DMI Design Management Institute

DMI Design Management Institute

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Sal R.


How do you try to reduce the number of stakeholders within a design approval process?

Creative Director with Global Design and Corporate Identity expertise

"I recently observed a project that started off with the best of intentions. The designer fulfilled the the requirements of the assignment exceptionally well, only to find that the client had to pass it by marketers, distributors, and salespeople, each of whom had a different sense of what would sell. Loaded with these conflicting data, the client returned the job to the designer for major revision. What the designer had originally called “brillant” was now simply “not going to work–can you fiddle with it some more.” — Steven Heller, When Bad Design Happens to Good Designer, AIGA Journal

How do you try to reduce the number of stakeholders within a design approval process?

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  • March 12, 2012
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  • Matt B.


    Matt B.

    Owner - Maverick Numismatics - Zbrush sculpture for coins, medals, and bas-relief

    That brings back some painful memories!

    I discovered this same issue when my design team seemed to be constantly on the back foot, always struggling with un-planned revision work that diverted them from their (hitherto pretty stable), work plan.

    What I found was that, as you describe, internal stakeholders were applying their personal critique to work before it reached the customer.

    This was driven by 2 main factors:

    a) A business culture based around maximum return, rather than best product.
    Actually, that's slightly inaccurate. The pressure was to meet agreed numbers, and marketing staff lived or died on their ability to do this.
    This pressure made the Marketing/ Sales teams naturally very risk averse, especially in terms of design, which, by its nature, is subjective.
    This made them prone to scrutinising design work at every stage, and when nervous people scrutinise, they inevitably ask for alterations.
    This was exacerbated by factor....

    b) The challenges posed by the internal stakeholder's inability to "read" concept design work, and visualise products based on preliminary layouts.
    Sketches are, by their nature, organic, and designed to invite comment (read Bill Buxton's book - 'Sketching User Experiences' for a great dive into the psychology of sketching).

    To combat the nervousness about design, we introduced a transparent system of measuring creative output that was applied to each new project, and based on the objectives of the brief.
    The idea behind this was to give the design team more accountability for success or failure of a product, based on agreed criteria; thus sharing the accountability burden, and also raising the profile of design as a key business driver.

    The readability issue was addressed by introducing a colour coding system to concept work.
    Any sketches rendered in blue were to be considered discussion points, and up for critique, no matter how polished the design might be.
    Sketches rendered in black were fixed, and could not be altered by internal stakeholders.
    The transition from blue to black was governed by the project timeline and critical path to product prototype. This timeline was owned by the creative team, and published weekly to all marketing/ sales staff.

    By building trust, and visibly taking accountability for design success, we were able to reduce the internal approval loop, keeping only one or two key stakeholders in the process, rather than the 8 internal departments who had previously insisted on signing off every stage of concept.

  • Carl H. B.

    Carl H.

    Carl H. B.

    Design Dir. / Creative Consultant

    I know how difficult that is...
    -I have been on the inside as one of the stakeholders which was in marketing or design roles or client.
    -Its key to enlist the help of the marketing team to add only 2.
    -Sounds crazy but it does work especially in large corporations.
    -The top signer usually the head of the division will always be the one to sign off.
    -Or have the leader appoint one key project manager to get all of the stakeholders on the same page. (And that page is, your original creative brief, that defines the deliverables of the project.) ( Not personal, but business decisions) Not because my girlfriend like purple, but the selections or directions that are driven by the marketing needs originally agreed upon.

  • Robert S.


    Robert S.

    Creative Director at Forthought Design Inc

    Seek divine intervention…as the old saying goes too many cooks spoil the soup. Having a an agreed upon design brief at the start of the process helps, as it allows the design to be evaluated with the design and business objectives in mind. DMI runs a conference with Peter Phillips "Creating the Perfect Design Brief" that addresses the evaluation process and helps client and designer establish a framework going forward.

  • Terry O.


    Terry O.

    BEng CEng FICE FIStructE FAPM

    Depends were tou are inthe design process. During scheme design eNsure there is a firm set of requirements signed off by the client and his elected stakeholders and demonstrably meet them to the satisfaction of the sponsor.
    Concept design is about proving the business case and the stakeholders have to managed via a steering group. Sponsor is custodian of business case and he is your client rep. Stakeholders that are regulators need to be managed carefully. On the Olympics I developed a statement of design compliance proforma which I used to track review and acceptance process,

  • Steve S.


    Steve S.

    Principal at Sato+Partners | Co-Chair Design Value (in Business) Research Pgm. at Design Mgmt. Inst.

    Building on Terry's response, getting stakeholders involved early in the design process is ideal - if working with executives or large extended teams oftentimes gaining agreement on no more than 10-12 decision criteria to evaluate concepts is easier to manage than lists of requirements from each stakeholder.

    The decision criteria embody the overarching principles from which customer, business and technology requirements arise. It takes some further querying to uncover them though.

    A way to get at the decision criteria behind very specific requirements is to use a technique called "nested why's". If a marketing manager insists the color of a product needs to be red, ask "why?". Her response may be that a competitive product that sells well is red. So you may ask for her patience and ask "why do you think red makes the product sell so well"? Her belief is that red draws a shopper's eyes to it when they scan the shelf. Whether true or not, this would suggest a decision criteria that the product or it packaging needs to stand out from competitive offerings when a shopper scans the shelves. Then you could validate with her that a decision criteria like this would satisfy her.

  • Shimon S.


    Shimon S.

    Product Marketing, Development & Design

    If you the decision is about subjective matters (colors, sounds, aesthetics, etc.) you need to decide where you are in the risk-benefits quad. based on that, you can take the safe route and survey users, but you will most likely end up with a gray square product. You can recruit a dictator (a la Steve Jobs) and you will end up with anything between gray and square and a London Olympics logo style of design. So now the question is how to recruit that dictator. Easy. You need to do is decide where you want to be on that quad, and repeat...

  • Neil O.


    Neil O.

    Senior Hardware Engineering Lead at Microsoft Surface

    Specific subjective attributes such as colour or form, need to have owners. A person, with a name preferably, and a job title is always good. A 'human' in effect, who is prepared to stand up and repeatedly defend their decision to go with 'this colour' or 'this form' or 'this UI scheme'. 'We' cannot choose colours. Put that decsision through the wringer of concensus and the customer loses, every time. The customer deserves a product delivered by a person, NOT a team.

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