Is your project Homer Simpson's car?
Updated: Feb 19
How a classic cartoon episode can help you avoid mistakes when realising your projects.
A wise person once said, “You don’t buy a dog and bark yourself.” We’ve all heard it but there are still plenty of paying clients out there who hire professionals, only to ignore their advice and insist on doing the job themselves, often with poor results. Are you one of those clients?
Although I don’t like to blow my own trumpet, I’ve been a digital designer for over 20 years and managed to pay the bills, so I guess that makes me a professional in my field. I’ve definitely found myself in situations where paying clients, with little-to-no design experience, refuse to listen to my ideas and instead only seem to want to pay for my ability to operate Photoshop. It’s a difficult place to find yourself in because if you stick to your guns and tell the client they’re ruining their own project, you risk not getting paid.
There are always ways to try and incorporate a customer’s bad ideas but if a project has got to that stage, you’re usually polishing a turd and just want to take the money and run.
Wouldn't it be great if there was a resource out there which could help clients see that sometimes it's best to leave it to the experts? Google throws up plenty of blogs to help professionals establish a harmonious client/supplier relationship but sometimes, clients just want what they want and it's hard to talk them out of it.
So if you're a supplier looking for a blog on top tips for speccing a piece of work, this isn't it. And if you're client-side, I'm not going to tell you that you're wrong for wanting to inject your own personality or quirky style into a project. Instead, I’m going to illustrate my point with Season 2, Episode 15 of The Simpsons. The Simpsons is still a thing, right?
Whilst it’s definitely not as good as it used to be, The Simpsons has always held a mirror up to the real world and highlighted some of the more ridiculous aspects of life. In this blog, we’re travelling back to 1991, a time when the show was just a couple of years old, nobody had the internet and the only face masks we wore were for Halloween.
To set the scene, I’m 11 years old, probably wearing massive Nike basketball trainers, an oversized Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (because ninjas were too violent for the UK) t-shirt and hanging upside down off my friend Daniel’s sofa whilst clutching a Michael Keaton Batman figure. Daniel lived in a pub with a BSkyB dish, which meant his house was the only place in the village where you could watch The Simpsons. Tonight’s episode is titled, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"
At the start of the episode, Homer discovers that he has a long-lost half brother, Herb, who is the millionaire CEO of Powell Motors. Herb is looking for someone to help him create a new car for the average American man. Who better to help him design such an automobile than Homer, the brother he never knew?
Homer is introduced to the designers and engineers at Powell motors, seasoned professionals who know what it takes to make a functional, reliable car within a set budget. Even though Homer has no experience in designing cars, the fact that his brother owns the company and pays the engineers’ wages effectively makes Homer their boss. See where I’m going with this?
Homer’s initial brief to the team is that he wants a big car with lots of pep. Not a million miles from clients who want their design made bigger and want it to pop. Neither of which really convey any useful details about the project, so the engineers at Powell use their interpersonal skills to get more specific information from Homer.
Homer wants his car to feature:
A place to put his drink. Not a standard drink, however - Homer likes oversized cups from the Kwik-E-Mart, so the car must have extremely large beverage holders.
A little ball on the aerial so he can find his car in a car park. Not too unreasonable - my wife has a star on hers for exactly that purpose.
Tail fins, bubble domes and shag carpet because in Homer’s opinion, “they never go out of style”.
Three horns because in his experience, you can never find the horn when you get mad and want to beep at someone. All three horns should play La Cucaracha.
Something to keep the children quiet. One of the engineers predicts the future by suggesting video games in the back seat. Homer disregards this and instead wants to house the kids in a soundproof bubble with an optional muzzle.
A loud engine that makes people think the world is coming to an end.
None of these ideas, with perhaps the exception of the aerial ball, are particularly great and all seem to be informed by Homer’s own personal experiences with driving a car, coupled with his unique take on aesthetics. Anybody who argues with him is threatened with being fired, so the engineers and designers go away and create a concept car that incorporates all of these features whilst still resembling something which the average American might want to own.
Unfortunately, the design they present isn’t the one that Homer had in his head, yet neglected to share with the team at the briefing stage. He quickly scribbles his ultimate design on a scrap of paper and tells them that the car needs to look like that.
Out of time and options, the engineers and designers begrudgingly turn Homer’s terrible idea into a reality.
The project is launched to the public as a car for the average man; powerful like a gorilla yet soft and yielding like a Nerf ball. The custom design means the price is $82,000 - way out of budget for the average man in 1991. The car is a failure, the company is sold to a Japanese firm and Homer’s brother, Herb, is declared bankrupt, vowing never to see Homer again. And all because nobody listened to the seasoned designers and engineers.
So, what are the takeaways from this episode? How do you stop your project from becoming Homer’s car?
The obvious one is to listen to the professionals you have hired or employ. They know better than you, that’s why you pay them.
If your project is going to be used by an audience or purchased by customers, tailor the product to their needs. Don’t let your own experiences or tastes be the guiding force in the design process.
Always keep an eye on the budget. In a digital world, pretty much anything is possible but every tweak, addition and move away from the initial brief will cost you more money.
At the end of the episode, Bart says, “Dad, I thought your car was really cool.” Homer replies, “Thanks boy, I was waiting for someone to say that.” You’ll always find somebody to back you up and justify your bad decisions but if that person isn’t a professional or representative of your intended audience, maybe they aren’t the person to listen to.
My own personal takeaway from rewatching a 30-year-old animated TV show comes not from Homer but his brother Herb, who upon viewing an episode of Itchy and Scratchy with Bart and Lisa, muses, “To think, I wasted my life in boardrooms and stockholders meetings when I could have been watching cartoons.”
A wise man indeed.