Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the original Mini in 1959, famously said, “a camel is a horse designed by committee.”
The Mini became one of the most successful cars of all time. Sir Alec was knighted is 1969 because of its success. The car was voted the second most influential car of the 20th century. The Mini became an icon largely because it didn’t fall prey to design by committee.
Alex Issigonis wanted to create a small, simple, and economical car. He set size and fuel efficiency as the unwavering design criteria. The Mini featured a revolutionary front wheel drive that allowed 80% of the floor space to be used for passengers and luggage. The car that rolled off production lines stayed true to that vision.
Contrast the Mini with the Pontiac Aztek, launched by General Motors in 2000, and commonly cited as one of the worst automobiles ever produced.
The Aztek was loved as a concept car — one of the first crossover SUVs with attributes of a truck and a passenger car. And yet, as one executive said, “by the time it was done, it came out as this horrible, least-common-denominator vehicle where everyone said, ‘How could you put that on the road?'”
A Time article reported in a post mortem, “In later interviews with GM designers, it emerged that the Aztek design had been fiddled with, fussed over, cost-shaved and otherwise compromised until the tough, cool-looking concept had been reduced to a bulky, plastic-clad mess. A classic case of losing the plot.”
In any design work, the path of least resistance is for an idea to devolve into a Pontiac Aztek. We have to fight for an idea to become a Mini.
I think much of the problem originates with how we think about collaboration. We confuse collaboration with consensus. Collaboration is essential, but that doesn’t mean the all roles should be equally weighted. When I worked at Method Products, we had a design philosophy that helped: “Everyone has a voice. Not everyone has a vote.”
Ryan Thomas Riddle and Marcin Treder of UXPin wrote an excellent 99U article on “how you can avoid design by committee while maintaining a collaborative design process”. They write:
“Committee design is not collaborative. It’s a dictatorship of many, and you’ll be reduced to implementer rather than facilitator.”
Here are a few related cartoons I’ve drawn over the years.