Where did the design “dictators” go?
July 2nd, 2010
I took my first agency gig at a small firm in San Antonio at the tender age of 22. I had been working for a couple years in the creative department of a medical products corporation, and that was my only exposure to the design process. Here’s how I thought it worked:
- Marketing manager has idea
- Marketing manager shares idea with designer
- Designer comes up with 3 comps
- Comps are delivered to marketing
- Marketing manager places comps on table in conference room
- Anyone - I mean ANYONE - who enters the conference room (marketing people, receptionists, janitors) votes on their favorite and makes recommendations
- Marketing manager compiles comments, and delivers back to designer to perform this work.
This was my reality. Design was not directed by designers, but by literally anyone else.
I had a rude awakening at that first agency. It was owned and managed by three successful designers. Clients did not direct design here. Oh - they would try (as they always will). But with wide eyes, I’d watch my new bosses employ an array of skillful counter measures to protect the integrity of their designs. I was taught there that our clients’ role was to tell us their goals - the problems they were trying to solve and their definition of success. But designs belonged to the designer.
For those of us working at the agency, there was no question who was in charge. Once, I was working on an annual report design. As was my previous experience, I printed some early concepts and put them out at a morning staff meeting for others to comment on. The comps were quickly removed and I found myself sitting in my boss’ office being completely dressed down. I can’t share the exact words here, but let’s just say it was clearly explained to me who was designing this piece - and it wasn’t our receptionist or account executive.
Let me be frank. The inner workings of that design firm were not what most would consider “collaborative”. Those principles were opinionated, passionate and far more concerned with creating great design than fostering relationships. Frankly, they were jerks. And under their iron fists, we efficiently created solid work for clients like Dell, AMD, Harte-Hanks, Kaepa, and Frost Bank.
Fast forward to 2010. I’m working at a corporation again. Collaboration reigns supreme - especially where design is involved. Committees drive creative work and executives with little to no design acumen often hold the purse strings. Analytics and A/B testing replace passion and vision - relegating the emotional aspects of design a cell in an Excel spreadsheet. For the most part, design is safe and homogeneous - and designers have very little say about it.
Part of me longs for those days of design dictatorship - passionate artisans who are unyielding in pursuit of great communication. When a designer’s vision was allow to inhabit their designs. When non-designers were consulted and considered, but not driving the process. That’s not to say I don’t like it there - or that I think it’s impossible to do good work. But in general, it seems like we spend more time and money for more mediocre results.
I refuse to believe that collaboration and design voice are mutually exclusive. But I need a better metaphor. I can’t really tell my employer that we need “a few good dictators”. So how about maestros? We need people with great talent and vision who can get everyone playing from the same sheet - who keep things flowing together - but with the authority to be a little uncompromising. What if executives, project managers and IT staff were instructed to collaborate on defining the problem and outlining requirements, but to leave design to the designer?
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one… or maybe I am