project management
Creativity Marketing Transformation

Collaboration’s Dark Side: Avoiding Design by Committee Through Project Management

7 Minute Read

It happens so often in our most critical digital projects: we want to get things right and launch the perfect product or campaign, so we enlist the help of others. The internet tells us collaboration is a good thing. And it is—but it has a dark side; one that reveals itself when a new project launch gets stuck in committee somewhere.

It seems like the larger the brand, the longer it takes to go from initial concept to approved design, and then into actual development—especially when your project’s at the mercy of a committee. It’s project management 101: if a project changes once you’ve already started development, something’s got to give. At a minimum, you’re looking at scope creep, along with the potential for timeline delays and dreaded budget overrun.

Is it even possible to achieve the design nirvana most of us seek? How can marketing teams walk the thin line between fruitful collaboration and disastrous design-by-committee situations? We all care about design (because we’re supposed to), but at some point, with so many voices and layers of review to contend with, things start to break down. Can effective design processes be integrated into project plans without causing projects to run off the rails?

It turns out they can—as long as you build the right foundation for those processes to flourish. It all starts with taking a deeper look at places where breakdowns in the process can occur, and keeping three key things in mind.

1. During Transition, Design Gets Pushed Aside

Going through a marketing transformation is difficult for any organization. (I know—both because I’ve done it, and because I’ve helped other organizations do it.) If your team or company is going through such a change, you likely already recognize how easy it is to lose sight of priorities.

Often, one of the first things to struggle under a new marketing directive is project management. Suddenly, business as usual isn’t quite so usual, and skill sets, tools, budgets, and even attitudes have to go through an adjustment period. (It’s okay. You’ll get through this.)

What’s important to remember is that because so many moving pieces are at stake, many organizations and teams unconsciously reprioritize their design efforts—forcing design projects to take a backseat. Without the proper resources devoted to the implementation and improvement of design as part of your content strategy, it can be difficult to get the attention of the right people to collaborate on your projects at the right time.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can move your marketing needle while still producing smart, strategic content that helps to not only distinguish your brand but also aid your customers. It won’t be easy, but you can do it. The first step is simply recognizing that design may be struggling. From there, it’s time to take action and elect a design champion.


2. Without a Champion, Quality Dissipates

Remember the news a few years back about multitasking? In short, scientists determined that the brain really isn’t all that good at it. The more things you think about at one time, the less effective you’ll be at each of them. Once you start focusing on more than four things at a time, returns diminish significantly.

In my experience, marketing teams function the same way: they do their best work when they focus on a select few priorities at a time. One of those priorities has to be design quality.

Prioritizing design can require a cultural shift, but it’s important to the success of your organization’s marketing transformation. Good design has to be a core component of your content marketing strategy. Let’s face it: content is about way more than writing words on a page. It’s also about the way you present those words. While the message you’re sending is important, the way in which you deliver that message can actually be a key differentiator for your brand in the market. And then there’s the alignment factor to take into account: you have to ensure your content drives your design, rather than design dictating content, so messages stay consistent with your broader brand story.

To manage all that effectively, you need to ensure that design quality has dedicated representation at the content strategy table—someone who can own or at least lead design, without juggling too many other priorities. Your team may not have an official creative director; if that’s the case, someone should operate as though they are. This person can serve as your team’s design champion, working to ensure good design is more than just an afterthought in the projects you create.


3. Design by Committee Can Stall Launches

Having a design champion is a good first step, but the balancing act can still be tough. On one hand, you want to avoid design-by-committee situations, where too many people are providing their opinions on what’s right for a design. On the other hand, you want to get your best digital projects out the door, and you know pre-launch feedback is critical (and often required).

Let’s accept the fact that eliminating the feedback loop entirely is neither possible nor desirable. There’s a better way to solicit feedback while shortening the time to market and limiting the design-by-committee scenarios. Here are some quick tips:

Identify Key Stakeholders Early

If you know approvals are required, get those stakeholders on the short list early. Key stakeholders should be identified well before the first design is started, if possible.

If you haven’t identified all of your stakeholders at the onset of the project, use initial key stakeholders to help identify other project participants.

Be Specific About Your Ask

Are you seeking stakeholders’ approval on a project, or are you simply looking for feedback and opportunities for improvement? Be as specific as possible, as early as possible, about what you’re asking your stakeholders to do. This will help eliminate the potential for an excessive feedback loop.

Designate Team Representatives in Large Organizations

In my current organization, we regularly engage with multiple teams. From Internal Communications and HR to IT and our various physician practice offices, on large projects it’s impossible to include each member of every group. Instead of engaging with everyone, we specify a representative from each team to have a “seat at the table.” Those representatives report back to their respective teams—and leaders—with updates, requests, approvals, and other updates from the project team.

Stick to Your Timelines

This is probably one of the most difficult tips to follow. In many projects, the key stakeholders have other responsibilities to juggle. Asking them for feedback—and enforcing the timely delivery of that feedback—can be difficult. To aid in this, I often ask for feedback by a certain date and specify that if feedback hasn’t been received, approval is assumed and the project will continue as scheduled. It may sound harsh, but if timelines are important in your projects, this may be a necessary step in adhering to them.

Use Data Where Possible

At their very basis, designs are suggestions of how something should look and feel. A lot of thought, research, and best practices can (and should) go into designs before they ever reach an approval state. I make it a point to document a portion of the data strategy that goes into the designs just in case there are questions during the approval process. For example, “Why are we using a blue rectangular button with white text?” could be answered with data if we used it as the basis for the design. Perhaps research shows that blue performs better than green. Or the blue button is the best complementary color available in the brand’s color palate for the design. It’s hard to argue with data, and even having a few points to back up your designs can overrule “hunches” from your stakeholders.

Use Tools to Facilitate Communications

Communications aren’t as simple as you’d think. Throw in the complexities of competing priorities, specific timelines, and advanced subjects, and you’ve got a scenario where a simple email with an attachment may not cut it.

I’ve experimented with a number of tools to facilitate project communications and feedback loops, and I highly recommend you do the same. Here are a few I’ve used on previous projects:

Need a few more options? Here’s a great list of seven design collaboration tools to help your teams get stuff done and approved.

Going through a marketing transformation can be tough—there’s no question about it—and it’s easy for design priorities to get lost in the chaos. Keep an eye out for these process breakdowns, maintain a focus on design, and stick to your timelines by avoiding design by committee, and you’ll ensure your next project is produced with the quality and brand alignment your design eye demands.

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Daniel has been a software development and digital professional since 1998. He currently serves in a digital marketing leadership role with the 2nd largest healthcare system in the state of Florida. In addition, Daniel is a current member of the Samsung ImageLogger program, a published author and supplements his written work with beautiful, unique and tailored visual content.

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