Friday, December 18, 2009


What with all the hubbub surrounding Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen and Health Care Legislation in Washington D.C., it is frightening how a single person (or small group of people) stamping their feet and shouting NO! can derail literally life and death considerations.

So what does all that have to do with exhibit design? Simply this --- sometimes a democratic (or team-based or community-focused) design process can't work. Sometimes one over-sized ego or obstreperous individual will block any forward progress.

So what can you do, either as a design team member, or an administrator? While I'm a big fan of the defenestration of boneheads, that isn't often feasible, so instead you can take a page (or three) from the Climate or Health Care Negotiations:

1) Look For Common Ground
Try, really try, to find some common ground. Are there any points to agree on? If so, start from there and see if you can begin to move toward consensus. If not, you can move to Step 2.

2) Divide And Conquer

Some people are just disagreeable and/or unreasonable, and no well-considered discussion will change that. If the design or project impasse really comes down to one or two people, simply divide the work up so that the "chunk" the cranks work on is not essential to keeping the main design project moving forward. If this doesn't get you past the speed bumps, consider Step 3.

3) Go It Alone

Think of Bill Gates on world-wide health issues, or Al Gore on climate change. Both have decided to become passionate champions for their respective projects, and avoid naysayers impeding their forward progress.

Is it possible in your organization to run some design projects where one "project advocate" becomes the key decision maker and the ultimate "breaker of deadlock"? Does every design project need to be run democratically, and more importantly, are the end results of consensus truly better design?

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  1. As much as I like democracy in most aspects of my life, as a designer I feel that "design by committee" is often the kiss of death for a concept. This can be because the designer doesn't explain, sell and advocate for the concept effectively enough. It can also happen when projects have many approval layers and each layer feels they need to change something to justify themselves. I've seen democracy emasculate too many good ideas - some projects need a benevolent dictator that holds the vision and ensures it survives all the compromises.

  2. I prefer to work on the "contributory" model of project development. Here's what I mean: One project leader has a vision that is generally acceptable to a group or authority/chain of command that has the duty and means to accomplish something such as an exhibit. Then the role for all the others is to contribute to and strengthen the desired outcome. And keep keep the group processes positive. Anyone who fails to contribute in a positive way is devalued in the process and anyone who contributes or is at least constructive and non-disruptive is valued. Often times the project leader has not had enough time to fully explain or flesh out all the alternatives. This process allows that, and allows the project to grow and flourish due to input from others with various expertise, experiences, resources and points of view. The entire group is held responsible for the outcome and process.

    Even though the project leader may have the original concept or duty to lead the project they are not required to be and do all things (that would be regarded as a failure).

    Management is responsible for supplying resources and the entire group (a) completing the project on budget, on time, up to agreed standards; and (b) establishing and maintaining a productive team/group from beginning to end.

    A pure "democracy" (where a simple majority rules) is just begging for trouble and any modified democracy where a single disruptor can diminish the process or outcome is a cancer in the organization. Both of these are symptoms of BAD supervisory management more than a failure of a group to do its job.