Can’t we all just agree?
More often than not, the answer is no. The business world isn’t a Smurf village where everyone dresses in the same blue suit and shares cooperatively based on what she or he has to offer. Work environments are fraught with diversity, varying skills, experiences, job titles, personal preferences, and communication barriers. It’s sometimes a wonder how anything gets agreed upon and done.
Consensus is an even greater issue amongst highly professional groups where every voice potentially has equal weight. The importance of having a consensus-based process cannot be overstated. In fact, how to get consensus, especially around topics like corporate identity and branding, is a question often asked by clients, by audiences at conferences and by others in the design industry.
It’s a sticking point for people because it’s so crucial and so difficult to achieve.
Consensus is a bit of a myth. It isn’t the same as everyone getting his or her own way, creatively or otherwise. Consensus during a branding process, or while developing a corporate identity, is about gathering all the points of view from different stakeholders, getting a sense of the overall direction, and then distilling the research into something meaningful that the project owners can sign off on.
Sometimes this means setting aside some opinions in favour of a bold and authentic brand strategy and identity that the majority can believe in and support. Very often, a design team’s presence as objective partners is just the catalyst that is needed to get past conflicting points of view.
As facilitators, knowing when to back down and when to push for something greater requires insight into the motivation of certain individuals. It also requires keeping the client group focused on objectivity in the service of attaining the goals established at the outset.
Collaboration and consensus building can lead to numerous compromises if allowed to run rampant. When taken individually none of these compromises seem like a big deal, but collectively they can amount to a significant deviation from the intended solution.
Objectivity is one thing, yet as designers we do require organizational credibility that comes from being in the thick of a business to get everyone to a place where they feel comfortable enough to agree.
To achieve this, we listen—and listen broadly. Listening takes many forms and involves a lot of people, platforms and perspectives. Meet with a business’s key partners or founders, but also question a cross section of staff whether it’s in person, on the phone or via email surveys.
Take in this information, digest it and analyze it to show that you have listened, learned and have the knowledge to lead with credibility through the rest of the branding and strategy process. Taking the time to learn shows that you understand the specific business and organization.
Another area to explore is hearing what the organization’s clients and vendors have to say about the firm. This outside audience can offer valuable, alternate, insights into what a company or organization is all about and often can provide surprisingly unbiased feedback.
We as designers need ask a lot of questions, but we also need to make sure our questions are well crafted to elicit useful information. Out of this we begin to see themes and patterns that will lead to logical conclusions. In this way, we can show where the group already agrees and start to reveal the gaps.
Sharing what we’ve learned early on (during a brand audit, for example) often starts to pave the road to consensus because everyone can see the data and what the group supports already. It helps to get everyone on the same page early and prevents surprises later.
All of the above falls into the two primary phases of a strategic branding process. In the initial phase, we as designers research, compile information and share our findings. This phase challenges and validates the reasons we were hired, and allows us to make more strategic, informed recommendations for everything that comes next.
Only then do we move into the next phase where we start to determine strategic brand messaging, tone, style and brand asset needs.
Design and strategy work shouldn’t be a mystery for the clients who are paying for it. It’s sort of like medical records—it’s research and information about the client. It belongs to them.
However, the designer’s analysis of that information and what should be done with it is what makes the brand information valuable.
Nonetheless, don’t wait until all of the work is done and the budget long gone for the big reveal. Instead, share your findings with the client in phases so they know what you’re doing and where you are going.
Show early, show often. Take an incremental, collaborative approach that allows you to get a reading early on, and rapidly change direction if the feedback says you’re going the wrong way. This applies to strategy and especially creative work.
In fact, it’s vital that written strategic direction is generally agreed upon with the client group before any creative work commences. Why? It’s too easy for individuals to bring back subjective opinion when it comes to visual work. So use tools like visual models, moodboards, style tiles and prototyping to explore and navigate with groups through the process.
As you continue to move forward towards execution, the client’s favourite question should be “Why?” Why are you pursuing a certain brand tone or approach? Why are you recommending a particular colour palette? As designers we need to make sure the answer is backed up by the research and experience that supports it. This makes certain decisions a logical and easy choice.
Nonetheless, consensus can be elusive if a small number of people dig their heels in around their own points of view or preferences. While a designer’s goal is always to present choices everyone can support, occasionally, someone may hold out because they are not partial to the options in front of them. Moving forward requires the leadership team to outline the opportunity and financial cost of not making a decision.
Consensus is a weighted majority in this case, and there is nothing inherently wrong with the leadership or the ownership team pushing forward when the process is stuck and costing time and money.
Even if an individual doesn’t get his or her way, having had a say is an important part of the consensus building process. If a well-researched plan with a logical, solid foundation is followed, goals are met and greatness follows. It’s not glamourous, but it works.
By breaking down the branding process into these smaller pieces designers are able to generate buy-in from the start and sustain it incrementally throughout the decision making process.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The same can be said for getting consensus.
**Note: Special thanks to my resource manager and friend Allison Vail who collaborated on this article.