Design collaboration is not design by committee

Have you ever heard that phrase “design by committee” when someone talks about a building or an object like a car or piece of furniture that doesn’t quite make sense? It usually means there are some good parts and some bad parts, but overall it’s just not good design.


But design by committee is not the same as design collaboration. Why? Because good design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We all need to bounce ideas off someone — whether it is the client or a complete stranger.

Design is about innovation and new ideas, regardless of what the project is. To achieve this, we need to share our ideas with like-minded people on our team and with everyone who has a stake in the project.

Design teams are usually formed when a project has multiple parts. In the case of building design, the team can start with a developer or a planner with a big-picture idea. They usually are the first team members who then bring the rest of the team of architects, engineers, general and subcontractors, and of course interior designers into the fold. This can sometimes be referred to as a design-build team approach.

Design collaboration doesn’t always need to be so structured or even defined by any type of project, but it does need to exist.

Whether those teams consist of multiple architects or engineers whose expertise covers specific areas of the construction of the building or other design professionals. Team approach to design comes down to how well they work together. If the group doesn’t have the right synergy or group dynamics, the project loses its creative momentum.

Getting along is one thing, but the design process isn’t about always agreeing. In fact, the best design solutions usually come from disagreement.

We’re all guilty of designing with our egos — meaning we think our ideas are not only great but are the only ones worth pursuing. Designers tend to be egotistical to the point of being unbearable to be around even, if they are right!

No one said working for Frank Lloyd Wright or Steve Jobs was easy. You need to have those strong personalities on a project team for it to succeed. It becomes a problem when everyone feels that way, and no one wants to agree.

If you have ever been a member of a team like the one I just described, then you know it’s exhausting and the last thing you ever want to do again is be a part of a design team. You are more apt to work alone and take on the pressures of the project without asking for advice or help, because you don’t want to be stressed out or forced to defend your ideas.

But is this good design? I already said that good design is achieved with a collaboration or interchange of ideas. So how do you achieve that magic that good design teams possess?

It takes an open mind and a different attitude. First, everyone has something to contribute — it may be only an opinion, but it is valued. Second, the result isn’t black or white. If the design is to meet certain expectations or specifications, then some contingencies must be built into those expectations for unforeseen challenges and failures.

Yep, I said it, design is a messy business. Design is built on change, and when you are always looking for the perfect solution, sometimes it just doesn’t exist. That is why good design teams use collaboration to address some of these possible failures and to find ways to address them early — to understand there isn’t just one way to do something.

Product designers know this better than most. They know that for every good solution, there is probably a better one. They are always looking for a different way to make something work.

Successful design teams use good collaboration techniques like identifying the key objectives and existing problems that need to be addressed early in the design process. They create best-case and worst-case scenarios for developing possible solutions. They note the obstacles and begin to address them.

They are also good at breaking the project down into smaller parts to identify the key issues. By not trying to find the ultimate solution, good team collaboration finds a variety of solutions and tests them out.

Collaborative teams use their collective talent, ingenuity and resources to find the best design solutions. They don’t necessarily leave their egos at the door, but they do keep them in check.

Design is a collaborative enterprise, not a solo expedition. The next time you are asked to join a design team, embrace it by being open to new ideas and sharing your own. The results could be amazing!

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