Oh, the logo by committee!

Dear readers: What follows is a funny little conundrum regarding logo design by committee originally published in Before & After Issue 27, 1996. I reprint it for you here.

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Reader Darrell Jamieson of Broken Arrow, Okla., sent us the following clip from the Jan. 21 issue of the Tulsa World newspaper:

“Just when it looked like Tulsa County’s mayors and commissioners were working smoothly on the new Tulsa jail trust authority, an impasse has developed.

“The Tulsa County Criminal Justice Authority members can’t agree on what the group’s letterhead should look like.

“County Commissioner Bob Dick, chairman of the seven-member jail authority, wanted the group to have its own letterhead so officials would not have to use county letterheads when mailing materials to other government agencies or companies involved in building the jail.

“At a Jan. 12 meeting, Dick submitted three designs to other members of the authority, thinking one would be accepted with little discussion. However, four members, including Tulsa Mayor Susan Savage, rejected the designs.

“One of the designs, a triangular logo with the authority’s name over the motto ‘Dedicated to Community Safety,’ looked ‘too much like a road sign,’ in the words of County Commissioner Lewis Harris.

“Another design, which featured the authority’s acronym superimposed over a set of jail bars, was “too artsy,” Harris said.

“Owasso Mayor Charles Burris also noted that every city in the county except his was included in the three designs.

“Dick concluded, ‘We want a non-artsy-craftsy, dynamic logo that doesn’t look like a road sign.’

“Although jail authority members joke about disagreement over the letterhead, they admit that picking a symbol to represent the group is taking a little longer than they had thought it would.

“With a few exceptions, members have agreed on several key points in the jail building process so far, including unanimously picking a law firm to represent the authority.

“On Friday, members saw two new designs, one from Burris with Hollywood western lettering and another from county staffers with the motto ‘TCCJA: Justice for Green Country’s Second Century.’

“‘I don’t really care what it looks like, but I’m not sure that [motto] is something I’d like to go along with,’ County Commissioner John Selph said after the meeting.

“Savage also wants to submit designs.

“‘We’re not graphic artists, but it’s clear we want to have something simple but functional,’ she said. ‘This is just a housekeeping thing we need to get done.’ ”

—————

And there you have it. A fellow submits three designs to his colleagues who embrace his idea but reject his art. One town mayor responds with his own design, and another wants to submit hers. Never mind that this is about a letterhead. What’s funny is that all of it is perfectly normal.

Design looks easier than it is, and it’s more important than it looks. For sure it’s not “housekeeping.”

Why would the mayor offer to do the housekeeping? How can this group agree on legal counsel but not on the housekeeping? Why do all have an opinion about the housekeeping? “I don’t really care what it looks like,” said one commissioner. What he doesn’t see is that he actually does.

We all do. Design is us and it is personal. How something looks tells the world who and how we are. The commissioner, certainly, doesn’t care what his letterhead looks like in the way that a designer would. But the right look will speak to him, and the looks he saw didn’t. This is what I mean when I say design has a voice.

This voice can be heard everywhere. It drives the mondo-billion-dollar apparel, accessories and cosmetics industry (we’re designing ourselves). It drives the auto industry. It drives the building industry. It drives the consumer-products industries.

When Steve Jobs started his Next computer company, his first act — before he had a building, before he had employees, before he had a product — was to pay Paul Rand $100,000 to design a logo. And Rand’s black cube gave Next its sleek identity.

NBC once paid a designer a million dollars to design an N.

Tulsa’s mayor calls for a letterhead that is “simple but functional.” What she means (or hopes) is a color or shape or a few lines that embody and express, for all to see, the jail trust’s abiding attributes: dignity, service, competence, integrity.

To find this, though, you must look up . . . toward the light. Not down at the dust mop.



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46 Responses to Oh, the logo by committee!

  1. John Mahan says:

    “Design looks easier than it is, and it’s more important than it looks.”

    These few works reach far beyond their literal meaning. They illuminate a great intangible. They encapsulate a struggle we encounter every day.

    Thanks

  2. Jorge A. Gonzalez says:

    “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.”

  3. Design by committee, someone shoot me. Please! We recently walked into a not-for-profit as the new design firm. We were handed a monstrosity of a logo that was “designed in committee by the board.” I nearly fainted. Due to financial and time restrictions (they had plastered this horror on huge signs all over their building), I had to work with it. The solution? I turned it into a large, watermarked graphic element, selected a light, round, complementary sans-serif typeface for the name of the company, and solved the problem. A couple of the board members grumbled about “now being able to see the whole logo” — but our design changes won overall acceptance.

