The cynic could be forgiven for thinking that the word ‘collaboration’ is overused in design. Too often, it is PR speak for ‘commission’. A big brand announces it has ‘collaborated’ with a hyped designer when you know the designer has done little more than lend their name. There’s little involvement, but a fat cheque is in the post.
However, these pseudo collaborations disguise the fact that there are very serious and genuine collaborations taking place, allowing cross-pollination between genres, design disciplines and countries. Design, notwithstanding the recent mass flirtation with the ‘limited edition’ and hauteur of the solitary artist, is a process, and one that almost inevitably involves collaborations of one sort or another.
You only need to look at some celebrated designs, and see the number of people who claim authorship, to know how many creative minds are often involved, and also how egos can jostle. Often, collaborations are shotgun weddings – pairings that take place at the behest of a client.
For instance, 3D designer Gitta Gschwendtner and graphic design duo Kerr Noble were brought together by the British Council four years ago to design two exhibitions, Global Local and Import Export – themselves about cross-disciplinary approaches. But they have since continued to pitch and work together, collaborating, for instance, to design the Wellcome Trust’s permanent display, where the graphics become 3D objects in the exhibition.
‘We have a good way of working together. Right from the beginning of a project I give them space to develop their work and they respect my exhibition design. We can rely on each other,’ says Gschwendtner. Kerr Noble co-founder Frith Kerr responds that an integrated approach makes it ‘a lot more difficult and interesting’ than the often very bunkered and circumscribed roles that graphic designers are given in multidisciplinary projects.
Chance meetings can also result in significant collaborations, such as when Royal Designers Terence Woodgate and John Barnard met at the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry, courtesy of then Master of the faculty, Mike Dempsey. Blending their respective expertise in furniture design and Formula One racing materials, the unlikely pairing resulted in a carbon-fibre table for Established & Sons and is spawning a series of other furniture products – even an upmarket, lightweight bicycle.
Technology may have facilitated collaborations across borders, and many consultancies are expected to have a global reach, but collaborations require more than the click of a mouse. Cultural sensitivities, too, mean local collaborations are vital, particularly when it comes to areas such as branding.
For instance, when The Brand Union’s long-standing client SAB Miller wanted to relaunch four Latin American beer brands it had bought, the designers needed to travel a good deal to experience the market they were dealing with, first-hand. But local knowledge was just as important to save red faces.
‘In the early stages of developing iconography for a lager, we incorporated a target symbol in the neck label design, indicating that the product has refreshment in its core,’ says Jonny Westcar, managing client director for The Brand Union. However, it was quickly pointed out that this symbol would be interpreted as ‘the watchful Evil Eye of your mother-in-law’.
Collaborations can take many forms, but here are three typical examples of designers and projects, where collaboration is key.