What the US Declaration of Independence can teach designers and creatives. Or, why clients can sometimes be right
I've just started reading Richard M Ketchum's Saratoga, a book about the American revolutionary war (there was a Burgoyne involved somewhere, apparently). In it, Ketchum relates a now-famous story about the drafting of the US Declaration of Independence.
After originally writing what he thought was a well-nigh perfect draft of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson (above) submitted it to fellow members of a Congressional committee for what we might now term 'client feedback'. Unsurprisingly, Jefferson was worried that his colleagues would ruin his work with their helpful suggestions, a situation no doubt familiar to all CR readers.
Jefferson shared his concerns with Benjamin Franklin who, in order to reassure him, told Jefferson a story from when he was a 'journeyman printer'.
A contemporary of Franklin's, a hatter named John Thompson, was about to open a shop and needed a sign for it (a corporate identity, if you like). Thompson decided his sign should read 'John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money'. This was to be set alongside a picture of a hat outside his shop.
Then, a friend pointed out that the word 'Hatter' was tautologous, followed as it was by 'makes hats', so he took it out. Someone else commented that he didn't need to state that he 'makes' hats as, so long as they were good quality, no-one would care who made them, so he took that out as well. And a third advised him to remove the words 'ready money' as nobody would expect him to sell on credit.
That left 'John Thompson sells hats', with the illustration. As his friends pointed out, no-one would expect Thompson to give his hats away, so a bit more editing was introduced. As Ketchum writes "Finally, all that remained was his name, 'John Thompson', and a picture of a hat.
Fortunately, as Ketchum states, most changes made by Congress to Jefferson's draft were also improvements and history was duly made. And the lesson is, the right feedback can help improve an original concept. Sometimes.
Unfortunately, I suspect that most of our readers' experiences would be almost the exact opposite of the John Thompson story. Who hasn't proposed their version of John Thompson and a picture of a hat, only to see assorted stakeholders stick their oar in until today's equivalent of 'John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money' becomes the final, client-approved version?
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For what it’s worth, I find it a little arrogant that there seems to be this default assumption that clients views are mostly damaging to the integrity of projects, and furthermore the final outcome. Yes of course there are marketing execs who want convoluted messaging in the vain hope that it doesn’t miss a single piece of the audience pie, but there are also many more who are rational human beings, who shock-horror, are pretty similar to us. They just want to be involved, to have their say, in something that they’re (probably) paying for.
Predominantly, they’ll know their industries better than we do (if not you might think twice about the project) and will no doubt have decent thoughts and suggestions. The point is to listen, and give ground when they hold the expertise, while learning to better express our own expertise when defending a particular feature/element/decision.
It’s quite simple really, design should be a conversation, with each party willing to concede for the better of the project. In order to play the best possible part in that conversation, we should learn both to be humble, and to express clearly, succinctly and calmly when we know we are in the right.
If the goal is quality work, that seems the most logical way to achieve it.
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