Prarthana Johnson & Gerrit Kaiser: All Hail the Committee

Design by committee is a term sometimes (ahem, always) negatively used in the creative industries. But now, the trend and move from classical agencies to in-house designers has lessened the stigma attached to working “in-house” and for “team client side”. Prarthana Johnson and Gerrit Kaiser from Soundcloud, tag team to talk about what it means to be designers who are not afraid of designing by committee.

© Gerhard Kassner / Monotype)

More and more designers want to do strategic, impactful and long term design work. Prarthana and Gerrit liken how they work as to having a seat at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland—Alice being the designer, and the characters at the tea party a bit like committees. For Gerrit, “Designers have always wanted a seat at the table and now we’ve got it”. Who and what are they? For Soundcloud, there are four (but not limited to) core committees: User, Press, Competitor, and Internal.


“Designers have always wanted a seat at the table and now we’ve got it.”


It was talk of the first User Committee that resonated with me the most. Nothing slips pass the User Committee (aka their active community of 175 million monthly listeners), not even the changes that are not intended to be noticed. Gerrit affectionately acknowledges a few of the “twitter shitstorms” and user hate protest songs that have come their way. For him, “As a designer, it’s actually really great because I know my work is being seen; I know the changes are being seen…”  But although they appreciate and take feedback on all fronts, what they don’t want to do is fall into the trap of democratic design. “You have to be careful in what you ask… and set the expectations right and not give an impression of user dictatorship.” He’s true to say that, because after all, no one really wants to be in a Boaty McBoatface situation. “Knowing when to listen and when not [to] is the key.”

We’ve all encountered unsolicited feedback and advice, and sometimes even people who take creative liberties in redesigning our own designs and thoughts. It’s unpleasant when people point out your mistakes or think they know better, but Soundcloud take the high road and see this as flattering and a source of inspiration, because “When you’re so deep down the rabbit hole of in-house design, sometimes you need fresh eyes to relook at the problem.”


“When you’re so deep down the rabbit hole of in-house design, sometimes you need fresh eyes to relook at the problem.”


They are also self critical in speaking of 2015 being a difficult year, having worked madly towards the launch of Soundcloud Go and at one point being “not even sure if [they] were going to make it”. Prarthana goes on to acknowledge the role of the Press Committee in contributing to making or breaking a product amidst the madness.

Next up is the Competitor Committee, which revolve around the race to be different in the music streaming service. Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora and Snapchat are noted as influences and/or contenders in the field.

The final and most obvious committee is the Internal. A design team of 17 is comprised of Product Designers, UI Designers, UX Researchers and Prototypers, all in the mix, working to create the platform and the tools. The design team, together with the Product Managers, Engineers, Data Analysts, Founders, Business Stakeholders keep the company sustainable and afloat.

Gerrit refers to how the team works towards “not data driven design, but data-informed design”. He places emphasis on the importance of not only taking feedback but also remembering to take a step back to reflect on the core of the brand. He was reminded of this when he had to sacrifice his minimalist UI design principles and reintroduce sharing buttons, because making sharing more passionate and easier was the right thing to do. Sometimes his designer heart still bleeds at the sight, but “the lesson is to have principles but to prioritise them in the right order. UI design purity is important, but the success of our creators is more important.”

The changing nature of technology, users and products have made for changes to the role of the designers and who they interact with. Just like Alice, designers now have a seat at the table to decide what and how to make. So maybe it’s not so bad to take a seat and embrace the committee, because you never know what might happen. Just ask Rory Fresco.


Written by Maggie Tang •