Why can’t non-designers keep their noses out? Paul Wyatt gets the hump as he takes a wry look at designing by committee, while emphasising that good, considered feedback is to be encouraged
I’m a terrible cook. I’ve known this since childhood, when I made mince pies at school. At home they remained shoved in a cupboard for weeks until Christmas Day, when they vanished. Mum said she’d left them out for Santa and he’d “taken the lot”. Even at nine, I knew they’d actually been thrown in the bin. I’ve always been a realist when it comes to things I’m not good at. I’m no cook and would never presume to tell a cook how to cook.
I live in a world where everyone wants to be a designer and I’m often given a plethora of comments about my own work. I value opinion, don’t get me wrong: you can’t work or live in a bubble. Considered feedback is highly valued and can help you develop in what you do. Total strangers give me their opinions on work I’ve done for websites, magazines or TV. That’s fine, as it’s already in the public domain. It’s getting it out there and seen by the public after a multitude of pokes, prods and tweaks that’s the hard part.
A designer’s job is probably the only profession where someone who works in an entirely different profession sits on your shoulder and tell you you’re doing it wrong. For an easy life, designers put up with being told which pixels to push and where. Yet when out for a meal, I’ve never felt the urge to do something similar by storming into the restaurant’s kitchen and telling the chef how to flambé a duck. Similarly I’ve never told my grandmother how to suck eggs.
Yet design by committee is a fact of life. A camel, as the maxim says, is just a horse designed by committee. “So what do you think of my horse?” asked the equine designer “Oooh I have an amazing idea!” said the horse design committee. “Let’s add … a HUMP!”
To have a valued opinion, it’s not necessary to find something wrong with what you’re critiquing. If it looks good, works well and is on brief, then just say so. When suggestions go bad, websites develop humps.
Stand your ground
We sometimes cave in and add someone’s idea to a design just to be polite or political. At this point, it’s up to you to rationalise your contribution. Why bother hiring you in the first place if you’re only being used to move layers around for your Photoshop puppet master?
While the idea should most certainly lead the technology, it’s a wise designer who understands what can be done technically. The well of boundless imagination is a nice place to visit, but it will cause a design to hit a brick wall once the opinion mill starts rumbling and it’s realised that it can’t be built to budget. Crossing the demarcation lines and speaking with developers is to be encouraged when creating designs.
Who is asked for an opinion and who isn’t in the battle to get designs out there is an art form in itself. There are a couple of types of people who can make this process very difficult.
The first were there when websites were carved in stone, webmasters ruled and Amazon took a week to deliver. They knock every internet event, conference and new product release. The best way to deal with them is to throw them a buzzword. They love bandwagons, so tell them your design is “Hotwired for social networking interoperability.” They’ll love that and go and celebrate with a triple macchiato. You won’t see them for a week.
The other type is the issues mongerer. Nobody seems to know who they are or what they do. One thing is certain, though – they have issues with your design, issues so loud the MD can hear them. However, these issues never come with solutions: a dangerous sign. Don’t worry too much, though, as this type are easy enough to avoid. They invariably come in late and leave early because they’re always having issues with their trains.
Designers are experts at what they do, so let them get on with it. They’re by no means infallible, and good considered feedback is to be encouraged. But overcooking feedback can have disastrous effects on delivery dates and budgets.
Once all the internal feedback is dealt with, it’s time to show your jewel of a website to your client. Probably best to butter them up first. I usually do that with a homemade mince pie.
This article originally appeared in issue 200 of .net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.