The other day I noticed writing on one of the chalk boards at Front Page towers, saying ‘Stop, Collaborate and Listen!’; author of that note remains anonymous to me—but the message about importance of collaboration in design really resonated.
I’ll be the first one to admit that among contenders for ‘buzzword of the year’ collaboration is probably pretty high on the list of nominees. We all talk and read about importance of collaboration in everything from creating sustainable business models to the fashion industry, from protection of our environment to design of our office spaces. And the result here, as is often the case with misused buzzwords, is a general misunderstanding of the concept.
So what is collaboration? In strict terms, collaboration is the act of working together. In reality it’s much more than that. Opinion on the concept itself seems to be fairly polarised; generally speaking you either love it or you hate it. And here’s the tricky bit: people tend to oversimplify the approach to the process, which seems to be the reason so many are utterly disappointed with collaboration. Throwing a bunch of smart folks together in a room to do the same thing they’ve always done for the sake of working together is what some imagine collaboration to be. And let’s face it; the likelihood of that approach yielding successful results is somewhat low.
When it comes to collaboration, mind-set and working culture is of essence. I am a strong advocate of working together, particularly in design—but the groundwork needs to be done to allow it to be fruitful in the first instance. Some of that work would involve company-wide culture shifts. Put simply, setting up a file-sharing server, chat software, and a big table with a few chairs around it next to a whiteboard will not magically make collaboration happen.
I am a strong believer that ‘conflict’ in design process is absolutely necessary. It’s what drives innovation, improvements and gets your team to really come together with their ‘thinking hats’ on. That conflict, of course, needs to be well managed and moderated in an appropriate format. The team must be able to express opinions freely without the fear of being shot down or misunderstood, have the freedom to question design choices or decisions, and feel included. In essence, if your team are used to a ruthlessly authoritarian approach in creative process, not being provided with constructive feedback, never included in planning or scoping out of projects, unenlightened on what the ‘master plan’ is, and so on—you’ll need to change all that before you even start thinking about collaboration! And that culture shift isn’t easy to achieve, it does take time.
One of my key concerns in design (or any other type of) collaboration, is avoiding what is sometimes referred to as ‘groupthink’. It’s a pretty simple concept in psychology and social studies, where natural human desire for peace and agreement outweighs our desire to question the process. To top this off, some people are natural introverts and don’t feel too comfortable disrupting a general consensus, particularly when a strong project leader appears to be all-knowing. Avoiding that groupthink scenario is a skill in its own right.
On the flip side of making everyone’s opinion heard and valued is running a risk of design collaboration turning into ‘design by committee’. I’ve recently come across a brilliant metaphor to explain this concept: ‘a camel is a horse designed by committee’. In other words, when a design is being reviewed by each and every member of the team, with everybody giving feedback and inputting on further development you’re very likely to end up with a final design that simply doesn’t know what it wants to be, and doesn’t satisfy the brief or original idea. I’m pretty sure that the very term ‘design by committee’ puts the fear of life into any designer. And if I’m honest, the ever-changing goal posts of ‘design by committee’ are something of a living nightmare for any project manager out there. Basically, the culture of collaboration needs to allow for moderation and management, otherwise the process risks becoming never-ending.
So with all of these concerns and difficulties in design collaboration, why am I such a strong advocate of it? Quite simple: the results of effective collaborative projects are superb. Meticulous idea selection, careful and thoughtful refinement of concepts, and the nurturing of projects by people who are genuinely passionate about them, is what creates astonishing ground-breaking design. That doesn’t just create excellence on a one-off basis, but also empowers your team and creates confidence and strength to continue in that innovative and cutting-edge direction. Now, if I could only get that Vanilla Ice song out of my head.