The Slow Dance

What impact does the designer-commissioner relationship has on the outcome of the design? What are the elements of concerns in this relationship?

A commissioner is one who grants a project to be realized, often the initiator of such a project. Naturally, he/she is often the first social interaction a designer is confronted with. Both share the responsibility of keeping this delicate relationship in balance; like a slow dance, each needs to know his and her steps. Having a clear hierarchy in this ‘slow dance’ can be constructive in realizing a project successfully. If all individuals involved in the project have the power of decision, the project can result in a lack of direction. What is profitable to the project is for the commissioner to perform his/her presence as a leader, one who guides a process that fosters free and open exchange of ideas and knowledge. In response, the designer’s presence is one of an attentive visual aide, carefully analyzing the problem in search for the appropriate solution.

However, the terms of the relationship between the designer and the commissioner are not universally alike. Despite the fact that our world today is increasingly global—with advances in technologies that threaten to diminish our cultural differences—, certain elements remain irreplaceable, such as, our social identities. These days, we can learn to speak the same language, to dress alike, to live in similar architecture, to consume the same products; however, to think and act alike demand investigation beyond the surface. Our sense of social identity of who we are is deeply rooted. Every society has its own set of unwritten rules and code of conducts, which defines partly how the designer and the commissioner perform their presences. Our office is a melting pot of three cultures, Asian, American, and European. The social knowledge of these three cultures is a benefit to our interactions with commissioners of different cultural backgrounds.

The Asian designer-commissioner relationship, a generalization:
In Asia, the commissioner is often the ultimate authority. A designer can be seen as an ‘employee’ hired to carry out the task. The designer—as a good Asian—follows the order, mostly prefers not to question ‘why’ and to utter ‘no’ is an unnatural act. I once witnessed an event whereby a commissioner had changed the design to a point that it was no longer recognizable by the maker herself. The commissioner’s ‘redesigned’ version was to be executed, that was the order. The designer sat in her chair, with tears and sympathy from her fellow colleagues; she collected the strength to execute the commissioner’s order. She did not put up a fight for her design, her cultural identity held her back from saying ‘no’ to the commissioner.

The American designer-commissioner relationship, a generalization:
Due to the large size of the economy, stakes are higher in America; books don’t get printed in some thousands but in such quantities that fill up pallets and containers. The higher the economic stake, the safer the design approach becomes. The marketing department plays often an important role in the shaping of design. With their charts and graphs filled with digits on profit and statistic studies; the commissioners are often timid in taking bold gestures in the communicational means. American designers do, nevertheless, receive more artistic space and freedom in exercising their skills than their Asian colleagues. However, partly due to the design firms’ own charts filled with digits on their profits, challenging the commissioner’s decision is not a common act.

The European designer-commissioner relationship, a generalization:
In Europe, to be more precisely the Netherlands, where a clear top to down hierarchy on the work floor is often absent, challenging the decision of the authority is not unusual. Designers are at times treated as equals by the commissioners. Dutch society, in comparison to many other societies, has higher regards for the cultural arts. Although most commissions come from the business sectors, in comparison to other parts of the world there is in the Netherlands a large quantity of governmental subsidized projects. Designers are sometimes encouraged, by means of subsidy, to explore and to be experimental. This helps explain the Netherlands’ current highly praised status on the global design scene. There is however a downside to this, Dutch design at times can drift away to objects of art rather than design, especially projects realized by subsidy funding. Such designs often fail to communicate and cannot find a function within the society apart from posing in magazines of similar nature. When such occurs, the commissioner and the designer are both responsible for the outcome.

Chin-Lien Chen , Chris Vermaas