    It can be done.

  4. Kerry Clark says:

    To the uninitiated, logos look easy and fun. A symbol, some colors, and you’re done. There are even websites that promote this sort of approach.

    “Get your very own logo for $35.”
    “Create a custom logo online!” And on and on.

    But it is a good point to remember that big organizations spend a lot on a logo. It is considered a valuable asset and critical to their business success. I suppose that’s why they are big in the first place.

    Great companies tend to make great decisions.

  5. Remember . . . the giraffe is a zebra designed by a committee.

  6. Peter M says:

    It’s to be expected that the more people you ask, the more opinions you will get.

    The frustrating part is when no one seems to know what they want, but are very quick to say that they don’t like anything you show them.

  7. Barbara Hamaker says:

    I worked for Saul Bass (as his secretary) in the 1970s. In the beginning, I did not know anything about design or corporate identity, but after six years and a million design-related meetings, what I DID know was that it was fascinating, controversial, and one of the most important decisions a corporation (or other business) has to make regarding its organization. Housekeeping indeed. Thanks for the discussion!

  8. Mary Ramirez says:

    How does one charge for a logo design? Is the time involved billable? What if your design that the client likes is the one you doodled at lunch, taking less than five minutes? If you spend hours or days, endless revisions and “committee responses” — should each minute count in the final price?

    I try to educate my customers about the importance of a logo, but unfortunately, being in a print-shop environment, those nuances are easily lost; the logo is “designed” in, yes, minutes, and the job goes out the door, design charges “included” in the price.

    While many of the logos we create go on very small companies (lawn service, babysitting, handyman, etc.), the end result is the same as for a mega-company: a brand that identifies you. That, I think, is worth something.

  9. Leonie says:

    A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and quietly strangled!

    I shudder when we have to work with committees. Typically these are the most difficult and anguishing jobs!

    Maybe what we need is an article on how to work with a group of disparate people. These jobs always drag on, your advice as a designer is seldom taken, and the result is often a giraffe or camel rather than a sleek horse!

  10. Oh, the committee decision. Or should I say indecision? If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if the decision regarding the logo concepts is by committee, the price goes up substantially. I know that the committee will never agree on one design and that the process will drag on and on. Not to mention how the designs will get “watered down” by input from several voices.

  11. Brian says:

    Leonie. I’m using your “cul-de-sac” quote as my Facebook status.

    I’m in the middle of my own brochure-design-by-committee hell right now. It’s amazing how many doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc., moonlight as professional graphic designers.

    Who knew?

  12. Craig says:

    It’s amazing to me how many people expect professional results without using a professional. We’d never do our own legal work, dentistry, or even cut our own hair. But branding and identity . . . no problem! Even people who say, “I have no sense of design at all,” will then proceed to dictate design!

    “Design looks easier than it is, and it’s more important than it looks.” <– THAT'S gold!

    Does anyone know of a good "importance of a logo" article for non-designers?

  13. William Kizer says:

    I remember a meeting in an “L-B-C” meeting; the guy wanted the logo to be blue but couldn’t quite describe the blue he wanted. Lo and behold, there was the exact color blue he wanted . . . in the ballpoint pen in his pocket! We prepared a final invoice and gracefully withdrew.

  14. Matthew Dunk says:

    @Mary Ramirez — I’ve always appreciated this quote:

    Picasso is in a park when a woman approaches him and asks him to draw a portrait of her.

    Picasso agrees and quickly sketches her.

    After handing the sketch to her, she is pleased with the likeness and asks how much she owes to him.

    Picasso replies: “$5,000.”

    The woman screams, “but it took you only five minutes.”

    “No, madam, it took me all my life,” replies Picasso.

  15. Alan Gilbertson says:

    My Law of Committee: The time to reach a decision is proportional to the square of the number of members. (For government committees, it is proportional to the cube of the number of members.)

  16. A recent design by committee went very well when the committee was treated as a single client. The client/committee received three logo design concepts. It selected one concept and determined what changes it would like. The designer made the changes, and the modified logo went back to the client/committee for review. The client/committee sent a few small, additional changes to the designer, who made the changes and presented the final design. If the committee wanted further changes, the cost would be per hour of the designer’s time. This arrangement left the designer completely out of the committee disagreements and able to focus on his work — designing!

