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Can Bad Design Be Blamed on Focus Groups? Short Answer: Yes

By John Mahood

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Wait a minute! It must be the designer’s fault.

In this article, I hope to explain why the world is full of mediocre, uninspired design. Part of the reason is that not every designer is a “good” designer. Twenty-five years ago, the average person had never heard of graphic design, and only a rare few were familiar with terms such as “font” and “typography.” With the arrival of the personal computer and software from companies like Adobe, the tools of the designer were available to the masses. Add the information and training available on the Internet, and almost anyone can call themselves a designer.

But this is not the real problem. I’ve seen lackluster design come from the desks of the most talented designers. How can this happen? Do designers get lazy, or do it to spite a difficult client? Maybe, but not in my experience. More often than not, it’s the client’s need (or perceived need) to design by committee. Or rather, not trust the designer, or even worse, not trust themselves.

Unfortunately, most of our colleagues, friends and family don’t have much of a design aesthetic.

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
– Steve Jobs

I can’t tell you the number of clients that have taken potentially award-winning design, that also met strategic business objectives, and passed it around to a group of friends and family for inexperienced and sometimes destructive feedback. This is tough to say, and not meant as an insult, but not everyone is a designer, nor should they be.

No one is the best at everything. Our co-workers may make excellent business decisions, but we’re not going to trust them to choose the color of our next car (unless they’ve studied automotive design, and probably not even then). My best friend, Joe, makes an awesome BBQ sauce, but I went with an architect to design my kitchen. And I love Aunt Ester, but she’s not picking my tie.

But it’s okay that most of us aren’t designers, and it’s okay that most designers can’t spell (I can tell you this from experience). Think twice before you ask someone their opinion of your new logo. Did they go to art school? Do they read design magazines for fun? Do their socks match? Our designers say “yes” to all three.

What would the world look like if we let these focus groups take over?

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
– Henry Ford

Some of the world’s most iconic logos would look much different if they were designed by focus group. Take McDonald’s for example. The company and brand is almost synonymous with its logo of the golden arches. If designed though the influence of McDonald’s customers it would probably look more like this:

McDonald's good logo vs. bad

The purpose of too many focus groups seems to be to make the most people happy. To do that, you need to compromise. And compromise leads to the dark side (sorry for the Star Wars pun). Compromise leads to mediocre design, that gets lost in today’s sea of marketing.

Just for fun, here’s what Starbucks’ and Nike’s logos might look like:

Starbucks good and bad logo.

Nike good and bad logo

As you can see, it doesn’t pay off to “play it safe” when it comes to design.

Instead, trust the designer.

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
– Wayne Gretzky

The designer is a professional. The designer has studied design at a university and has a degree. The designer has spent hundreds of hours in their craft to understand typography, color theory, composition, marketing and human behavior. And better yet, our designers work with a team of fellow designers, and can take advantage of their expertise and knowledge of past mistakes.