BLUF: How to measure quality of graphic design, when "quality" is subjective?

I took up a management position in the design department of a web development agency just under a year ago. I inherited a number of designers (through a merger) that we would not have recruited in a normal growth situation. Their work falls below the aesthetic standards that have helped to forge our company's good reputation in this area. 
The dynamic on a typical design project is that a client executive works with one of my DR's to meet the client's requirements. If those 3 parties are happy with the results, the project proceeds to the next stage.
The client signing off on the project is one thing; but if our output is not matching quality levels present in the wider design industry, our reputation at large suffers, we may not attract good people in future, we are seen as having declining standards etc. While we do hold group project review sessions which help to reinforce the "norms" of expected quality, I have challenges:
1) How can I raise quality as an issue in O3's and reviews, when the response can simply be "None of our clients have a problem with my work?".
2) How can I apply measurements on design quality when the only data I have is my own opinion
I am aware that even MY opinion is subjective, but I do know good design when I see it... or when I don't! 
Thanks in advance for your inputs.

ashdenver's picture

"The clients may not have a problem with your work but I do. The culture here is that we work with this set of norms in terms of quality so that our corporate image is held in high esteem so that we can continue to attract lucrative clients and talented designers."

So here's a question for you ... the norms of expected quality that you've helped foster with the pre-existing folks (pre-merger), what are they?  Can you summarize them in a few sentences or bullet points?  Could you provide visual examples (before / the passable, after / the high-quality way)? ( You needn't present actual client work but maybe use existing graphics already available online to represent the differences.)  

Do you have room within the timelines to proof-read the work of these merger folks for a little while so you can give specific feedback on live projects in the works?  For instance, rather than saying "Gee, this project from six weeks ago just doesn't 'wow' me as much as I would have liked" you could instead say "Okay, you're definitely on the right track here but I'd like to see you add a darker shade of blue, move the light source about 15 degrees to the left and use a Garamond font instead of Times New Roman" which would really get the merger folks to internalize the differences between "passable" and "stellar."

*two cents*

DiSC profile: 7-2-1-5

jhack's picture

 Web design is amenable to measurement.  

Does the designer establish a color palette from which to work, with both major and minor color sets?  

Can the designer justify the color choices based on client attributes (their brand standards, for example, or the site's overall topic)?

Are fonts consistent?  Are there standards for use of fonts?  

Like wise all aspects of web design:  layout, navigation, interactivity, click-response behavior, visual elements, and content.   Each has standards, each should be consistent with the other, and contribute to the overall brand.  

You do have a "brand" statement for each web site you do, right?  

Consider this:  maybe the problem isn't the designer, but the manager.  Maybe the designer has never been taught the discipline of design. It's your responsibility to ensure that your team's work moves beyond "I don't know how to describe what we do but I know what I like" to a more scalable and measurable practice.  Not free-form art, but professional design.  

That means coaching your designer on each of the skill areas above.  Pick one (like Branding) and help them become real professional designers.  

John Hack

yanek's picture
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Would it be possible to survey the customer during various phases to collect the customer's opinion?  On  a scale of 1 to 5...

  • to what extent do they feel that the abiltiy to navigate to the right content is easy?
  • to what extent is the layout pleasing?
  • to what extent are the colors used attractive?

Subjective, still -- but customer/data driven.

rickmonro's picture

[edit] Apologies in advance for such a long answer... if I had more time I would have given a shorter one :)  [/edit]

Ash:- I'll take a raincheck on posting examples to protect the innocent!  Some of the designers I'm working with have 8+ years experience with the parent organisation (we were the acquired company), and if I raise issues for which there are no measureables, they can quite rightly complain that their work has not been a problem for all that time, so why now? And HR will back them to the hilt (FWIW I'm in the UK).  Your suggested comments would be treated with exasperation, because of their subjective nature, and my role does not give me the remit to make judgements of that nature.

In the examples you use (nice knowledge of typefaces BTW!), how would you communicate why Garamond might be better than Times? Or why shifting the light source is better?  A good designer would inherently know what the answers are, and would make incremental adjustments to correct - but they are subjective issues and cannot be rationalised by inarguable logic.

John:- All of the points you mention do indeed represent standard elements of a professional web design. Agree wholeheartedly, and we use these kind of checklists in project review sessions, and you're on the money. If all of these check out, my only fallback is "Well, I think your work could be, you know, better". I fully appreciate the challenge to look to myself. Be assured that is my first stop every time. If my role were creative director, an inherent part of the job would be policing creative quality, based on my own standards. However as a manager, the emphasis is on productivity (which is fine incidentally, thanks in part to MT :)

Yanek:- This would place a large amount of work on our client-facing people, but it is a great thought. All of those elements can still receive high ratings however, and the final design can still be lacking.

The bottom line is that great design should always better than the sum of its constituent parts. We're trying to quantify the X factor, the 'wow' factor, whatever you want to call it. For example, why is the iPod so much more successful than its competitors? You can ascribe some of its success to savvy marketing and timing, but what it really comes down to is that it offers a better user experience, and a better aesthetic experience. And that is soooo hard to define or measure - it's simply there, or it's not. AND it's subjective. For instance, I know a die-hard Zune user who insists that it's the better device. But he's wrong!