  17. Nancy Sluss says:

    I just started a graphic design/printshop venture out of my home, and I have sold several jobs because someone handed me a business card and I redesigned it and emailed them the new design.

    In the words of Lt. Worf on Star Trek, “You’ve got alot of gall . . . I like gall!”

    P.S.: The best secret of my success is asking a lot of questions about people’s likes, dislikes, personal tastes. I believe I could design wedding dresses, too, just by reading people’s faces when they look through a catalog. :-)

  18. Mark says:

    It seems like everything designed by committee ends up speaking to the lowest common denominator. The design that no one hates a lot. It always takes more time and ends up being more expensive in the long run. I hate it, but after doing design work for 30 years, I have to keep telling myself that it’s made many a mortgage payment possible, so STFU and get to work. ;)

  19. The worst is a city design. I drive by the City of Eaton every few weeks, and they took their “logo” and plastered it 30 feet across on their brand-new water tower.

    Eatonoh.org/

    Ohio did the same thing with their quarter design. Couldn’t decide on airplanes or space, so they did both badly.

    Commons.wikimedia.org

    We’re so proud :-)

  20. Nowhere in the original story, and not suggested in the comments: a creative brief agreed upon in advance by all decision-makers (which would include mandatories like, “I hate purple”). Without one, there is nothing to direct the work and nothing against which to judge the work. If designers want to be viewed as professionals, they need to show, up front, that there is a discipline involved. Nobody likes doing a good, tight creative brief, because it’s WORK. If the client refuses, walk away. If your designer doesn’t suggest it, run.

  21. Fred Becht says:

    Recently I was asked to design a club logo. After a lot of time and some out-of-pocket expense, I was told that they were going to form a committee for the logo.

    At that point I quit — after seeing far too many camels come out of committees with the intent to design a horse!

  22. Earl Talken says:

    A few years ago I was hired to design a logo for a government agency. A committee, consisting of employees of the agency, approved a design after submission of several choices and revisions. After final art was created, it was submitted to the director of the agency who rejected the design and all of the preliminary attempts. Then he presented his own version, which I worked into a successful logo after more revisions. So why appoint a committee, wasting time and money, when the director’s ego required him to try his hand at design?

  23. We are Canadians, so trust us: We can relate to endless discussions. Current jokes (pending approval):

    1) A committee will always give you a final maybe.

    2) It’s been said that if 007 were Canadian it would be, “007– License to form a committee and discuss the options.”

    3) Finally, “committee” is so bad that it needs three double letters. It could be shorter, but it is not.

  24. Skip Savage says:

    When a committee meets, minutes are taken and hours are wasted.

  25. Jon Griffin says:

    I would be interested in seeing the submissions and the final outcome.

    I once worked with a creative boss who said, “I know what I like . . . and that’s not it!” Unfortunately, he could never tell us what he liked!

  26. Paris says:

    After years of designing for committees in and out of the entertainment industry — and hating it — I’ve learned to love the process of “design by committee.”

    As a graphic designer, it is your job to bring creativity, humor, intelligence and balance to the design. It’s also your job to get the committee to communicate what they want.

    I finally learned that every project MUST have a creative brief. Not the one that marketing department comes up with, but one that is done by you, the designer, answering to the goals and objectives the committee has for the design.

    Secondly, the question is NOT if the committee likes or dislikes the design. The question is, did the design achieve the goals they told you they wanted it to achieve?

    Occasionally the goals of your committee will change in the process of creating the design, but at least you will have something to fall back on.

    Take yourself out of any internal struggle, and make your client/committee go back to square one, if necessary. Charge extra for your mediation services. ;-)

  27. Dave Thomson says:

    None of us is as stupid as all of us.

    Despair.com

  28. Droolcup says:

    Nothing to add but my chortles. Great comments, all, and I agree with everyone.

  29. Fibonnaci says:

    After 22 years of designing identity, I add my “amen sista!” to Kim and Paris. Then they can change their minds as often as they want, as long as we are documenting each request and charging for each minute. Every client I have ever worked with who said, “I will know it when I see it” has not ever been worth the time spent; their businesses were focused on the needs of the CEO and not the client, and I plan to fire the next one. Graciously and diplomatically, of course. Hey, I know! I’ll give them that “logo for $29.99” website! Great discussion. Graphic designers unite!

