How to deal with the dreaded 'design by committee'

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I cringe every time it happens:

A client contacts you for work, you settle on payment, timing, and all the other important details, you work hard to get them a preliminary design and then it happens.

Their response? “I have to show it to a group of people here and then I’ll get back to you.”

Doh.

‘Design by committee’ is one of the most frustrating and annoying aspects of being a designer because opinions can range widely within even the smallest of groups and, usually, clients give way to personal preference instead of logical business, marketing, or design principles.

So how do you deal with ‘design by committee’? Today, I’d like to offer a few tips. If you’ve had any experience with this sort of thing, I would love to hear what you have to say in the comments.

Don’t avoid the topic

If you’re pretty certain design by committee is going to happen with any given project, don’t avoid talking with your client about it. The best way to deal with design by committee is to bring it up before you get too far into the project. Usually, clients will understand and appreciate your concern.

Once, I client said to me “Well, it doesn’t matter what looks good or works well, whatever my boss wants changed you have to change. No questions asked.”

I had the courage to drop that client.

Appoint a committee filter

Your best friend during the design process will become whoever is responsible for filtering feedback. Work with your client at the beginning of your project to appoint someone to filter committee feedback.

Not all feedback is good. Make sure someone with a little bit of power and influence has the ability to veto or filter suggestions that are unimportant, irrelevant, or not needed. This will save you time and pain.

Take feedback with a grain of salt

Even with someone filtering feedback, you should always take suggestions with a grain of salt. Meaning, you should use your judgement in deciding what feedback to implement 100% and which ones to work around.

If a client tells you the fonts need a bevel and a drop shadow so that they pop more, dig until you find the root of the problem: in this case, low contrast. Try making your font bigger with higher color and hue contrast before just slapping a bevel and shadow effect on it.

How do you handle ‘design by committee’?

If you’ve had any experience with ‘design by committee’, leave a comment here and tell us how you overcome it. We’d love to learn from you.

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is a web designer, entrepreneur, and the founder of this blog. @prestondlee

Comments

  1. Happens to me all the time. If you’re in the phase of your career where you’re trying to build a portfolio according to your own creative standards, having a design deconstructed by committee can be frustrating. I learned early on that the operative word in commercial art is “commercial”. If you are being paid to produce work for use in commercial endeavors, you can’t take these things too personally if you hope to stay employed. Otherwise, the life of a starving “artist” may be your calling.

    That said, if you can find clients who trust your vision and will give you creative freedom to guide their projects, this is ideal. It takes time, but its possible. At the end of the day it’s your choice. Sometimes we need to take gigs that pay the bills but offer little creative satisfaction. The best one can do in this situation is to try and recognize when “design by committee” is more likely than not, and quickly divorce yourself (emotionally) from the project. If you’re good at what you do, there will always be another idea, another inspiration and another opportunity to flex your creativity.

    • @James Burgos,
      This is a great point, James. How do you find clients that are willing to take your creative input and put it into practice? What tips can you share with GDB readers about finding the “ideal” (as you put it) kind of client?

      Thanks for sharing!

      • Can you believe that I’m just now circling back : )

        I should have said more ideal—the ideal client is a myth. But to the degree that I strive for an ideal, it would be to cultivate ideal situations that translate into tangible ideal moments.

        As a freelancer, I spend more time than I care to admit in front of my computer with a caffeine drip coursing through my veins. It’s very important for me to feel that the work choices I make provide a minimal amount of both emotional and physical comfort and satisfaction. Negative relationships (business or otherwise) disrupt that harmony and suck the life out of the creative process. I try to avoid them as much as possible.

        If a designer can provide supplemental value beyond their core competency, this goes a long way in positioning yourself as a trusted advisor to your clients which can result in gaining more creative autonomy.

        An understanding of other disciplines, learning the client’s likes and dislikes, showing a genuine interest in their business, having the confidence to assert your point of view and speaking up when you think they are making a poor decision; making a valid case that goes beyond the aesthetics. These are the types of things that I do, but it often takes time and you have patience with each client. But if your willing to stick it out with some of these guys, some semblance of an ideal can be forged.

