Is non-employee input into the design process unprofessional?

Design colleagues, I am hoping to get some opinions on a particular situation. “Asking for a friend,” who is an in-house graphic designer at a small, flat-structured nonprofit. The friend’s manager and the manager’s manager (who is the CEO of the organization) have gotten into the habit of showing the friend’s design drafts to their family members and bringing their feedback back as critique. It may include typeface and layout suggestions, and general irritating feedback like “I showed it to my family, and something just didn’t look right to them, so you need to change it, and here’s how.” What follows is a veritable slaughter of the original design based on some very uneducated, retrograde-minded personal opinions. The family members in question a) do not work for the organization, b) are not design professionals (and even if they were…), c) have no stake in the process, and d) are not the target audience for the design. Sometimes the feedback contradicts and supersedes what the actual internal clients had already approved.

The friend is beyond annoyed with this behavior but doesn’t feel comfortable pushing back, even though s/he usually has no problem speaking up. It’s just that telling one’s boss and their boss’s boss (who is a CEO), 'Hey, stop showing my work to your family!" seems like a recipe for being fired, or for hearing “Nope, we are going to continue doing it, and you can take it or leave it.”

Am I off mark, or is this behavior unprofessional and disrespectful? Has anyone here successfully dealt with a similar scenario? Is the only solution to look for another job? Solutions or commiserations equally welcome.

This sort of thing happens a lot with small business freelance clients since their family members are often their sounding boards. I haven’t heard of it happening all that much in established organizations, though.

When I talk over ideas with and show comps to clients, I almost never discuss aesthetics with them unless they specifically want to talk about it. Even then, I’ll try to steer the conversation by referring to aesthetic decisions as tactical problems involving target audience engagement.

A huge problem with non-designers is that they don’t really know what we do. They often think of us as artists who are skilled at making things look nice. Furthermore, they think that even though everyone isn’t an artist, everyone is in a position to judge art.

My not talking about aesthetics is an attempt to counter these client assumptions with questions and discussions on market penetration, target audiences, user engagement, messaging, end goals, research, user experience, statistics, strategy, tactics, etc. This kind of thing, I think, helps shift naive clients (and bosses) away from looking at our work as art projects and more toward what it really is — strategies for effective visual communication and engagement designed to achieve specific end goals.

When clients realize that what we do is whole lot more involved than getting naive feedback on how nice something looks, I’ve found they tend to start focusing on those things that really count. When I get them to view me as a strategic partner instead of an artsy, fartsy decorator and implementer of other people’s ideas, things go much more smoothly and successfully for them (and me).

There are, however, clients and bosses, who are totally hopeless, clueless and immune to seeing anything differently than they already do. And they certainly won’t listen to an art person for strategic advice. Once these kinds of people are identified, it’s most efficient and less frustrating to simply shift gears, crank out their sub-par stuff to their specifications, take their money, smile all the way to the bank, then move on to the next job.

Whether your friend’s employers are too deeply entrenched in their biases and faulty assumptions to be educated, I don’t know.

I have this conversation quite often. I usually say - Who does this design need to impress, your family or your customers?

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In the pastas an inhouse designer I had some clients who would say something like “I don’t like that green” and I would catch them off guard at times by replying, “I don’t like that green either.” Which would always make them look and listen.

At that point I would say, “I really don’t”, but the reason I used that green, is because that green is one of our brand colors, it is what identifies and helps communicate our overall brand to our customers. They’ve seen it in our earlier communications, or on our website, etc.

I then state slowly that design should never be about like or dislike. Design is about communicating and strengthening our brand to our demographic, to our customers. Look at someone like T-Mobile. I own nothing that uses that pink Nothing, zero, nada. I personally don’t like it. But it is synonymous with their brand. When people see it, they know immediately that it is T-Mobile and it communicates volumes indirectly.

As Studio said, at the end of the day, design is supposed to work (not be liked or disliked) for the company’s customers. Not for family members. Fight the good fight.

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I don’t think the origin of the feedback is relevant here. Everyone values options from people they care about, there is no escaping that. CEOs do it, I do it, and your friend is doing that right now with you.

If your friend feels their design is being trampled, they should express that to their bosses. They should do what the CEO is asking them to do, then prove to the CEO why your friends original design is objectively better. Unfortunately the weight is on your friend’s shoulders to get this done right.

Having worked in-house for a large chunk of my career, I can say that fighting an executive tidal wave like this does come with the territory.

All excellent points… I think, since graphic design is a visual discipline, it’s difficult to separate the art from the commerce of it. I do agree, however, it is a good strategy to start training the client/boss to see the designer as a skilled communicator rather than some kind of an art machine that puts their ideas on paper or screen.

