The Hairy Gorilla Arm Theory

Hairy Gorilla Arm - Marshall Atkinson

Do you have super nit-picky art customers?  You know, the ones that are never satisfied with any graphic you develop for them?  If you don’t, you are either extremely lucky or a big fat liar.  So I don’t call the readers of my blog liars, we’ll go with lucky.  I wish I was lucky.

So how do you currently control these divas, besides the obvious tactic?  Revision.  After revision.  After revision.  After yet another revision.   Is there a design strategy that you can employ to get your client through the approval stage faster?


Let me introduce you to the famous “Hairy Gorilla Arm Theory” of graphic design.  The idea here is that some people just want to be in control.  Regardless of how fantastic your design looks, they MUST CHANGE SOMETHING OR THEIR SOUL WILL SHRINK FIVE SIZES.  If they don’t get to stir the pot, they aren’t happy.  (uh, is this you?)   Make this bigger, change that color.  Whatever.  They have to change something.  You know who I’m talking about right?  These are usually the people that didn’t clearly communicate the basic instructions, but instead gave you those awesomely inspiring marching orders, “Do something cool”!

That’s my favorite by the way.

Here’s the theory.  Picture in your mind a fabulous looking tropical scene.  White sandy beaches.  Sunset.  The sky is aflame with a glorious palette of yellows, purples, and reds.  Waves lapping up on the shore.  It’s an incredible sight.  Postcard perfect.  Except for that big, black, and fantastically hairy gorilla arm that’s waving out from the side of the photo.  Hello!  If you just remove that this will be the perfect shot.  Bingo.

That’s what you want.  Give your client the obvious hairy gorilla arm to remove and they will pick it every time.  That control freak needs attention and here’s a softball they can hit a home run with on the first pitch.  Boom.  It’s now approved and you can go about your day.  If they just need to change something to exercise their control demon why not make it easy for them.

Of course, like any real-life gorilla, there are some dangers involved.  First, they might like the obvious thing you threw in there to remove and want to change something else.  Be careful.  Or worse, they think you are a nut-case for suggesting that the graphic would work with such an obvious problem in the middle of the design.  “Hey buddy, do you know what you are doing?  Maybe I need to get someone else to design this…”

You can’t just unleash the gorilla on just anyone either.  It has to be reserved for that hyper-picky client.  The one you are already dreading as you know it’s going to be a week-long tennis match of changes.

The graphics you design behind the gorilla arm has to be perfect too.  Make sure that it kicks butt.  Just add something that doesn’t belong at the end so that it obviously sticks out.  “Hey, what’s that doing there?  Remove that and it will be ok” is what you are going after.

In the last few decades of designing for folks, I’ve used this trick a few times with complete success.  Did I use it on you?  I’ll never tell…but if you never approve the design initially and always want more revisions…you may have high fived King Kong.

The Hairy Gorilla Arm.  Hitchhiking on the on-ramp of graphic designer autobahns everywhere.


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