Moving towards a closer relationship

As client’s budgets tighten the need for collaboration within design increases. Matt Baxter says we all need to get better at it

We’re living in tricky times. The Coalition Government’s austerity measures are just starting to bite, public sector and arts funding has been slashed, and it’s looking unlikely that the private sector will save the day. Chatting to peers and former colleagues recently, the consensus was that 2010 was a difficult year and that 2011 will see more of the same.

Where does that leave us? Well, clients are nervous, and understandably so. With budgets held back or reduced, they’re keeping their designers at arms’ length and turning to procurement. We’re experiencing a return to the client/supplier relationships we’d hoped to have seen the last of. For design as a whole, this is bad news; the best work happens when designers and clients work together in a supportive relationship.

We need that closeness to our clients. So rather than risk the possibility of unhinged, affection-starved designers running amok in London’s Clerkenwell, we should look for this support and dialogue elsewhere. In this climate it makes sense for design practitioners to move closer to each other. It may sound counter-intuitive or idealistic, but rather than battening down the hatches and preparing to fight off all competitors, we should get together and share.

You might think we’re already doing enough sharing. After all, in the digital world where we’re all connected to each other in so many ways, sharing has taken a central role in how we live. As the profusion of design blogs testifies, the industry already shares visual stimulus very successfully. But we need to find ways to pool our commercial knowledge and skills more effectively, because when it comes to design businesses sharing insights and advice, there are still relatively few outlets.

The Design Business Association covers some of this turf admirably, as do London’s Designer Breakfast events. And then there’s the more informal approach: a cuppa or a couple of pints and a chinwag with a peer who’s experiencing similar business challenges. It’s always time well spent, but can leave you wanting something more substantial. The answer? Collaboration.

Thankfully, the densely interconnected structure of the design industry is ready-made for collaboration. Our industry is a complex family tree of links between consultancies, individuals and disciplines. And although the relatively small gene pool of the UK design industry may have its disadvantages, it does have many benefits too, when approached with a little imagination.

Back through the mists of time, in the early days of London groups Together Design, 300 Million and Purpose, we hatched a collaborative Staff Swap scheme which saw directors swapping places with their counterparts for a few days at a time, creating an opportunity for us to learn about business practices at each other’s studios. It helped that we were all young consultancies, and that we were already connected thanks to shared DNA from university and previous groups. As well as sharing best practice, Staff Swap reinforced camaraderie, engendering a real sense of strength through collaboration and openness.

All three groups have now grown to carve out their own successful niches, so there would be less to gain from us running a similar programme today. Yet I’d heartily recommend it to young studios as a way of picking up business insights.

Fast-forward to the present day and new examples of the industry’s hunger for collaboration are popping up all the time. A fortnight ago Design Week led with a news piece about Callum Lumsden going solo to establish a new consultancy forged on collaboration with other experts (DW 6 January). Over in East London, the Open Studio collective is gaining column inches for its collaborative approach. Its studio network also gives it the opportunity to share, critique and discuss – not only project work, but also, crucially, business practices.

The point is, collaboration is a many-faceted thing. It might extend to the sharing of projects, where design consultancies too large to handle a smaller brief will pass it over to a leaner studio that can profitably turn it around.

It may mean working closely alongside similar consultancies on a brand – as seen in the muchadmired rosters of Land Securities and British Heart Foundation. Or it could involve any number of other ways of working together to share knowledge and insight. With a bit of experimentation, it could work for you.

Because whether we’re working alongside copywriters, illustrators, Web developers, strategic consultants or other design studios, collaboration is at the heart of what we do, so we need to get better at it. And ultimately, when the economic clouds do eventually begin to disperse, the collaborative skills we’ve picked up in the meantime can only help us improve at forging the trust, dialogue, support and shared ambitions that are essential for our most important collaborative relationships – the ones with our clients.

Matt Baxter is creative director at Together Design and was design director at 300 Million

Taking a collaborative approach

  • An industry ready-made for collaboration – the densely interconnected structure of the design industry is ideal for collaboration between businesses
  • Sharing best practice – by adopting innovative schemes such as staff swaps businesses can learn about successful business practices at other studios
  • Sharing projects – large design consultancies can pass a smaller brief that will not work for them over to a leaner studio that can profitably turn it around

Latest articles