  30. One of my favorite slants on graphic design is an article I read in The Onion (lo, these many years ago): CNN Graphic Designer Asked to Combine Dollar Sign, Syringe, Fighter Jets, Panda.

    Been there.

    Helping clients through the “who are we, really, and how do we want to present ourselves” is a critical issue for us. We’ve developed worksheets for clients that we ask them to complete before we go on the clock. And we ask for a single decision-maker. That seems to help committees/boards focus.

    Everywhere decisions are being made by boards and/or committees, esp. in the nonprofit world. But they (almost invariably) need help to focus on critical issues about identity and “brand.” We offer that freely with a worksheet. If they finish the worksheet in good faith, they’ll know more about who they are and be less focused on issues that might better be left up to us (shade of blue, e.g.).

    We always tell clients that our worksheets might sting, might make them work hard and get to core of issues many of them haven’t even considered (we’re talking good-hearted community members here, people who are giving up their free time).

    Difficult as it might be, this approach saves clients money and helps everybody stay focused on the goal/mission. And with a more focused brief, we encounter fewer “different shade of blue” comments.

  31. Lou C says:

    I used to think that it was easier to insist on one liaison to deal with; however, that was proved a waste of time, as it was her brief, not the company’s.

    I now find it easier to provide my options to committees with clear, written explanations to avoid misinterpretations.

    For example, the green denotes new growth, while the circle signifies unity, the typography was chosen to show strength and stability, etc., etc. This gives me back authority as a designer and shows them that I am adhering to the very terms they used in their brief.

  32. Roger Whittignton says:

    Why do we always blame the client?

    Sure, design by committee is not ideal, but it can be rewarding, and great results can be achieved.

    It’s far too easy to just say, “the client doesn’t understand design.” Yes, we all know that, but that’s why they employed a designer –- if the designer can’t produce a logo, brochure, website, etc. that the client(s) like, then surely they are not doing their job?

    Sure its tough –- but if it was easy, then the clients would do it themselves.

    As designers, are we too precious?

    • Marco says:

      We must not work through fear. Part of our responsibility as designers (and as human beings) should be to educate. Usually committees are surrounded by fear of what their bosses think. Considering them as part of the team would reduce stress. The point is to present every step forward with a rationale, which also helps us understand.

      (I hope you understand my English.)

      Congratulations B&A!

      Marco

  33. Mike Barlow says:

    Thanks B&A! This discussion makes me realise I am not alone — with over 25 years of design under my belt, I can honestly say that my worst experiences have been when designing for committees, formal or informal.

    Despite a formal brief and discussions about parameters, it all goes out of the window when the CEO takes your work home over the weekend and shows it to his dinner-party guests. Or how about his wife sending you a vegetable to get the colour for the logo from?

    I have experienced these situations. Some, occasionally, have elicited valid comments, but it takes discipline to marshal all this input into a complete entity.

    Never forget that it is your client’s logo, not yours — all you can do is become part of the committee — accept it and work with it so it gets a good design despite, seemingly, its best efforts to scupper the process. It’s not your ego against theirs — good design is a process like any other.

    Everyone thinks of themselves as a designer, despite the years of study and experience behind a good one, but that is usually because some genuinely cannot see the difference between good design and poor design. One can’t help thinking that committees are formed to ensure mediocrity.

  34. Marts says:

    “I will do your logo only if you first bake me my favorite dessert,” I respond to the request. “What is your favorite dessert?” the client asks. My response, “I don’t know, but when I taste it I will.” The stubborn (or dumb) ones then ask, “Okay, at least tell me if it is cheesecake or pie you like.” At that time tell them your mother likes pie, but your life partner really enjoys cheesecake, and that will be part of the decision, because they will share the dessert and the judgment of it, but that you have personally liked both the best, at different times.

    Pause and reintroduce the design brief, the concept of designing with purpose, and the fact that both cheesecake and pie are good, but at one time a decision as to what to have for dessert will be required. Then remind them that it is not their mother’s kitchen, so even if they choose the pie, they have to pay for the cheesecake, the trip to the market to get the cheese, the special pan needed to bake the cheesecake, and a hired caterer to cut a slice off so they can try it.

    During the process, when they go off track and resort to old habits, start your next meeting with coffee and some . . . (donuts?)