    • Great article! Certainly hits home with many designers. In my case the most expensive logos I ever design are generally the result of “design by committee”. Often, a gentle reminder of what all the niggling decisions are costing can be a great motivator for some companies. If you’ve already agreed to a budget, I would definitely bring it up anyway, it can be used as leverage to increase your fee.

      As far as James worrying about his creative standards, I’d say, why show the ones the client picks? Clients often pick the design that is not my preference, but I would never let that stop me from showcasing the designs that I feel work best. Showing two or three designs for the same project can be very informative information to a prospective client.

  2. Hi Preston,
    Excellent article! You’ve touched on a sore subject for me, but an important one. I especially like your idea of getting an ally on the inside.

    I don’t let committee criticism get to me that much. It’s so uniformly nonsensical that I’m much more shocked if someone in one of these committees has a good idea! The ratio is maybe 1 in 25. But for me, it isn’t even the dopeyness that’s the worst part, it’s just the fact that committees take forever, so you never actually get the job done!

    I, too, have begun firing clients like this. It’s so satisfying!

    Cheers, Dave

    • @Dave,
      This is another great point! Sometimes it’s not even the feedback, but the fact that a 2 week project has been elongated to last 6 months. That truly is the most frustrating part. I usually give my clients a feedback deadline.

      How do you handle the issue of feedback taking too long?

      • @Preston,
        I haven’t really dealt with it properly. :) I’ve had enough things going on that the odd straggler just fades into the background while I’m doing other things.

        There’s one really bad offender that I’m dragging my feet on because they’re local – the funny thing is that I do almost no local work, and I’d like to get a toehold in that if I can. The guy dealing with the client is very cool, so I might hang in there – he’s taking the brunt of the irritation.

        But I may indeed take your suggestion, and give a specs deadline. Fascinating to take charge of the situation rather than being passive. You’ve definitely got the right idea.

        I do have a really bad one that has gone completely quiet. I actually “fired” them once, and they came contritely back. But I might have to fire them again! btw, I like the picture in the post!

        Cheers, Dave

  3. Excellent topic–it’s a problem I am faced with often. Often, all your suggestions can remedy the situation. But when all else fails, then my solution is simply to charge more, and make the client aware that the myriad of comments and rounds we are going through due to the mass of people who are reviewing is just taking more time than anticipated, and therefore, will cost more money. It’s amazing how many times that response leads to concise, all-encompassing, filtered edits, and a quicker wrap-up to the project. Other times, the client understands the situation, but cannot change the review process on their end for whatever reason, and agrees to the extra costs.

    • @Katy,
      Excellent thought, Katy. This is one of the few instances where charging by the hour definitely pays off. If you’re comfortable charging by the hour, you can make a lot of money from revisions that clients and committees make.

      Do you charge by the hour or per project?

      • @Preston D Lee, I generally charge on a per project basis. However, I make it clear upfront in my estimates what the project cost includes. So when I encounter problems like this, I can go back to the client and refer back to the original estimate, pointing out why/how we have moved beyond the scope of the project, and at that point, anything more would be charged on a per-hour basis.

  4. I try to get the group to agree on what they want their customers to say about their project – get them to agree on adjectives they’d like to be said about their project so that you can keep them away from “well, I like this…or I don’t like that.” It’s not about what their personal opinions are, it’s what will perform best for their clientele and their company strategy.

    • @April,
      First, let me say “thank you” for leaving such great comments lately. I’ve noticed you’ve been commenting regularly here at GDB and I really appreciate the added value you bring to the blog!

      As usual, this is some excellent advice. Asking them to narrow down what they are really thinking, getting them to critique design from the point of view of their customer is genius!

      At what point do you usually offer this advice (Critiquing from the perspective of your customer base) to your clients?

      • @Preston,

        You’re quite welcome! I look forward to your posts as I can always count on insightful, well-written, thought-provoking topics. I am also a big fan of your call for comments at the end of each post. Often bloggers write with a finality that discourages discussion, much like a lecture rather than a round table.

