Imagine life with no boss. Increasing numbers of graphic designers are dropping out of parent companies and setting up their own collectives. It's easier than ever, but do the late nights, low wages and ego battles mean it's a risk worth taking?

"We're in a collective" is a phrase that triggers journalistic scepticism in spades. Perhaps it's an ingrained fear of Stalinist Russian farms, but the word has immediate negative connotations. In graphic design it's often a preface to vague, directionless projects with no connection to clients, brief or audience, and can absolve any individual from a poor end-result.

That said, collectives have produced some of the most iconic culture ever created. From the Rolling Stones to the Dogme 95 film movement, collectives can exponentially multiply individuals' talent, leading to greater character, diversity and exposure. In the right circumstances - and with the right members - collectives are a dream platform for design. Clients were once more comfortable dealing with CEOs in suits, but now creativity is a stronger pull than austerity. Collectives aren't just the 'cool' option for clients - they're effective.

The increasing acceptance of design collectives has resulted in some seriously big coups. New York's PSYOP recently produced a landmark HD ident for MTV, kooky collective Peepshow just invaded Saatchi & Saatchi's London office for a month and Australian design diaspora Rinzen has exhibited at the Louvre. Clearly collectives aren't just about graduates filling gaps between graduation and employment, but what's the difference between these collectives and 'standard' companies?

Defining design
Ask ten collectives what the word means and you'll get ten different answers. Collectives can range from three to 300 members, infrequent collaborations to full-time partnerships, single-city HQs to bedrooms across continents, and flat-rate pay to tiered management structures. Rather than a one-size-fits-all benchmark, design collectives are as varied as their members.

The most obvious difference between the archetypal collectives and companies is employment. Company employees are generally paid a monthly wage, whereas many collectives are run on a freelance basis. Members are paid by the project, or not even paid at all. Companies are a source of income, whereas collectives are often a creative outlet, with less financial emphasis. By maintaining creativity rather than chasing lucrative contracts, non-profit collectives can define themselves on their own terms.

Collectives such as Peepshow do make money, but the members also have freelance careers. A flat fee is paid to each person working on Peepshow's projects, and each member also receives a share of the profits, dependent on the number of days worked that year. "Everyone is busy with individual work and Peepshow is mostly weekends and evenings on top," says Peepshow's Miles Donovan.

While big-business cash eclipses the earnings of part-time collectives, the freedom to reject briefs and concentrate on self-initiated projects is a major bonus. "Working collectively yet also individually, our approach is eclectic and adaptable," says Rinzen's Rilla Alexander. "The schism of personal and professional work is not something we give credence to."

Collectives are as likely to be dispersed as centralised in an HQ like a traditional company. Rinzen's five members are based in Berlin, Brisbane, Melbourne and New York. It's a set-up that can promote a better work-life balance, allowing each member to work from a favourable location. Additionally, the collective has a more global presence. "No matter where we are, Rinzen can give us the opportunity to work together and individually," says Alexander.

The various Rinzen members all studied at the same Australian art college, but didn't meet until after graduation. The group first joined forces in 2000 for the RMX project - the graphic design equivalent of round-robin drawing. Eight participants gave digital files to one another at real-life meetings. This evolved into a global project with 40 participants mailing each another vector files. The results were published as a 216-page book released by DGV. It's the kind of project that turns the potential drawbacks of dispersal - different working cultures, communication difficulties - into a strength.

Others value working in the same location. "It's very difficult to work collaboratively on projects if you're not in the same room daily," says Donovan, whose Peepshow HQ is in East London. "We now all know how difficult it is working on projects from your bedroom with the occasional meeting in a pub basement. We did it for three years before setting up the studio and haven't looked back since."

In the case of Singapore-based :phunk studio, a single HQ isn't its full-time office. "We always meet up in the studio to discuss new projects," says co-founder William Chan. "But it doesn't matter where we work afterwards as long as we get the work done." The studio has a surprising amount of fun for four graphic designers based in sanitised Singapore. One of their landmark projects was a reinterpretation of the iconic Kiss poster, which casts the partners as the infamous glam-rock gods. Another involved a Brazilian model wearing knickers emblazoned with the members' faces. Being a like-minded collective is crucial to achieving such playfulness - :phunk's self-imposed briefs are far too eclectic for a studio such as Pentagram.

Lateral thinking
Whether dispersed or centralised, full or part-time, many collectives are structured laterally - in contrast to the top-down corporate chain of command. Members may take individual responsibility for certain business roles, such as accounting and promotion. :phunk studio works regularly for multi-national brands including Nike and Levi's, but couldn't be structured more differently. "We don't have a hierarchy system - any one of us can handle accounts, design or creative direction," says Chan. ":phunk is more of a visual rock band than a traditional design company."

This anti-corporate approach can be an ideal configuration for creative types. Rinzen's Alexander relishes this attitude: "There was - and still is - an outdated perspective of how a 'design' company should work. We flipped that perspective," she says.

