Design Dictators

I’m curious about everyone’s thought about design as democracy vs. dictatorship, particularly in corporate design environments, where designers sit as a member of a core team of other disciplines involved in product development.

I was intrigued to see Brett Lovelady of ASTRO recently say in FastCompany:

  1. EMPOWER individual creativity. We’ve all heard the term “design by committee” or possibly the old maxim that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. And I strongly agree. It’s very difficult to create groupthink around multiple points of view. It’s great to voice them, collect them and prioritize them, but to avoid camels, > I recommend empowering one ultimate individual > you trust to become the director and keeper of the vision. Empowering individual creativity also ensures a higher level of passion, focus, commitment and ownership for the results.


  1. DESIGN is not a democracy. Democracies are fine, mainly for collecting diverse input. But they can kill design. Often too many opinions water down the clarity of the design intent. I’ve had many clients where there are way too many brilliant people involved in programs. They find it their duty to provide all the alternative solutions or insights to every program–always broadening the thinking–instead of focusing on decision-making. > If not for the benevolent dictatorship of the program director in these programs, they would never reach the goal. Design requires focused leadership, not democratic consensus> .

And Don Norman saying the same thing:

Peter Merholz: What does an organization need to succeed in delivering good design if they don’t have that kind of executive mandate or engagement or is it simply not possible?

Don Norman: I think it’s not possible. I think in the end > you need a design dictator> , someone who has good focus, who knows what this product is to be about and refuses to allow distractions to change the product. It doesn’t matter if someone supposed, “Oh, that’s really a neat thing to add to the product.” If it doesn’t fit the model, it doesn’t go in, so you need somebody strong and with good taste that understands the vision but then has the managerial authority to make it stick. That person has to have the support of the higher management. So, ideally, that person should be higher management.

Design is not a democratic process. Ownership, accountability, and personal investment are necessary I think. The best work comes from collaboration, but every team needs a leader like every car needs a driver.

The trick is to listen to directions from the other in the car, then decisively choose a road and bring everyone else with you… though it is not a democracy, there is no need to be an evil dictator.

Agreed. Too many times if you’re forced to be in a group and there is no clear distinction as to who will be having the final say, you can spend too much time just going around in circles because either everyone wants to own it and push it their way or nobody wants to solidify and they end up just doing endless exploration with no goals. I like to know what my role is clearly, it saves everyone a headache. And just like art, it has to go through an individual filter. One person didn’t do the mona lisas left eye, another person the right, the intern did the weird mouth, etc… I think in this aspect, design is closely related to art, otherwise it ends up like car Homer Simpson designed or some other frankenstein product by committee.