If Only Roark Were Right

I want to thank Ayn Rand for putting into words what every designer has ever thought about working with committees. I want to thank her for the glorious (albeit psychotic and dangerous) speech that Howard Roark delivers at the end of The Fountainhead. It is the most eloquent "fuck you" ever delivered to a committee that has wasted time, effort, resources and opportunity by watering something down to a bland, tasteless gruel. And while it is a smile inducing, brilliantly written and positively dreamy passage, Howard Roark is wrong.

I don't have the time or inclination to get into the societal and ethical insanity presented by Rand, however her beautifully crafted character Roark – the great architect – is wrong in regards to design as well. Usually the folks that espouse their hatred for committees and collaborative work are quickly shot down as simply being unrealistic. The real world doesn't work in the realm of ideal. The Howard Roarks of this world also tend not to be so idealistic as to be Rand's version of an egotists, in the end they are simply egotists. The real problem with Roark's final testimony is two-fold: He doesn't take into account that committees or collaborators can be honest, and he doesn't take into account that – even given the most sacred of intentions – his design could be wrong.

There have been committees in this world that have used the individual logic of people to create a collective logic which can be as valid as anything the unblemished individual can come up with. Additionally, assuming the committee has been working toward an honest, precise and well-rounded goal, the logic (even if developed though collaboration) should hold up. Roark assumes that any collaboration equals compromise which equals a flaw from the beginning. This may be true to an extent, but in designing for a company you are immediately designing for a collective entity regardless of where the creative brief comes from. So, it simply isn't true that the logic of a collective is inherently flawed and even if it were we design for a collective entity in the end anyway.

The rub really comes in when we present ideas to the client and they want to make changes. You know the moment, when they don't want something to be blue, they want a line to be thinner, or they plain just don't like it. The Roark in us comes out. What do they know!? I'm the designer! I'm trained and educated to know what is appropriate!

Too bad. And as it happens, while we may design logically to a creative brief, there is a fair amount of judgement involved. There is taste, and aesthetics. And let's face it, there are many cases in which making something blue could be just as logical as making something purple. As long as the changes to a design are being done in service to a truthful goal the design is not being compromised, it's simply being changed. It takes thought, patience and a strong self of yourself as a designer to understand that a change to a design, even if dreamt up by the client, does not infer something as being wrong. It simply infers another avenue.

However, it is the designer's place to remind committees about the stated goals. The problem generally with committees is that their members don't share a goal. If that's the case, it may be your job to focus things. And that's the real issue. It's not that committees are always compromised and full of faulty logic. It's that they generally lack coherence and in turn are hard to work for. But hard to work for does not mean impossible to do great work for. It does not mean endless compromise. Unfortunately it means tireless effort to help them discover what it is they all want as a group and then designing to that. And that is hard. And it is frustrating. And it makes us want to go all Roark on people. But for all the effort and pain Roark supposedly goes through, you'll notice in The Fountainhead, Howard Roark leaves that dirty work to others.