Design by Committee vs. Design by Dictator

You may remember this video showing a tongue-in-cheek look at how Microsoft would redesign Apple’s iPod packaging:

Apple has always been admired for its design, all the way from the products themselves, to the packaging and advertising. Basically every bit of Apple you see has the same clean, spare design that still manages to provoke an emotional response.

In the November issue of PC Magazine, John Dvorak writes that Microsoft, on the other hand, is perceived as being perpetually in “bad taste”, even though they use good design firms, and a lot of what they do looks great. Their downfall is that they don’t have a single vision of what their brand should look like. And that is something that Apple does better than any company on the planet. It helps that Apple has one guy at the helm: Steve Jobs, a “dictator” who ensures that every step of the way, the product reflects his own vision. Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia is another company that does an incredible job of maintaining its brand identity through myriad product lines. And we all know who runs that place with an iron fist.

At Microsoft, there is a committee of individuals who pool together all their ideas and end up with an “agreeable soulless product.”  There’s no payoff for being different or adventurous – making something safe is the most important thing. Doing something too radical might alienate the other members of the committee or worse. As a result, they never get in the news for doing anything exciting or crazy that captures the public’s imagination. Sure, not everything that Apple’s done has been a huge success, but for every Newton and PowerMac Cube (which I own and love, by the way), you get an iPod or an iPhone – products which outshine all competitors and have redefined the market.

Reading this, I immediately drew a parallel to the graphic design world. It’s a commonly repeated adage that “design by committee” is anathema to good design. With a single vision, you do have the possibility of winding up with something completely hideous, but by the same token, you could easily end up with something sublime. Without a bunch of different opinions needing to be taken into consideration, an artist with a single vision can create a work that has soul, consistency and beauty. Of course, this is not always possible with the constraints of business, needing to adhere to company policies set by lawyers and executives (see video above). Most of us can only imagine what it would be like to work for a benevolent dictator with an eye for design. Challenging, sure. But what beautiful things you could create.

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