  35. Virginia Blaisdell says:

    Kristin, can you share your worksheet with us?

  36. Nancy Sluss says:

    lol, Marts!

  37. Debbie Brady says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading the article and especially the comments it inspired. I’ve designed a few projects for committees. It certainly does help if you focus on the goals of the piece being designed so the best results can be achieved rather than appealing to the tastes of the most outspoken member. Sounds good but not always easy to accomplish.

  38. To me, this is a cautionary tale about the perils of jumping into a logo design without the necessary gathering of background information, preferences, goals, etc., of the group. See other Before & After posts about building a successful creative brief. Even if we know everyone on the team, it’s a mistake to go forward with design work without a brief.

  39. Darrell Jamieson says:

    Jon Griffin — I contacted Tulsa County, and they faxed the final logo to me, and I forwarded it to Mr. McWade. I imagine he may publish it in the future.

  40. David Kunkel says:

    I spend hours sketching logo designs and having them enthusiastically received and then rejected by the “committee.” At the next meeting I asked who was rejecting them, and found out that they were being shot down by the former secretary of the late owner. She felt obligated to protect his “legacy,” and due to her seniority she scared everyone else to death. After a pleasant conversation with her it became clear that she could not be budged, and I got paid very well for cleaning up and digitizing their current logo. I retired from freelancing after a similar occurrence a few years later.

  41. Mary Baum says:

    Yes to everything about the creative brief! I have found that the more I stick to what a design is supposed to communicate — and the less I talk about design elements — the better.

  42. Len Williams says:

    I find that almost every large company with several executives always ends up with “design by committee.” After designing for several decades, I’ve come up with a routine that nearly always works to lessen the confusion and agony felt by all parties in the design effort, including myself.

    1) I get in touch with whoever my contact is at the company and ask who will be making the final decision on the design (i.e., CEO, division leader, the committee as a whole, the big boss up at corporate headquarters, etc.).

    2) Even when committees are involved in the decision process, it almost always comes down to “the big boss” somewhere, even if this is just one member of the committee that everyone defers to. I always try to find him or her for a quick interview, when possible, to find out what he/she is looking for. I’ve had many committee design projects come crashing down because there was a hidden boss somewhere who I hadn’t gotten any information from — and hadn’t thought to ask about. Sometimes the actual approving authority is unavailable, so I do anend run and have my contact ask him/her a series of questions that elicit pithy information vital to getting the design approved.

    3) Here are the questions:
    A) What products and/or services does your company/group/division produce? You may be surprised by the answers you get from some companies — information not available on their web site or other materials.
    B) What basic message would you like people to know about your company/group/product/service?
    C) How would you like your company/group/product/service to be thought about by the general public or your target audience?
    D) Are there any current logo designs (or web sites, brochures, packaging, etc.) that you like? What about them do you like?

    These simple questions start the figuring-out process and provide invaluable feedback that gets the project started and defines the scope. It also gets the boss or committee thinking about what the overall communication message of the design should be, not the minutiae of the design.

    4) When I present the design samples, I make them as close to final artwork quality as possible. Clients frequently cannot easily visualize the design from sketches, resulting in confusion and uncertainty.

    5) Along with the design samples, I ALWAYS provide a walk-through of each design, specifying details about my choices on the shapes, colors, text style, icons, etc. This is essential in establishing the concept that each element was specifically chosen to communicate a specific idea/concept and was done on purpose. It gives a peek into the designer’s head and elevates the position of the designer to one of authority and experience, not just a “guy who draws stuff.”

    6) Finally, I get as much feedback from the committee and/or approving authority to fine-tune the design(s) to be more what they’re looking for, then present a new round of samples.

    7) Occasionally I’ll get a client with zero ability to envision how the design will fit in with their corporate materials, web site, vehicles, etc. If I detect that early in the project, I make sure to grab some screen captures of their site or take photos of their vehicles, building, etc., and plunk the new design in. I had one client reject 45 different designs who was in total despair of getting what he wanted. I finally had him come over to my studio. I took my first logo design and in Photoshop placed it into a capture of his home page. He was stunned and immediately approved the design. Always be aware of your client’s inability to visualize. Visualization is a talent we have that makes us artists and designers.

  43. SallyJ says:

    Very helpful comments by all — I am currently working on a poster for a committee, and this has helped me gain some new perspective and keep my sanity whilst trying to deal with them! Thank you!

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