        I like to start from the get-go with the adjectives that, in a perfect world, the clientele would use to describe the project. This can really streamline the project and reduce the number of revisions.

        Nothing hurts more than bidding a flat fee on a 4-hour project and having to start over 2 hours into it after the first proof comes back. While I always provide a clause which limits the amount of hours before my hourly rate kicks in, I’d rather not have to go there often.

  5. I wish I would have found this information before it happen to me. I recently had my first design by committee experience. I was tasked with creating a logo for a non-profit.

    After the first round of drafts, the client told me he needed to show it to his bosses, which was about 6 or 7 different “board members”. I also found out they had another designer working on the same logo. It took forever to gain some feedback and when I finally did, they responded with what every logo designer dreads hearing. “We want to add our .net url into the logo and by that time, the other designer had backed out.

    I went forward and strongly advised against it but went ahead and sent them what they wanted. In the end they were given two versions. One with the url and one without. I hung in there thinking to myself that it could be good repeat business later on and they have sent me a few more projects. (no design-by-committee) ones yet. Thanks for the insight Preston.

  6. Some really insightful comments here. Let me see if I can make a valued contribution to the conversation by summarizing my thoughts:
    1. BUILD TRUST. Don’t be shy about going above and beyond to explain that you’re not just an aesthetician (a common misperception of what a graphic designer is) but a “problem solver” which by definition is a thinker and a solution provider. Talk as much as you can about past projects, what challenges were faced, and how you eventually crafted a winning design that won everyone’s approval. You need to set up a scenario that lets them know you are NOT a paper-pusher, but that you have a brain and have used it effectively in the past to deal with challenges similar to theirs.
    2. DESIGNATE 3 DECISION-MAKERS.
    It is essential that you pick a group of 3 people who will be responsible for making all final design and aesthetic decisions. Make these people your new best friends, chat with them prior to meetings to break down barriers, and basically get as close to them as you can. Again, trust goes a long way in this business because it often translates into professional competence. When the heat rises, you’ll be in a better position to prove your points and sway opinions. Three is a good number because it creates intimacy when sitting around a table, while at the same time, gives everyone else in the organization the feeling that a varied number of opinions are being expressed and most likely, one of those opinions is theirs. They will sleep better at night.
    3. AVOID SURPRISES.
    Per April’s comment, introduce steps that create a buffer between what they initially tell you they want, and the finished product. Maybe it’s a list of adjectives describing the outcome, maybe it’s a visual mood board. Whatever you decide, know that surprises will quickly kill the creative process dead in its tracks so holding your client’s hand will help suppress their anxieties and fears. Remember, most of the clients you will encounter throughout your professional career will not be creative thinkers, and that’s why they need you. The more you break down the process into baby steps, the better. It makes them feel involved and part of the process which, in my experience, is always a good thing.
    4. SPECIFY ROUNDS.
    Lastly, always be very specific about the (maximum) number of rounds covered under your fee. However, also leave them with the feeling that they don’t necessarily have to use them all up. If a client sees that you allow for 3 rounds of revisions, then they may try to make additional changes in order to feel they are getting their money’s worth. The consequence is that if gives the client more time to think (rarely a good thing) and quality can actually go in reverse. Yikes! This problem stems from the fact that a lot of designers position themselves as “service” providers. Instead, I have found that it’s better to position yourself as “product” provider. You pay me $X and I give you Y. It may take 1 round, it may take 3 rounds, but the goal is to deliver a quality product that meets your client’s deadline. Period. The key to shifting your client’s mindset is to casually mention, when you first talk about your past successes, that not every project you work on requires the maximum number of rounds. It plants a seed that not going through every round is ok, and it also is an indication of how good you are at your job (i.e. I have the ability to focus in on exactly what my client needs and hit the mark right out of the gate).

  7. Peter Phillips says:

    April is right on!

    First off you need a good brief that outlines the OBJECTIVES of the project. Just exactly what are you trying to do anyway? This must happen before design work begins.

