Design by committee is just plain wrong

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By Francis Moran

The aphorism that a camel is a horse designed by committee is usually attributed to Greek-born British car designer Sir Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis, who was responsible for British Motor Corporation’s popular Mini. I never quite understood why Sir Alex would disparage a camel’s design — the animal, while unusual in shape and function, seems perfectly designed to be the ship of the Sahara that it eventually became. I take no issue whatsoever, though, with his sentiment that it is a very bad idea to ask a bunch of people to try to work together to design anything.

And yet, it is still too common an activity.

An excellent — or egregious, depending on your point of view — recent example was a short movie commissioned by the Canadian government to mark the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 between the United States and British forces to the north. While undoubtedly an important chapter in the history of Canada’s evolution from colony to independent country, this poorly-named, almost-three-year-long skirmish has always enjoyed more attention and myth-making than it probably deserves. Canadians celebrate it as the only war the U.S. ever lost, citing as proof the repulse of invading American militia and the subsequent capture and occupation of Washington by British Forces, including the burning of the White House. Americans, meanwhile, gained an entire national anthem from the war, based on the poem Francis Scott Keys wrote after witnessing the successful defence of Fort McHenry against bombardment by British ships in Chesapeake Bay.

Whatever its merits as myth-making machine, there is no doubt that the bicentennial of the War of 1812 has been seized upon by the current Canadian government as a great opportunity to celebrate this country’s history and heritage. Proof of how close to the government’s heart this whole thing lies can be found in a recent Globe and Mail article detailing how “senior players in Ottawa…heavily micromanaged” the production of a movie-trailer-style advertisement about the war. Unnamed officials from “Centre,” shorthand for the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office that serves the PMO, were rather hands on, to say the least.

“The Centre asks if Laura Secord’s costume could have a little more colour,” the article quotes one bureaucrat asking, before further stating, “The fabric (velvet) and the colour orange does not do the trick” and “No two-tone velour! Brown exterior and beige interior.” (Laura Secord is credited with hiking through 30 kilometres of forest to warn the British of an impending attack by the Americans; Canadians know her better as the namesake for a chain of candy stores.) Later injections into the creative process queried, “Why…were (there) no black (people) in the British Army cast?” and questioning the lack of wind movement in the sails of ships anchored at rest on a quiet lake.

The final production is okay, if you think a blockbuster movie trailer is an okay treatment for such an event, but the creative people involved must surely have cringed as these repeated interferences came down from on high questioning their design decisions.

 

I suffered through a similar experience a couple of decades ago when a client insisted on applying literal interpretations to a conceptual design promoting soil conservation in Canada. We commissioned a gorgeous illustration of an iconic Canadian farm scene — red barn, steel silo, white fencing, brown soil being tilled by an old-style tractor — all contained within a cupped set of hands with soil dribbling out from the hands, and bearing the title, “Soil erosion: It’s getting out of hand.” It was beautiful, arresting and on message for a campaign designed to inform off-farm urban Canadians that soil erosion was a continuing serious issue in Canada and that a recently announced federal-provincial program was taking real action to mitigate the loss of this valuable national resource.

Then the committee of second guessers kicked in. The tractor didn’t look like any actual tractor that would be used anywhere in Canada. There wasn’t enough room in the illustrated field for a tractor to do a full turn. The gate in the white picket fence was too narrow. The silo was disproportionately sized to the barn. The barn was the wrong shade of red. And so on. And then, the client insisted the slogan be changed to “Soil conservation: It’s in our hands,” changing with a single stroke a message intended to raise awareness and generate support for urgent action to a safe, reassuring message communicating that nothing really needed to be done.

At the Adobe Max conference in Los Angeles last week, a variation on the design-by-committee tendency came under withering attack from Scott Belsky, founder of the creative-portfolio-sharing site Behance. ”Recklessly” crowdsourcing creative “is like (eating) discount sushi,” Belsky said. “It seems like a good idea at the time,” but it leaves a pain in the stomach not long afterwards.

Designers love to rail against this kind of thing and, being creative types, their railings are usually pretty funny and acerbic. Two of my favourite examples are this set of posters that sarcastically frame far-too-typical client comments, and the below brilliant clip on what happens when a committee sets out to design the Stop sign. Enjoy.

Image: ARTSblog

 

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