Do you know what a cobbler is? Well … he is a person who makes shoes. But it also has another meaning. In the culinary world, he is a cobbler – someone who is usually ill-informed and incompetent, and who takes shortcuts to cover up their lack of skill.
The term comes from the oddity of a shoemaker running around in the kitchen. To be fair to cobblers, I’m pretty sure most chefs (or designers, for that matter) would be completely lost as to what to do in a shoe factory.
Of course, cobblers in the design world are the overbearing clients who insist on bringing in a team of non-designers to ruin your smooth workflow.
It’s better known as design by committee, and it’s something designers have discussed and re-discussed since probably the beginning of time. Or at least from the beginning of the design.
Believe it or not, there is a way to clear most committee designs in the bin, and we’re going to explore how you as a designer can take advantage of this rarely used power and use it use to your advantage when working with clients.
Authority vs. Hierarchy
Designers hate designing by committee because it undermines the years of dedication they’ve put into perfecting their craft. You’ve heard the expression ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’, and plenty of people outside the culinary industry use the analogy on a daily basis.
Non-designers poking their heads in where they don’t belong and all but ruining any creative effort with their ignorant decision making is enough to make any designer want to quit and go work in sales.
Non-creative people tend to see design as subjective, like art. However, design and art are very different. While art is created primarily to please the artist, design must please the people who use it. Seth Godin has said that design should be a “dictatorship” rather than a consensus.
If you don’t have a single person making the important decisions about design direction, you’re likely to end up with a mess. It is very rare to find the design team that has completely mastered the hierarchy and is still able to produce a clear, solid vision.
Building the Boundaries
Every designer in the world would jump at the chance to solve the design by committee problem once and for all. Any vision or creativity in a design project is often the result of constant change of mind and increasing doubt.
I hate to break it to you, but designing by committee will never go away completely. As long as designs have to go through a funnel of more than one person, you will always have design ‘cobblers’ in your kitchen, telling you what they think is best.
What can change, however, is whether or not you let them completely take over your job as a designer.
Most of the time, clients get too involved in the work they hired you to do because you didn’t set clear enough boundaries in the first place. The solution involves bringing the client back to a common pain point: money.
Show Them The Money
Why are your ideas automatically better than your client’s? Well, they hired you for a reason; you are the professional designer, after all.
By taking the opportunity to gently remind your client what you are there for, you not only gain more respect, you also help them understand that they are paying you for a service they are not. let you do.
By reminding the client how much money they’re wasting by forcing you to address their bad ideas, you can turn any client from an unwieldy burden to a respectable and efficient employer in no time.
No client likes to see how their own actions cost them money, so this is something that every designer should always be using to their advantage to keep control of the projects hired do them in the first place.
Of course, you shouldn’t want to manipulate anyone, but then again, you shouldn’t be okay with being pushed around like a puppet on stage either.
You are not a dancing monkey – you are a professional service provider who (hopefully) commands a professional rate. Remind the cobblers that time is money – mine and theirs – so they can get back to making shoes (or whatever they do), and you can proceed with design magic to do.
When In Doubt, Ask
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and find out exactly why your client is going against your better judgment. As part of the problem-solving team, you have a right to know, and your client has a vested interest in making sure you’re contributing to the process (they’re paying you, after all).
Remember, if things go wrong because of a bad design decision, the blame will fall on you, not the client or the committee. It is important to get as much of your communication with your clients in writing as possible.
Why? Because when things go wrong and your client wants to scream at you, you’ll have hard proof that you tried to warn them.
Sometimes, however, the client has a legitimate reason for making changes that seem dubious – this is where knowing your client’s market and understanding their customers’ needs comes in handy.
If you make an arbitrary design choice that conflicts with your client’s customer data, they have every right to question you about it.
It’s important to pick your battles and know when it’s not worth fighting a client. But it is equally important to remember your place as the designer. If you trust your decisions and stand by them, your clients will too.