This article first appeared in issue 226 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
Like most complex organisms, human beings have a strong and instinctive will to community and naturally gravitate toward common effort. There are many reasons for these motivations, both instinctual and contextual, but an important one is the fact that common effort sometimes produces superior results. Quite simply, and as history illustrates, collaboration offers us the possibility to do and to make better.
The possibility. The opportunity. We human beings are famous for squandering opportunities. As common efforts go, ‘squander’ is among our most common. One of the compelling lessons offered by history is that collaboration can be every bit as perilous as it can be effective.
Group efforts produce failure at least as often as they produce success because they’re often entered into and executed in a haphazard fashion, rather than a deeply considered one. This is as true of design as any other field. Designers are notoriously inconsiderate of their collaborative practices, and are far too often comfortable with the compromised results of these decidedly common efforts.
But working with your peers needn’t produce hopelessly compromised results. Despite what some believe and profess, compromise is neither inherent to, nor useful in, collaboration. Design professionals must, in fact, work to ensure that compromise is eliminated from projects, even those that involve collaborative efforts. Compromise is the herald of diminishment and the standard bearer for failure. It’s also the hallmark of the unprofessional designer. So where collaboration will add value, the responsible professional must take great care to drive compromise off the premises.
Design culture is a largely unprofessional realm. There are also entire collaboration methodologies built upon compromise – so the elimination of such compromise is likely to be a more daunting prospect than you might initially think.
When you call BS on process, or insist instead on professional methods, you’re apt, unfortunately, to become the target of ridicule or worse. Hopefully, you’re undeterred and instead are interested in understanding the potentially compromising landscape of collaboration and want to do better.
To collab or not to collab
History shows that collaboration can be a wise or foolish choice and can produce great success, mediocrity, or abysmal failure according to the context, the process, the overriding focus, the qualities of the people involved and their individual motivations. So you have a couple of things to consider.
Professionalism demands that as the individual responsible, you must be the one that makes the decision for collaboration. If someone else is doing the deciding for you, then you’re being robbed of both your responsibility and professionalism. Moreover, if you decide to make a project a group effort, make sure it’s for the right reasons. After all, it’s not as if it’s always necessary to invite others into your work processes.
Despite its potential benefits, design collaboration is in many cases unnecessary. Group effort should not be the default or habit, but rather a deliberate choice (made by you) founded in the appropriate context.
The productive advantages of common effort are not arbitrary, but specific. It requires practical responsibility and should satisfy criteria other than inclusion, habit, or personal comfort. Where these relevant, specific needs are not met or advantages remain unclear, collaboration should probably best be avoided. It’s worth noting too that critique should never be confused with collaboration. The two are distinct and serve entirely different purposes.
There can, however, be many practical reasons for choosing to collaborate with others. When those whose talents are complementary work together, for instance, the result can be a more comprehensive, thorough approach. Web design is a complex enterprise, after all.
While one individual may have skill in many or all of the disciplines required for a project, it makes sense that the project results may well be enhanced when specialists in different components of the project work together; even if it’s just to share ideas.
Even within a single discipline of the project, collaboration among those with varied backgrounds and experience often yields superior results. Group effort needn’t affect merely technical results either – returning to your assessment of practical advantages, it can, of course, be said that collaboration for the sake of a team’s healthy bond or as a mechanism for mentorship can bring great benefit to the people involved. After all, happy designers (and happy people in general!) usually do better work. In every case, however, the effort will bear only sour fruit unless professionalism is preserved.
Skills aside, collaboration failures have their roots in the compromise of one or both of two interdependent factors: responsibility and authority. Too often, collaboration wrongfully assumes the purpose of a committee in that it’s designed to corrupt or eliminate responsibility. Just as often, collaboration serves to allow others to usurp someone’s authority. In either of these situations, dissatisfaction and failure are the inevitable results.
Because it contravenes your authority and individual responsibility, the introduction of democracy into your collaboration will result in corruption at best and failure at worst.
Democracy has no place in design; not even in group efforts at design. Therefore, neither voting nor efforts at consensus are valid components of professional process. Collaboration among professionals must preserve, you guessed it … professionalism.
First, someone must be saddled with responsibility and, therefore, authority – and it’s essential that these things survive the entire project. Collaboration, then, must always support and be supported by design professionalism.
As for practical example, let’s assume that you’re the primary designer assigned to a project and you’re considering making it a collaborative effort with your peers, starting with brainstorming for the function and on-page behaviour of an interactive mechanism.
Your peers have varied backgrounds and experience and may present interesting and compelling options to consider. But ideas are like the soil and rock under a mountain in that they must be sifted through and carefully considered to reveal the gold. As the one responsible for the project or the specific portion of the project, you must be the one to do this and then decide how to employ these ideas – or you’ll just be left with a mound of mud on your hands.
Yes, having been given responsibility for the success of the design for the client, you must be the one to make the deliberate decisions that will achieve that success. Just as you decide what the collaborative process will be, you alone must establish how to use the input garnered in that process. While you might measure the group’s consensus, the ultimate decision must be yours and not bound to that consensus.
If on the other hand you’ve been invited to collaborate on a project where another designer is the one responsible, your role changes. In this case your job is to offer up your best ideas, your best insights, or your best suggestions as the context dictates. You may even be asked to offer your opinion on the ideas of others. Your authority, however, ends there. Having made your best contribution, the one responsible for that phase of the project must be left to decide how or even if to use your input.
The idea that collaborators should compete or, even worse, someone other than the one responsible insist that their input be used or require how it is used is anathema to professionalism and to intelligent collaboration. Input is not authority and the one responsible must let his or her responsibility represent the only valid authority.
By preserving authority according to responsibility, destructive and distracting elements like ego and personality differences are mitigated so that focus upon the project requirements and client’s best interest are preserved.