“Design is not a Democracy.”
—Don Norman, author, The Design of Everyday Things

“Left to its own devices, the mob will augment, accessorize, spam, degrade and noisify whatever they have access to, until it loses beauty and function and becomes something else.”
—Seth Godin, A Tacky Mess: The Masses vs. Great Design (from Seth’s Blog)

The above two points are one and the same: The Decentralization of Design is a disaster.

I’m no Godin or Norman, but I am a Thinker-Practitioner, and I’ve bandied about my own version of this principle for years.

It wasn’t until I caught an interview with Norman years ago that I heard the nice crystallization: “Design is not a Democracy.”

I’m big on timeless principles, immutable truths that remain the same no matter the fad or tech trend beating upon my Bauhaus. When your house is built on a rock, it stands. It withstands. But how great is the fall of the house or enterprise that’s built on the sand of some conceit.

Like IBM’s Paul Rand (see my last post) who’d growl, “Without contrast you’re dead,” as he brooded over the shoulders of his designers, I would say the same kinds of things to my people as a creative director managing teams. When you’re a director, you direct. You show the way. But you’d better lead with principles, not mere intuition or whimsy.

That’s why we’re called Directors. And that’s a principle in itself. Design is a directed thing, not an egalitarian mosh pit. Crowd-sourcing is overrated, too, because mobs are stupid.

I’ve seen the violation repeated around me for years. It’s a perennial thing. It comes and goes like ragweed or athlete’s foot. It’s usually the well-intentioned blunder of corporate leaders. Maybe these Indian Chiefs want to keep a certain tribe happy, so they make a political concession. Or maybe they think this is the way to build a better canoe. Think again, Red Cloud.

Good design is centralized.

Consider Apple, that control-freakish Mothership of Design. Or Trader Joe’s. For all the homespun hokum, it’s an illusion, a fabrication produced by smart designers at TJ Central, then strictly implemented across their stores. I’ve been involved with several TED events at the planning and implementation level. Just stage dressing and a time limit? No, a tightly orchestrated methodology that shapes every aspect of the program.

Think of any brand. I defy you to show me one that has violated this principle and succeeded. They fail, every single time.

Happy thoughts of decentralized empowerment. Loose federations. Wild Wests. None of it works for the intrinsically core concern of Design.

When you let the barbarians through the gates, stuff breaks down. Specificity is shredded. That crash you just heard? It was a chunk of your brand — a piece of Credibility hitting the ground. Tomorrow, you’ll hear a grinding shriek as Clarity is mangled through the gears.

And think of the effects upon talent. When you deliberately push your people out of their deep domains of expertise, when you force them into their no-talent zone to “design and develop,” you achieve the tacky mess that Godin warns about. And not only that. As a bonus, you get low morale, discontentment and resentment. Think of it. Why would you hire experts in one thing, only to force them to do something foreign to their skillset? You’re no longer a competent talent manager. You’re a bait-and-switch bully and a cruel one at that.

Think, instead, of Peter Drucker’s Knowledge Workers (The Landmarks of Tomorrow (1959)). Pair the right people with the right problems. Although everyone is a part of your creative team (everyone can help inform), give your design thinkers the primacy. Let them do the design thinking and let it be executed by qualified developers, not amateurs. Don’t scatter it to the four winds, to caprice and chaos.

By now, it should go without saying: The enterprise that values quality needs direction, and I mean the centralized, directed kind — not the sprawling, confederated kind. As they say, “a horse by committee is a camel.” You’ll insist it’s a horse but your customers will see the difference. They’ll spot the humps, they’ll know it’s a damn camel. So will those to whom you must answer.

And that’s why we need Directors. Its why IBM needed Paul Rand. It’s why fighter jets fly in formation. It’s why a movie needs a film director.

We’ve seen it time and again: Studios who meddle, who undermine a film director in their fear-driven need to produce next summer’s blockbuster end up with quarter-billion-dollar flops. “But the data told us…” Just as too many cooks spoil the broth, focus groups can make things worse. On the other hand, when a film works, it wasn’t the extras whose vision produced the masterpiece, it was the singular vision of an Alfred Hitchcock or a Steven Spielberg. What kind of masterpiece are you making, leader?

Anthony Rotolo has directed design across a variety of industries. He presently helps learners in the educational arena.