How to collaborate with other designers successfully

Collaboration is at the very heart of the creative industries. Digital design studios unite front-end pixel shifters with back-end code writers. Image agencies draw together photographers, art directors and lighting engineers. Even on the smallest of print projects, a designer and printer will share a cup of coffee and discuss the most effective use of their skill sets in order to produce the best work possible.

Yet collaborative projects are not just about uniting necessary skills in order to get a job done. Over so many years we’ve witnessed groundbreaking collaborative campaigns that merged mutually exclusive skills because collaboration ignites creativity. And it’s in collaborative projects that much of the most astounding new creative work is to be found. “Collaboration is about allowing yourself to become contaminated with other people’s ideas and visions,” enthuses Bruno Sellés of Barcelona-based studio Vasava. “It’s about getting involved in work that forces you to think and act differently. It’s those unpredictable ideas that are the product of different takes on a common project. Sometimes it takes that clash of personalities, styles or attitudes to come out with something new. Collaborative projects are great playgrounds to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. It’s exciting.”

The creative director of design studio Popular, Peter Chadwick echoes this sentiment. As a designer, Chadwick has produced record sleeve designs over the past 20 years for the likes of Primal Scream, Grace Jones and Girls Aloud amongst many others, and is associate lecturer at Chelsea School of Art. He’s just completed the Desktop Publishing project – a fully functioning CMYK poster-printing table made in partnership with no fewer than nine fellow collaborators. For him, collaboration is about creativity beyond his own, and the enjoyment he finds in working with other creatives.

“It challenges me to think in a different way every time I collaborate with another creative,” says Chadwick. “A different set of questions will always arise when working with someone new, and another point of view from another person is always welcome and revealing on a live project. We work in an opinions-based industry – everyone’s will differ in some way, and that in itself is a challenge. If the collaboration is effective, all parties will be able to bring a different set of skills and points of view to bear that will work harmoniously together. Collaborating also gives me the opportunity to work with a wide range of talented, inspirational and like-minded creatives. I have a list of who I would like to collaborate with. Suffice to say the list is long, and gets added to on a weekly basis.”

Chadwick believes that it is professionalism and planning that make for a strong creative venture, as well as having a solid grounding in basic project management. Sometimes a project benefits from a rigid formula, he says, while for others a freeform creative nature needs to be allowed its space.

“I think all creatives have egos. It just depends on how we harness them,” says Chadwick of the potential for conflict on a collaborative project. “It’s preferable to work with humility and have appreciation for the input of others. If the team has been considered, such egotistical issues shouldn’t arise. But if they do – I suggest a good dose of juvenile verbal abuse to bring said person down a peg or two. Then we can all laugh about it and move on.”

For UK-based music and sound design agency Echoic, collaboration is part of every project. It works in an industry creating projects that always accompany some form of picture or film, and so there is always a partnership between the Echoic team and a visual artist.

“Collaborations work well when the outcome is a distinct combination of specialities from different parties, says Echoic creative director David Johnson. “Something that is stronger because of the talent offered from the various camps. I also think it’s important to talk openly about each other’s work and to cross-feed ideas to each other’s part of the project. We all think differently, and it’s great to hear other interpretations of a project that you may have not thought about yourself.

“For the Echoic Idents project we offered the artists a brief based on aspects of our new logo and branding. We gave lots of ideas and imagery, but also openly said we were happy to see anything the artist wanted to pursue.”

“Working on non-commercial collaborations is all about time,” explains Johnson. “We all have to work, and so fitting them into a busy schedule can be difficult. But working on these artistic endeavours is incredibly rewarding, so well worth the extra commitment.”

Like self-initiated and non-commercial works, illustration-led collaborative communities are certainly enjoying a resurgence. The likes of Depthcore have continued to release collection after collection of collaborative works, while others such as Slashthree set creative challenges for their members to collaborate on. This year’s International Record Store Day raised £33,500 for charity after asking secret collaborators to produce a piece of album art for auction. Yet projects like these, more often than not, benefit from long deadlines and loose briefs: the stuff that designers and illustrators can treat as a personal project. Commercial collaborations must be better managed, and it’s here that communication and strategy help projects reach their creative potential, while pushing new boundaries.

Finding the time

For a studio like Vasava, to which collaboration on commercial projects is second-nature, that means finding the right people to work with, and communicating openly. “Everyone has to truly believe in the project aims and objectives,” explains Sellés. “Any project we undertake with a collaborator must have common goals. That means challenges too – everyone involved needs to push themselves. If not, there will be no excitement and the final result will be lame.”

“You can’t really collaborate if you expect to stay in your ivory tower, either,” Sellés adds. “Collaborating means taking part in the project, splitting tasks, and building a working relationship that feeds back all the pieces to all of the team. Working in isolation on collaborative projects is a recipe for disaster.”

Fresh ideas

Vasava recently contributed towards the Red Bull Collective Art Exhibition, a commercial project involving many artists and designers. The project saw contributions from 85 countries and layered multiple pieces of art by different people to make one collective piece.

“The beauty about this project is that you work blind,” says Sellés. “A contributor receives the previous piece and they need to create the next one matching the elements from the border. Our case was a little different, since our piece was starting an ‘exquisite corpse’ (the Cadavre Exquis) so we didn’t have any preceding work and we didn’t give any direction to our successor. We just saw the final piece, and it was amazing!”

But what happens when you have little to no influence over your collaborators? Given the rise in user-generated campaigns, and even user-generated creative, surely this is a risk? Not so. In fact, it’s where some of the most ingenious creative work is currently being produced. This is the case with Put On A Smile – a ‘wearable movie’ project for which Bossa directed the creative and technology ideas, alongside ad agency Ogilvy, video production outfit Psyop and around 600 Coke drinkers.

The objective was to create a stop-motion animation and print it on T-shirts that would be shipped off all over the globe to fans with a personalised thank-you note. The fans were then asked to take a photo of themselves smiling, which would become a frame in the ad.

“Usually, working with user-generated content is very complicated,” says Bossa’s creative director and partner, Andrezza Valentin. “You cannot predict how people will understand and respond to what you are asking. It’s impossible to have full control, and that is the worry for some brands as it’s very difficult to manage the quality of what you will get in return.”

The results for the Put On A Smile campaign speak for themselves however, and according to Valentin are symptomatic of the way creative collaborative campaigns are moving. As Valentin says, “Many hands make good work” – a motto it seems the creative industry in general is taking to heart.

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts magazine

Illustration: Binky
Photography: Tom Jackson

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