be forthright with their concerns. Find ways to dig information out of them. Find ways to get them to reveal their hand. Do what you must to learn what you’ll have to do to win them over and gain their confidence.

And by all means make every effort to know exactly who the ultimate decision maker is – and learn how best to connect with them and gain their confidence. Your success, and likely their fortunes, depend on this (whether they know it or not). Exactly how to accomplish this is your business, and it’ll probably be different each time. In any event, figure it out. It’s not like you’re the dumbest guy in the room, right?

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