I hear you! Steer the conversation out of the realm of subjective tastes and into the realm of target audiences.

“An executive tidal wave” is a great way to put it. :grinning: That’s the sense I am getting from various in-house experiences, including my own. Especially in small organizations, where the designer is more or less face to face with the execs, pushing back against their suggestions (read: demands) may be equal to pushing one’s way toward dismissal.

Yeah, I tend to look at my job more as a visual strategist or visual engineer than I do as an artist. Aesthetics and artistic judgments definitely play a role, but they’re just part of the bigger puzzle.

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Sometimes an outside eye can be a useful contribution to the design process. If it’s consistently not useful and instead just disruptive, then I think it is a good idea to push back. Explain why each point is incorrect and get on with your work.

I speak as a freelancer though. I appreciate all input to my work, even the wrong ones :wink:

Yep, the “like” or “dislike” argument is just too subjective for a designer to win. It makes the design process about personal taste rather than about whether it works effectively. Like and dislike are, essentially, argument stoppers; they stifle the design process.

I have found, in my own experience, that some clients are more receptive to this argument than others. They may be more visually literate through prior exposure to design, or more curious and flexible as individuals and willing to expand their visual literacy. Others are either stubborn or (in the case of bosses) are quick to pull rank.

There is definitely a place for humility about the process, and not rejecting outside input just because of its source, as there is a place for being brave and pushing back.

Ultimately it’s the CEO’s decision and if he wants to show the designs to others, it’s his choice. A designer should be able to justify and express why their particular design works best. If it truly does make the most sense, then the CEO will trust the designers decision. I wouldn’t bother expressing your unhappiness to the boss, but rather build trust with the boss that you are looking/designing for the best interest of the business.

How many CEO’s do you know?

CEO = Client

Okay, how many clients have you known?

As a designer for over 20 years…? Many. And if I’m questioned, it’s part of my job to express to them why I did what I did and build trust with them that my vision/plan/design/communication/look/font choices/graphics/etc. has been well thought out and intentionally used to convey a particular message.

Yes, of course I know all that, having been around a few decades myself. My posts were intended as smartassery, with at least some basis in truth, seeing as your general statement:

. . . does come off as a bit over-trusting of the typical client’s ability, CEO or otherwise, to be a good judge of what “truly makes the most sense.” I’d say at least half my past clients (and you’ve probably had more than I, circumstantially), wouldn’t fit that mold. Even now, I work as a consultant among/with/for some of the toughest clients I’ve ever had (a large team of product engineers; mechanical, electrical, software), some of whom are flat-out brilliant, and there are still many cases in which my guidance must ultimately prevail over their (mis)judgements. If it matters, yes, we should always be prepared to defend our design decisions, but I find my consultancy maintains greater solvency through active assertion of expertise as opposed to ever allowing myself to be put on the defensive.

Wdesign, I’m not quite sure how your comment relates to the part of my post that you quoted.

Anyway, I agree that the CEO (usually, though, it’s not the CEO making these decisions) has the final word — whether good or bad. And I also agree that it’s best not to whine and complain to the boss about it and to, instead, propose constructive solutions.

Here’s where I disagree.

I don’t think it automatically follows that the CEO (or whomever) will trust the designer’s (or others) sensible, educated and experienced suggestions. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.

I’ve run into plenty of stubborn and naive people in positions of authority who make incredibly counterproductive decisions about all kinds of things as a result of them not listening to the suggestions of others more qualified than themselves in certain areas.

Many people in positions of authority assume they’re more qualified in more areas than the reality warrants. They repeatedly make decisions based on their false sense of superior judgment while either failing to ask or actively ignoring the advice of those who’s expertise exceeds their own.

In-house designers, especially, are subject to poor decisions coming down from corporate officers whose experience, insight or education have nothing to do with design. The senior officers in a company that makes widgets are likely experts at making and selling widgets, but they often know nothing about various support disciplines within the company. As a result many bad decisions tend to be made regarding those areas through ignorance and a failure to listen to those who actually do have expertise in those areas.

The extent of this problem differs from one company to the next and from one person to the next, but it’s a problem that I see far too often.

Ultimately it’s the CEO, client or someone else who’s footing the bill/paycheck that gets to say yay or nay to your design. Getting your back up does no one any good. If it’s distressing you to have your designs critiqued by folks who are qualified or not, you either need to move on or stand up for yourself in a way that is productive to the end result. In my experience once you build a trust with said CEO or client, you pretty much get free reign to do what you want anyway.

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