Compromising briefs

Need committee decisions generate mediocrity – and would a strong ‘tsar’ necessarily fare any better? David Bernstein on the dynamics of judging

Design Week editor Lynda Relph-Knight’s critique of the Mayor’s selection process for the new London identity warned that ‘without an experienced design tsar… it could end up with a committee decision and a mediocre result’ (Comment, DW 3 September). The implication was clear/ committee decision equals mediocre result.

Note that we’re not talking about creation by committee: that’s a guarantee of mediocrity. But does committee appraisal of creativity inevitably produce it? As a young creative director I was convinced it did. Believing with Dr Johnson that ‘the soul of an advertisement is promise, large promise’, I would dread the encounter between promise and committee (known in the agency as a plans board). The result would be a committee promise, or com-promise.

Compromise was the enemy of creativity. It was, however, a fact of life. I invented ‘the law of the ultimate compromise’. Realistically, the process of creating ads would eventually involve some compromise. My law said that that eventuality must be delayed. Compromise early and there will be nothing left to compromise about.

But need every committee decision generate mediocrity? Aren’t Design Week Awards the result of committee decisions? Perhaps it depends on the quality of the members of the committee and, as Relph-Knight seems to suggest, the person in charge. But how does the ‘tsar’ perform this role – as autocrat, democrat or benevolent despot, maybe dispensing with a committee altogether? Thus ‘tsar’ could mean committee of one, creative supremo, impresario, a [Sergei] Diaghilev.

Failing that, compromise will be on the agenda. Alternative purposes will stake their claims. Can both be met without mutual concession? Which cliche; will triumph – ‘best of both worlds’ or ‘fall between two stools’? Do we ‘steer a middle course’, achieve a ‘golden mean’ or, more passively, opt for ‘peaceful co-existence’? Roget, as ever, paints all scenarios from ‘reconciliation’ to ‘cop out’.

The environment breeds compromise as we try to reduce our carbon footprint. David Ogilvy said ‘the consumer isn’t a moron, she’s your wife’. Well, the Green consumer is an oxymoron. Can the opposites be reconciled? Here’s Mercedes attempting it in an ad for its E-Class saloon, headlined, ‘It feels indulgent, but it’s actually prudent.’ Is that fusion or thinly disguised fission? George Monbiot would say Greenwash.

A committee represents different interests, but the chairman has to accentuate what unites its members. If that means agreeing a set of criteria, so much the better. In this case, these have been set by the Greater London Authority, which has listed no fewer than nine objectives. Any designer who attempts to convey all these in a logo must be desperate for work. No wonder there is a furore and that designers are attempting to question the GLA. Here’s a slogan to chant as they storm the Mayor’s office/ ‘No single design can capture all nine.’

Compromise will make its entrance as soon as pencil hits paper. Which aspect of London to concentrate on? Which could be the most dramatic? Which could subsume others? And – the saddest compromise – which could be so bland that it would do least harm?

If things go as planned, it won’t be the committee that generates compromise but the brief itself – since brief it is not. The committee would do us all a favour by rewriting it.

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