Better together: How to make the most out of collaborating with others

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Collaboration is a key part of any design studio or creative project whether it be designers working with developers or working alongside clients to achieve the objectives of a project. But collaboration doesn’t have to be just the combination of individual skill sets. In my experience some of the most interesting ideas have arisen when people from all disciplines of a project, get together and cross-feed ideas. It brings in other interpretations that may not have been realised and forces you to think differently. It pushes you outside of your comfort zone.

We’re living in a time when communication is at our finger tips and ideas can easily cross continents. It has made the collaboration process a very realistic and accessible resource for many studios. Potential ways of collaborating have increased tremendously in recent times and in turn, have made the management and choice of these approaches ever more important.

When starting a project it’s important to consider what type of collaboration should happen and what boundaries need to be set in order to maximise creativity and output. According to Gary P. Pisano and Roberto Verganti there are two key questions that should be asked when deciding upon an approach: How open or closed should your company’s network of collaborators be? And who should decide which problems the network will tackle and which solutions will be adopted?

Certain projects that are more defined from the start, often in more commercial environments, require a more closed approach. Contributors are usually selected according to their suitability meaning a common goal is shared amongst them. This avoids too many creatives pulling in different directions and its important that these goals are defined right from the start and laid out in a solid project plan.

Sometimes a project benefits from a rigid formula, while more freeform projects can flourish from a more open stance. When the subject is less well defined it becomes more accessible for everyone to take part by creating an easy environment for participants to contribute ideas, work and resources. Open source projects like WordPress are a good example of what can be achieved with this method.

It can also even be harnessed within more commercial projects. For example this advert for a nokia 6220 from 2011 filmed a group of illustrators drawing a large scale map which was time lapsed, creating a visually diverse piece that highlighted to good effect the navigational functions of the phone.

Collaboration projects also differ in their system of governance either being hierarchical or equal. For some projects hierarchy is essential for the direction of decisions and opinions as the project moves through the different stages of development. It helps to channel ideas and defines resources of the project and who is responsible for them, saving on contributors overlapping work and wasting valuable time.

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Collaborations that are equal however, allow all the contributors to be decision makers and promotes an environment of forcing people out of their comfort zones. Examples of this can be seen in many illustrative collaborations that are more off -the-cuff, starting with very little direction and ending in really unique pieces of work. In Illustration Next, a book compiled by veteran illustrator Ana Benaroya, she pairs illustrators together to collaborate around a given theme. Benaroya supplies one word prompts such as ‘Gluttony’ which can be openly interpreted and as a result, the final illustrated works are really varied.

These different factors regularly combine to create different collaborative environments. Projects that are closed for example are often hierarchic, however they can also be flat, and the same applies to open collaborations. So depending on the mix of these components it can have a strong bearing on the outcome of a project.

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A project between Hey Studio and Studio DBD shows a closed hierarchical system in action. This book of World Cup characters features illustrations of players from each of the 32 nations competing in the Brazil World Cup. The inception of the project was by Dave Sedgwick (Studio DBD) who took a leading role. He selected Hey studio due to their suitability and assets, then a direction for the project was agreed early on through numerous meetings and open communication between both Hey and Studio DBD.

So when you next approach a collaboration, taking time to consider these approaches could enhance productivity and result in a better final outcome. Personally I feel that collaboration is always best when there is a certain degree of leadership, but with a more open approach to its participants. Hierarchy should not be too stifling and should act more as guidance, allowing opinions to flow more freely. Theres a lot to be learned from different collaborative processes and working within creative teams. What collaborative rules do you best work under and how might they differ from project to project? We’d love to hear your thoughts.