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

Where the Buck Stops

September 25, 2009

Dear agency owners and CDs,
As most of you know, collaboration is often an effective mechanism of design. It features so prominently in agency culture that one of the most common requirements for hire is that a designer describes himself as “a team player.” But collaboration is often misunderstood, such that designers are continually admonished to remain healthily detached from what they’ve designed because other team members will likely have input that must be reflected. If these things sound familiar, you should know that this requirement doesn’t quite send the message you think it sends.

Pretty soon we’re all required to have group design exercises and somewhere along the way everyone’s brain falls out. Collaboration becomes little more than a dysfunctional therapy session and the requirements for design integrity and individual responsibility become displaced by some deformed mandate for teamwork. In this environment, the actual goals become obscured by the requirement to employ team decision making. But decentralized decision making is no friend to design. Design collaboration is good, but design responsibility needs a home and it must live with a single individual.

Experienced designers know that collaboration can be effective, but it's important to keep in mind that collaboration should never imply shared responsibility. Shared responsibility is diluted responsibility; it means no one has responsibility. Regardless of how many individuals might contribute ideas to a project, one individual must be required to make final decisions. One individual must be saddled with the burden of responsibility for the design and the project’s success. The alternative is never very good, yet many agency owners and creative directors either don’t understand this fact or are willing to ignore it simply because the idea of shared responsibility just somehow feels right. Well, facts must take precedence over feelings.

Sadly, designers who are required to follow such practices from the start never learn to develop a sense of design integrity.

There are many common agency practices through which responsibility can be casually corrupted. For instance, some agencies throw a handful of designers at a project in hopes that one of them will produce a “winning” design (like in a contest). Other agencies combine pairs or small groups of designers who are told they’re supposed to craft the design as a team effort. Still other agencies assign a junior or mid-level designer to the project and then the creative director or senior designer (or, God forbid, the owner) comes in near the end to “whip the design into shape.”

All of these practices are destructive and irresponsible. They’re the tired crutch-mechanisms of those who lack the capacity to distinguish collaboration from compromise. Sadly, designers who are required to follow such practices from the start never learn to develop a sense of design integrity. They never learn to develop a sense of professional responsibility. The result is that these individuals cannot learn to do the kind of work required of top professionals. And not surprisingly they become quite useless in the face of consequential design responsibility, and are unable to understand why.

Sure, pooling ideas and drawing from the many talents and capacities of your staff is often a good idea. These practices can make for stronger results and can stave off staleness and inertia. But the result of such an exercise must be that one designer is then responsible for making the final decisions and crafting a successful project. If no one designer is aware of and holds this responsibility, everyone involved will be half-acting, half-thinking, and half-waiting for someone else to take up the slack.

I’m talking here about trust. Trust is the fuel that propels the engine of excellence and it is the basis for professional relationships. Without trust, aspirations for excellence are left to rust and decay. What’s more, trust requires responsibility. Trust in inconsequential matters is itself inconsequential. Responsibility and trust go hand-in-hand and your designers must know—not just believe—know that you require them to uphold responsibility and that you trust them to rise to excellence. Otherwise, the results are unlikely to rise above mediocrity.

Sure, trust is scary because it implies risk. If your designers are not capable of upholding project responsibility, either you’re employing the wrong people or you’ve been employing the wrong standards and processes. Either way, you shouldn’t be robbing your designers of responsibility; greatness is impossible without a clear sense of it. People will rise to the level you expect of them and they want you to expect something great. When your expectations are low so will be their effort, professionalism, and enthusiasm. If your designers have a responsibility to deliver greatness, you have a responsibility to expect it and to make those expectations clear.

When your practices rob a designer of responsibility, you corrupt his work ethic. When you dilute responsibility on your team, you destroy the professional growth of your people and your organization. Don’t do that. Instead, for each project tell your designer, “The buck stops with you.” Make sure that your designers are free to collaborate, but that there’s always one who knows it’s his or her responsibility to deliver something great and to bring off a successful project.

Your project assignment practices define your level of expectation. If you expect greatness, you’re likely to get it. If you expect less, you’re likely to get that, too. And if you’re employing the sort of designers that are not suited to professional practice, fire them and hire the sort that are. And when you do finally employ trustworthy professionals, treat them as such.

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