Consider the experience of London-based Antirom interaction design, a collective that ran for five years without a leader. "There wasn't a natural leader and in fact the very thing we were reacting to was the bigger, traditional companies," says cofounder Nicolas Roope. "We sometimes put Rob forward as managing director because he had the tidiest haircut and wore shirts."

Teamwork works
Collectives are often run by a core team. UNCHI, for example, is led by three directors. This arrangement can work particularly well with disparate collectives who collaborate infrequently. "We discuss decisions with all the people involved but the final cut is made by the directors," says UNCHI's Sbastien Roux. The most extreme example of a director approach is the Spear Collective, founded by pro-blogger Josh Spear as a platform for designers to realise their full potential. Spear plays no creative role, but project manages and sources new business for the members. "Spear is merely an avenue through which our artists can exercise their creative muscles," he says. Having a core team can give direction and is a bonus for confused clients dealing with multiple contacts, although this may be circumvented by choosing different project managers to work on each job.

A more informal, lateral structure means that collectives may be able to absorb different members, in contrast to traditional companies with a fixed number of employees. The collective may grow incrementally, or expand and contract with the ebb and flow of briefs won and lost. Many collectives are a loosely defined group, as opposed to a set team. Unlike traditional companies, members may join and leave relatively freely without damaging the group's infrastructure. Some collectives, such as PSYOP, have permanent employees but build bespoke groups for every brief. "We build a unique team of talent for each project. It's a very fluid environment," says PSYOP's Carol Collins.

'Squad systems' are a great foundation for fostering close links between a collective's members and shaking up the various roles. It's also a good basis for democratic decision-making, one of the key attributes of many collectives. "At the start of a project, we sit down with some ginger snaps and a pot of tea, and discuss who's available, who's interested and who's best suited to the project," says Donovan. At Peepshow, most briefs are dealt with by teams of four or five, rather than the collective's full ten members. "It's a completely democratic process; if someone is unhappy, we find a compromise. We all think from the same page."

Democratic decision-making ensures that all collective members feel valued, but it can also impede efficiency. "Democratic structures make it very difficult to reconcile 13 opinions into a useful direction. Even in flat structures you get dominant groups that lobby things through," says Roope. "[With Antirom], resentment eroded the relationships and with it the collaboration. Everyone thought only they had the right answers, but without working together we had no answer at all. This is a typical collectives experience." Egos can be a problem in any business, and creatives are arguably more likely to be precious about their work. Add the regular informality of any collective's working relationships to the mix and it's remarkable many last more than a few months. Paradoxically, though, collectives might actually help reduce egos - or at least limit their damage.

"Balancing egos is always a challenge, and in many ways it's easier in a collective, because a fluid company doesn't allow for run-away power abuse," says PSYOP's Carol Collins. And, of course, there's always the prospect of a little chiding to bring someone to ground. "We tell each other to shut up if an ego rears its ugly head," says Donovan. "I don't mind - I'm in charge, so I could sack them!"

While having multiple members brings difficulties, in many cases these are outweighed by teamwork. Aside from the benefits of sharing contacts and experience, a larger collective should result in more ideas. "When anyone has a creative block, the others stand in," says Chan.

Collaboration also leads to a diversified skill-set; something that's essential in today's multi-disciplinary design world. "We offer the strength of ten brains, 20 eyes and 100 fingers," says Donovan. "Our eclectic approach [results in] new ideas that draw on the experience and individual skills of all involved: art direction, graphic design, animation, illustration and textiles." Peepshow's flexibility maximises its chances of winning briefs because it isn't limited to a single medium. More people can mean more time and money to devote to selected projects.

Global networking
UNCHI Leisure Centre runs a regular collaborative project called Orgasmik Design. "We use the UNCHI network to curate graphic events such as contests or exhibitions," says Greg Franco of both Orgasmik and UNCHI. As a result, Orgasmik Design has attracted over 400 participants from as far afield as Venezuela and Iran.

Orgasmik Design is the kind of collective activity that simply wouldn't have been possible without the internet. The information revolution of email, instant messaging and video-conferencing has enabled potential collaborators to organise themselves thousands of miles apart in wildly inappropriate time zones. It is undoubtedly the reason for the proliferation of contemporary design collectives. "Email communication is the key umbilical tie to the Rinzen mothership," Rilla Alexander admits.

Design collectives can be established easily, with huge benefits for junior designers seeking experience and exposure, but it's crucial to team up with compatible designers, because a collective-gone-bad is far worse than no collective at all. "You should only form a collective with the right people," says Collins. "It's like a marriage."

While there are dangers collaborating in any creative field, there's never been a better time to team up with mates and make a go of it. "There's no rulebook where collectives are concerned; just believe you're capable of achieving anything from the start and rarely turn anything down," says Donovan. "We've made celebrities out of fruit at the V&A Museum, an animation of giant-headed Brazilian football players, and also got three-year-olds to walk around with decorated cardboard boxes on their heads - and to exhibit at London's Hayward gallery. Not bad going really."