We all talk about collaboration, but how many of us are really doing it? Only this week I read of a new Innovation Directory, set up by the British Design Initiative to provide a place for designers seeking partners in projects. It has been launched to promote collaboration and ‘demonstrate the power of strategic design’.
Designers collaborating on projects is nothing new. It is often discussed – there’s plenty of intention, but perhaps less action. That is, until recently. Why have things changed? What’s allowing smaller design consultancies to operate as a collective, competing against the big boys for major projects?
At the turn of the millennium we saw a period of consolidation, small selling to big, networks buying up independents. The upshot? A lot of our most talented individuals went their own way. This group has learnt the commercial benefit of collaboration and has subsequently achieved commercial and creative independence as lone rangers or in smaller independent groups. This has brought a much-needed injection of energy and honesty to the design industry. Once again, we are discovering the pleasure of winning and working on exciting projects, with people we admire and respect, who challenge us to do our best work.
The time is now ripe to take this approach to clients. Five years ago we had to sell them the idea of collaboration; many are now actively encouraging this way of putting a team together. They are quick to appreciate the quality of the work produced, the economic benefits of working in this way and the transparency of relationship and purpose.
The reality is that true collaboration is rare and much more difficult to achieve than you might think. Working collaboratively is not at all easy. First, you have to decide who to work with. It’s hard enough to find outstanding talent, but you also have to make sure everyone shares a common attitude and appreciates each other’s culture. Underlying any collaborative relationship lies a shared desire to achieve great work, that you would not be capable of achieving alone.
It’s not just about the commercial benefit of widening the scope of your work, neither is it about hiring others to sort out part of a project you can’t handle alone. To date, much of the ‘collaboration’ we’ve seen has been by consultancies that have a vested interest in giving each other work. This is more akin to nepotism than collaboration and is driven by the need to sustain large networks. Clients now know that they have to work harder to find the right mix of skills to deliver rounded projects; one-stop shops just don’t work. So how can designers collaborate? There are only two things that you need to concentrate on to run a successful, creative-led business – your culture and where your work comes from. Everything else should slot into place. These same factors are important for collaboration.
Mixing multiple skills requires understanding and an appreciation of different creative cultures. A successful collaboration can be much greater than the sum of its parts, but only if there is an open-mindedness to think as a group rather than focus only on what you think you can supply.
Relationships within the group and with the client demand honesty and absolute clarity. Respecting and protecting these client relationships is crucial.
Because the project is at the centre of everyone’s thinking, it needs to take priority. This focus creates better results. However, with more people comes more complication – flexibility, effort and a high degree of clarity are required to stop this becoming a problem.
The structure of the team should evolve directly from the project. Setting up a budgetary environment that accounts for everyone’s input is fraught with possible conflict. If the relationship and honesty is there, this can be overcome.
How do clients select collaborative teams? The benefits of small groups of specialists are evident. Seek out those who are interested in working collectively.
Collaboration takes a degree of confidence to relinquish complete control. Does it demonstrate the ‘power of strategic design’? Design consultancies that can take a step back and see the bigger picture are obviously more strategic in approach, so for collaboration this bodes well. Long may it continue to grow.
Tim Fendley is founder and creative director of Applied Information Group. AIG is part of Tangerine & Partners
Collaboration: the Dos and Don’ts
â€¢ Find talented people to work with
â€¢ Be enthusiastic about each other’s work
â€¢ Respect what you don’t know
â€¢ Use logic to set up the right structure for each project
â€¢ Look after client relationships
â€¢ Thinking you can do everything
â€¢ Lack of clarity
â€¢ Lack of transparency