The dangers of design approval by committee

If you were to ask logo designers to name the biggest problems they often face when working on a project, design approval by committee is likely to be high on that list. This is an issue not only confined to logo design of course, this happens in all areas of graphic and web design. It’s something I’ve experienced several times myself and can be very difficult to deal with.

Before I proceed, let me be clear on what I mean when I say design approval by committee. I didn’t want to say design by committee as the designer is responsible for the design, so if they are just following instructions they are simply artworking, which actually makes the committee the designers – which is an even worse situation. And by committee, I mean two or more people within a company having to come to an agreement in approving a design. This is different from the situation where one person might be making the decision but is open to opinions from others, though depending on how influenced that person is by those opinions this can lead to issues too.

I can totally understand why a company might consider approval by committee to be the most sensible option. After all, having all of the senior personnel collaborate in choosing what represents the business would surely be the safest option. This is sadly false logic, let me explain why.

One of the major issues is that everyone within the committee will want to be seen to have an opinion and add their own ideas, showing how valuable to that business they are. However, their job is not that of a designer, they should not be allowed to steer the direction of the design process. That’s not to say they haven’t insight that could be useful but it’s for the designer to gather that information and use that in the design process.

There can also be all sorts of relationships and rivalries within a business, these can get in the way of agreeing over a design. One person may disagree with a design purely because a person they dislike is in favour of it, which sounds petty but can and does take place. So when I see certain big name rebrands, I wonder how much of a part design approval by committee had played. I can imagine several people all fighting to come to an agreement, leading to weak solutions.

Circle of design approval

The following diagram is a visual explanation of what can happen when approval by committee is used.

Diagram showing a circle representing good or bad design, with a 'safe-zone' in the middle.

The outer ring represents what someone might consider a good design solution, and opposite, one they consider bad. As everybody has different tastes and opinions, their location around the circle could be very different. For example, if one person (A) has similar tastes to a second person (B), then coming to a decision should be easy. However, if a third person liked the opposite to the other two people (C), a decision could be much harder to come by then.

A compromise would need to be found, either one or two people stepping back and letting the other decide, or else finding a middle ground (D). This middle ground is what I call the ‘safe-zone’, where bland design is formed. In this zone you won’t find great, exciting or interesting design, neither are you likely to find really awful design – at least in terms of how the general public would likely view it. Instead, you’ll find logos so non offensive they lack any personality, and who would want their company to come across as being void of character?

The more people that are involved in the decision making, the more chance that a compromise is sought and the more likely we are to end up in the ‘safe-zone’. Which is becoming less and less safe now though because of the attention rebrands receive online. A logo doesn’t have to be truly terrible to be ripped apart online, it just needs to fall into this zone. I believe these logos cause such uproar from within the design community due to frustration, because we can see the hand of approval by committee in them.

If anything, these logos are worse, at least logos in the outer ring of the circle can split opinion, with some people loving them, whilst others hate them – though of course, all involved would hope the majority of people would fall into the first group, but either way they create a reaction.

The real issue however comes down to the client not having enough trust in the designer, it is their job to design the best logo to represent their client’s business. It doesn’t need to be the personal taste of all or even any of the people required to approve it. They should have trust in the previous work that designer has done for other businesses and whether those logos have done well for those companies.

The whole issue of several people having to agree on a design would quickly become a non issue if they would follow one simple rule, let the designer do their job. Have all the discussion and debate BEFORE hiring a designer, that is the opportunity to look at what they have done for other businesses, and the results achieved.

So just how would the approval committee know if the logo concept the designer puts forward is right for their company? – put quite simply, they wouldn’t. So they need to have faith in their initial decision on which logo designer to employ the services of, keeping in mind the reasons for choosing that designer. Also, listening to why the designer took the approach they took – sure, it’s fine to question decisions made if they feel they’re wrong, but focusing on the process is more beneficial than solely on the design arrived upon.

The issue boils down to the choice between the designer creating the logo best suited to that business, or the designer being made to compromise to get approval and please a whole committee. With the latter often resulting in bland design, which is probably the last thing the client set out to achieve. A company that truly values their brand would be best served by focusing their efforts into finding a designer they fully trust to do the job at hand, and when they have, let them get on with it.

About the author

Paul Galbraith is a logo and brand identity designer, working with startups, small businesses and entrepreneurs in the UK, USA and beyond.