The Cohen-Miller Report: The 80/20 Rule Makes 100% Sense

by Emily Cohen

I was recently reading an article in the NY Times about a senatorial judiciary process and noticed mention of an important fact about testifying called the 80/20 rule. If the person testifying talks 80 percent of the time and the judge talks 20 percent, the judge is winning. This intrigued me. I could easily see this rule applying to our relationships with our clients. I often have found that the most successful new business meetings and presentations are when the designer is less dominant and is skilled in the art of listening to a client. I’m betting, based on experience, that if a designer talks only 20 percent of the time and spends more time listening, the meeting would be more impactful.

This inspired me to research the 80/20 rule. Vilfedo Pareto, noted economist and sociologist in the late 1800s, gave birth to the 80/20 rule or Pareto’s Law. He observed that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20 percent of the population. Essentially, the assumption of the rule is that most of the results in any situation are determined by a small number of causes. 20 percent of the tasks are always responsible for 80 percent of the results. This rule allows you to place emphasis on tackling the major causes of a specific problem, rather than wasting time on the minor ones. I can see this applying in so many ways:

  • 20 percent of your marketing efforts account for 80 percent of new business wins
  • 20 percent of your clients account for 80 percent of your work
  • 20 percent of your services account for 80 percent of new business wins
  • 20 percent of your staff (and clients) will cause 80 percent of your problems
  • 20 percent of your staff will output 80 percent of your projects

Most importantly, 20 percent of your efforts will generate 80 percent of your results. This is great food for thought when considering and evaluating your marketing efforts, business strategy, organizational structure, workflow and, even, your to-do-list!

Emily has consulted with design firms and in-house corporate creative departments for over twenty years. During this time, she has provided confidential, best-practice insights and advice. She helps creative teams improve operational effectiveness and helps companies build efficient teams and processes.

Emily currently serves on the board of advisors of InSource and on the AIGA In-House task force. Emily has also served as Secretary for the AIGA/NY Board of Directors and has taught classes and conducted seminars for many leading design schools and organizations. Emily is a frequently-requested speaker on business-related issues for the creative industry. Learn more at and