“Talent hits a target no-one else can hit. Genius hits a target no-one else can see.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

In case you missed it, earlier this year Uber had a brand refresh.

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One interesting aspect of the redesign was the personal involvement of CEO, Travis Kalanick in the redesign process:

“along the way, he studied up on concepts ranging from kerning to color palettes. ‘I didn’t know any of this stuff,’ says Kalanick. ‘I just knew it was important, and so I wanted it to be good.’”

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At Under Consideration, a website devoted to rebrands, Armin Vit concludes:

“it’s clear that part of the confused outcome of the identity had a lot to do with a lack of design leadership (or the wrong design leadership) in the process.”

Perhaps we should re-paraphrase Kalanick thus:

“I didn’t know anything about design, but that didn’t stop me.”

Kalanick wouldn’t be the first CEO who has chanced their hand at design. Soon after Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo she led a 48-hour charrette to rework the Yahoo! logo, with questionable results:

“On a personal level, I love brands, logos, color, design, and, most of all, Adobe Illustrator. I think it’s one of the most incredible software packages ever made. I’m not a pro, but I know enough to be dangerous :)”

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Design by client

We’ve all had ‘helicopter’ clients hovering over us, wanting to micro-manage design projects, and it never ends well. I’ve had clients wanting to wrestle the mouse from my hands, others who like to touch the screen with a pen, even make marks on it. After a while you feel less a designer and more like a Mac-monkey, with the design effectively being done by the client.

It’s a route that rarely produces good results. Establishing an effective client-designer relationship that harnesses each party’s knowledge and strength is critical in delivering successful projects.

Rand vs Jobs

A remarkable story in the history of client-designer relationships is one between Jobs and Paul Rand. Jobs, after being forced out of Apple, approached Rand to create a logo for his new computer company, NeXT.

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At an initial meeting, where Jobs asked Rand to come up with a few design options, Rand refused. Rand’s response, as Jobs recalled, was to say:

“I will solve your problem for you, and you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution, if you want other options, go talk to other people… You use it or not, that’s up to you, you’re the client, but you pay me.”

This might sound like vanity by Rand, but in the final design proposal, it shows how he had explored a wide range of options as part of the design process. Every element of the design had been explored in great depth in order to lead to what Rand felt was the optimal solution.

“To defamiliarise it, to make it look different, to let it evoke more than the mere adjective or adverb it happens to be is, it seems, the nub of the problem”

Rand famously charged $100,000 for the NeXT identity, but Jobs obviously regarded this as money well spent.

As Jobs explained, Rand solved a unique problem by creating an iconic logo that also contained the word NeXT, allowing just one graphical element to fulfil two jobs. The logo is the icon, the icon is the logo.

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To Rand this was the essence of the design, but it wasn’t something that Jobs could have articulated in a brief. Often in design there is a brief, describing the problem, but then there is – undeclared because it can’t be identified at the start of the process – the actual problem that needs to be solved. These things are rarely solved by the client getting involved.  Part of the genius of Steve Jobs –  not being known for being shy and retiring – was that he knew when to get out of the way and let the designer get on with it.

Great design is always good value

It is strange that business owners often feel the need to become entrenched in design projects, when in other aspects of business and life they are happy to let experts do their job without interference. Perhaps designers are guilty of seeking approval too much, needing their ego to be massaged, and being insecure of their abilities. But I think it is also because design forms such a critical part of a company’s brand and impacts on all a company’s activities that business owners feel they must be intimately involved. Finding a balance between client engagement and client interference is the key to successful design projects. A great book to help both clients and designers set out the rules of engagement is You’re My Favourite Client by Mike Monteiro.

Bad design is always expensive, while great design never is. Perhaps it’s time for designers to be more forthright against client interference. To take the Paul Rand approach: I will solve your problem, and you will pay me.