Srictly speaking, all my DRs are doing their job according to all the measures set by the company. I want more though, and am beginning to think there is a tough time ahead in enforcing higher standards in the face of perceived "success" against measureable criteria.

Thanks so much for your thoughts, and please don't think I'm being dismissive. You are absolutely right in your suggestions of using proxies for quality. I apologise for not being able to better articulate the challenges. I had no intention of making this a discussion about design!

From your input, I can see that I am asking the wrong questions. It is apparent that our company really needs to be more explicit about quality as a standard. Up to this point, we haven't had to worry about it becuse we have always recruited good people, and high standards have been implicit. My question needs to be put to the organisation, and that is "How do we enforce quality in the new set-up when it is not within the manager's remit to do so?"

Thanks again.

bug_girl's picture

I manage several folks that do both our print and online work.  I spent a lot of time writing a style guide so that I didn't have to return to the common issues of "use bullets this way, this font, this color....".  It sounds like that may not yet exist for your company?

Because our style guide is in print, and used across the organization, it's solved a lot of problems for me.*

I do, however, have several people who feel the need to sing "I Gotta Be MEEEEEE" at the top of their lungs and won't comply.

There are a couple of ways to deal with that:

  • "This is the style guide, and headquarters won't let things be published unless we comply. So, change it."  (i.e., pass the authority buck up the line)
  • "I realize that as an artist, you like X better. But, unfortunately, we need a consistent look and feel to all our work. Can you let it go this time? Can you compromise with Y?" (my hi-S approach)
  • In a recent case, I had an intern that would not make any changes to his original design. We had a long talk about working with clients (internal and external), and professionalism. It remains a problem, and he knows that it's risking his recommendations for the future. Very sad.
  • Other approaches that I'm sure folks will suggest, but I'm too tired to think of right now :)

Some of this falls on you to quantify what you want. The supreme court may be able to get away with "I know it when I see it", but not a regular manager :D


*the style guide also has to be constantly updated as  web and print advances happen.  If only technology would stay still!!

mtietel's picture
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A while back I was a consultant at a company where that was gounds for dismissal.  In fact, someone was dismissed for refusing to modify their code to meet the coding guidelines.

Look, it's not your code/design/document/whatever, it's the company's.  Your personal sense of style is perfectly appropriate when working on your stuff on your own time - on company time and with company work products you follow the company rules whether you like them or not.

bug_girl's picture

Since it's an intern, he gets a couple of tries before the boot. Ideally, he should learn from the process and emerge a better candidate than when he started. 

Alas, learning is not happening :(


But--back to the original topic--what style guides exist, monrobot?

rickmonro's picture

Apologies for such a tardy reply, bug_girl!

We have no style guide as such; we're designing for the web, so technical constraints are the true "rules". We also design for a broad range of public and private sector clients and must be able to produce diverse output.

However, from everyone's input I can now appreciate that stricter guidance is essential, by hook or by crook (I SO hope that phrase means something ouside of the UK!!).

The bottom line is we are stuck with staff that we would not have recruited. The challenge is to turn that around. I have decided to introduce, over time, a series of studio practice policies that will further tie individual outputs to specific guidelines. This will mean living with a dip in (aesthetic) quality in the short term and, while I had wanted to avoid having  a 'house style', I can see now it may be the only practical way forward.

Thanks once again.


bug_girl's picture

No worries--I didn't expect a speedy reply :)

Without a style guide, or a standard "look and feel", I can see why you are getting lots of different results.  On the other hand, if you are working for different external clients, then you want things to be very different!

It is really helpful, even if it's just for you, to sit down and ask what makes a "good" bit of work. It could take some time.

This bit of navel-gazing will help you when it is review time, because you have set out the standards by which to judge your directs.   And if you are going to coach them towards better output, this gives them something to aim for.

It may be that their results are all over the map because they don't know what's expected/guidelines either--if you have some high Cs in there, giving them more guidance will make their day :)

lazerus's picture

 Graphic Designer and printing manager here. I understand what you are saying, sort of. While it is not possible to directly measure the subjective element of your folks design work, as a manager, it might be possible to coach the people. The language of art and design has words to articulate the subjective judgement. Do your own critique before the reviews. You are in a good position to influence the aesthetic direction of people's work. If people are downright uncooperative, then you have some observable behavior. It doesn't sound like that's the case here, though.

How did you yourself get to be so good and so talented? Help the people who work for you do the same. Direct them to books, and there are thousands. Encourage the stuff you like, raise the bar. Make it fun. If there is fear, they will not improve. Invite some local superstars to lecture at your shop. Join the local design Association, if you haven't already. In the US we have the AIGA, I know there is a British equivalent but I forgot the name.

Designers are really really sensitive to criticism, that's why we take classes in how to give it and receive it in college. It seems a fool's errand to try to do any kind of measurement in this area. All that will happen is you'll have silos, bad morale and antipathy, none of which are conducive to an open, innovative and creative environment. Inspire them to do better, accept the objective fact that everyone's skills and abilities are different. Designers know when their stuff is "good" and when they are hacking for the paycheck.  Use the MT trinity to get what you and your organization need, do it in a positive way.