    Then you must test concepts with some people from the target audience(s). When the target audiences are happy with the design solution, you tell the “committee” the solution WORKS with the people you are designing for. It doesn’t really matter whether they “like” it or not. If it works for the people who are going to see and respond to the design solution, and it meets all of the original objectives, then the solution works. Period.

    • Michael Gorfido says:

      Wow! I can’t tell how many times I have go through the “design by committee” process. In short, I totally agree with Peter’s thoughts to have a very clear and concise “Brief” outlining all the objectives, targets, expectations, and very importantly: an agreed, what are the points that will make a design or campaign successful in the customer’s mind. But I have to say, so much of what we do and design is subjective to likes, tastes, and really….preferences!

      The thing that has helped me out the most is providing three concepts (good, better, best). And I present it that way. Presentation is really important. We as designers have to be able to “talk” without shoving ideas down their throats. It’s a craft to present, bait, and convince. Then, I kill em with execution that they could never come up with themselves. That’s key also. This really helps when the choice is by committee.

      But let’s be truthful. Sometimes we just have to swallow our pride when we experience that “lion” on the committee that has to have it their way. If the assignment pays real well, then so be it. Really good design is about inviting participation and being able to “move” through that project without offending anyone and yet, where everyone is satisfied….and, you get paid!

  8. Good design requires having good information and a committee can give you just that. It’s up to you to manage and direct that information into a good design plan. Unfortunately, one person can screw it all up whether they are on a committee or an individual client. The thoughtless arrogant bastard who has found success with a good designer’s work tends to take all the credit. In their self-centered, delusional mind, thinks they are the good designer and, without training or talent, dictate bad design ideas. My point is that design committees are not necessarily the culprit, it’s usually one obnoxious know-it-all who does a better sales job of their bad ideas than you of your good ideas. Watch out for them and outsell them.

  9. Just read this article. so true. One thing I used to do in my web designs was to keep my initial design seperate. Then, after the design by committee ferris wheel stopped, and the project was over, I would compare the two. Not for that recent client, but I would show the results to the next dbc client. Ive been lucky with a 95% first build approval rating…but when working on a large project, dbc can take the profit away and leave you actually loosing money due to the time spent rebuilding, re-uploading, changing this, that until your vision is nothing more than scrambled eggs, with ketchup on one side and some diced ham on the other. I believe that creative peeps have an ability to create an essence in a design that actually has sub-conscious effects. Non Creatives cannot understand that. They do not “get” the impact of aesthetic, visually appealling design.
    A picture is worth a thousand words, so loose excessive text, target the visual impact.
    If this were not true, then TV would be books.

    • The part that you spoke on about Noncreatives not understanding the importance of Aesthetics really spoke to me. I feel like these things should already innately be obvious in very specific situations such as excessive type and focusing on the visual elements. I know that it is our job to make these things simple for the “average joe” but it shouldn’t have to be like this.

      Very Good Point!

  10. Thanks for the awesome tips Preston. I had my first encounter with a dreaded ‘design by committee ‘ situation where the client kept on showing the designs to their bosses, big bosses or even bigger and ones like CEO. The frustrating part is that some bosses are male and some female. No doubt, choices and color preferences differ.

    I had provided multiple concepts to begin with out of which the client really liked the first concept and decided its final. Later, after a day, I get an apologetic email saying her boss need the color changed. Well that’ s was acceptable as I provide unlimited revisions. After sending the logo as per suggestions, The client said, her big boss is not happy and needs different font and concept.Which was really frustrating as after deciding a concept I don’t prefer changing it , that’s the reason multiple concepts are provided to begin with.

    After making changes, their CEO requested a different color, which was also entertained. Finally they came to a conclusion saying ” All the power have combined and made a decision” which was also accepted. The logo was finalized and I started making letterheads, social media covers etc based on the logo.

    After 1-2 days, I got another apologetic email saying the first concept that I provided in the beginning of the project is now chosen. I was like WTF!!

    I learn’t my lesson . Sorry for making you feel bore :D

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