Design versus Democracy

In website creation, teamwork is useful up until the final design stage. Then, a single person must take charge – the designer. Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Over the course of a designer’s work, successful communication and cooperation with others outside of the design team – colleagues who are not designers, bosses, third party representatives, the client – is key. Therein lies perhaps one of the biggest and most significant differences compared to other professions that value cooperativeness and openness to all opinions so highly. It’s a fact of life, passed down off the record in whispered tones, but I will happily spell it out for you, and I won’t mince my words:

In design, there is no room for democracy.

I firmly believe that democratic processes kill good design. A professional designer rules over her designs autocratically, and is not about to let anyone meddle and tamper with them. She must be a bit of a despot, who can back her design choices up with strong, expert arguments, and should not be overly concerned with the subjective opinions of amateurs around her. She may listen to them, but usually will not give them any weight. All these people have individual tastes, specific requirements, and personal priorities, all of which are pretty much irrelevant to the proposed design.

The designer is not crafting her design so as to appeal to her colleague Tatyana, to team assistant Jeff, or to the boss. Not even so as to appeal to the client. She is creating it for the target audience of young urban mothers. For teenagers interested in basketball. For well-to-do Chinese pensioners planning a trip abroad. For clearly defined target audiences that span thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people, categories that people who volunteer their own opinions rarely fall into. The designer has gathered all available materials, made a thorough analysis of relations between various aspects as well as the risks and benefits, and has incorporated all of that into her design. She has her reasons for why a feature looks the way it does, and what competing requirements and hard-won compromises are behind each detail of the design. Oftentimes, not even the other graphic designers on her team will have all this information in its entirety, and so their comments will not always make sense and fit into the big picture – let alone someone who does not know the first thing about design, about the project specifications, and other relevant aspects. Of course, sometimes even a random passer-by can bring in a good idea that we can use: in that case – thanks a million! But in general, comments from other people tend to be irrelevant; the only things that make sense are fact-based, rational, professional discussions relating to any potentially erroneous or ill-suited solutions chosen for the given project specifications.

Tenth circle of hell

There is only one thing a designer can do that is worse than letting any kind of amateur engage in discussion about her design: let people vote on her designs. This is one of the worst sins a designer can commit. There is no doubt hell has a special place, with a particularly punishing regime, for all designers who send circular emails to their colleagues, asking all the accounts, secretaries, and programmers vote on the design they think should be used.

Crowdsourced designing does not work.

Want to achieve a truly atrocious town or school logo, or website design? Organize an open contest, ideally with no pay, so that only complete amateurs can take part. Want to select the worst one of all these designs? Let the general public decide.

This is due to a remarkable law of nature: the crowd gravitates toward the lowest common denominator. The bigger the group doing the choosing, the worse and more dull the winning design will be. This is because people never choose designs they think are best suited for the given purpose. Instead, they start out by ruling out the designs that they dislike or that rub them the wrong way; in short, designs that they, for some reason, subjectively dislike. They have none of the requisite information, lack knowledge, and are deficient in taste, and so incline toward kitsch. During such non-professional selection processes, the highest-quality and ultimately best-performing designs are often eliminated first. What remains is what bothers everyone the least, rather than what is best. These people cannot see and appreciate all the strengths, consequences, and links. The designer can. Therefore, it must be her and only her responsibility to push through and successfully defend her design. And also, to recognize what comments are actually relevant, separate them from the purely subjective ones, and incorporate them into the overall design.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with debating a design with professionals, or with discussing a particular feature with people who have something to say about it; it may even make sense to take part in competitions and tenders judged by people who understand the trade. But public competitions with a popular vote or other entirely non-professional decision-making processes are a waste of time – the winner will always be a conservative kitsch.