Group dynamics

The partners get financial and intellectual security, and clients get access toa range of talents not always present in more formally structured outfits, so what’s not to like about collectives?

Dominic Lutyens talks to four such groups about the positives of taking a communal approach to the design business

Saatchi & Saatchi’s London headquarters is a surprisingly lacklustre battleship-grey brick building. Yet, in the summer of 2007, it couldn’t help but grab the attention of passers-by in Charlotte Street, because its windows were animated by cartoony paper clouds, balloons, rainbows, thought-bubbles and cardboard fax machines spewing out ribbons of paper, all redolent of Blue Peter model-making and in colours as zingy as a tin of Caran d’Ache pencils. The effect was charmingly childlike, if obviously faux-naif: think the groovy sets of 1970s kids’ programmes Playschool or Magpie, and then some.

The only clue as to who had dreamt this up lay in the word ‘Peepshow’, writ large in a script resembling a plane doing loop the loop. Peepshow is a hip, Hackney-based collective of illustrators, designers and animators, formed in 2000, originally by seven illustration graduates from Brighton University. That summer, Saatchi & Saatchi had invited its ten members to transform the ad agency’s drab windows. ‘The installation illustrated our thought processes,’ says Lucy Vigrass, who, along with Luke Best, Jenny Bowers, Miles Donovan, Chrissie MacDonald, Pete Mellor, Marie O’Connor, Andrew Rae, Elliot Thoburn and Spencer Wilson, is part of Peepshow.

As with all collectives, members work both independently and collaboratively. Whenever members collaborate, Peepshow is credited for the work, and those involved are paid according to their input into each project.

‘It all started informally, with us creating a website to showcase our individual work,’ recalls Vigrass. ‘It was based on a peephole through which people could glimpse our portfolios, so the name Peepshow seemed perfect. The catalyst for setting up the collective formally was a year we spent assisting [artist and writer] Graham Rawle on his exhibition at Expo 2000 in Hanover.’

Though Peepshow’s funky aesthetic is eye-catching, its members claim to benefit from the anonymity of working as a collective. They say that, for clients, the shape-shifting, unpredictable nature of a collective offers a refreshing alternative to the set-in-stone signature style of an individual creative. ‘Clients who approach a collective don’t normally have a clear idea of a project’s outcome, while solo designers are more likely to be set a brief,’ they say. ‘Collective work isn’t limited by a client’s preconceptions of your style, so collectives have more creative freedom. Clients put their trust in them because they think a group of people can handle a bigger job and do it quickly, especially when they are used to working together, and because they think its members can take on different roles – producer, say, or illustrator or animator.’

That collectives are associated with speed and efficiency worked in Peepshow’s favour when it came to a project to magic the foyer of London ad agency DDB into an Antarctic landscape.

‘We only had a weekend in which to construct this,’ recalls Donovan. ‘We made a mountain/ glacier scene with Yeti footprints. We used sledges for seating, there was a soundtrack of a howling wind.’ The team drew on the strengths of different members: MacDonald’s forte, for example, is making cartoony 3D objects (like the fax machines in the Saatchi windows), while moving-image whiz Mellor created an animated Christmas card.

Now Peepshow is about to take part in Pick Me Up, the UK’s first contemporary graphic art fair, opening at Somerset House next month. Its members will create an interactive workshop, equipped with a printing press, where visitors will be able to produce prints in collaboration with them.

According to another group, art and design collective Troika, whose members Conny Freyer, Sebastien Noel and Eva Rucki are showing a piece at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s digital design show, Decode: Digital Design Sensations, a major advantage of this set-up is solidarity.

‘We can share tough moments,’ says Rucki. ‘Another advantage is always having a sounding board for our ideas.’

Stoke Newington-based collective Okay Studio comprises nine designers who first met on the Royal College of Art’s design products course. They now work independently, but also mount group exhibitions to showcase new work – the desire to share a workspace was the main motive for getting together. The benefits of this are both economic – for example, pooling resources to buy equipment, something which is particularly attractive in the current tough economic climate – and intellectual. ‘We wanted to set up a workshop so we could continue working in London, and bounce ideas off each other,’ says Okay Studio member Mathias Hahn.

Another advantage is the pooling of contacts. ‘We can introduce each other to any new clients we meet as individuals,’ says Annette Bugansky, who formed London furniture, ceramics and lighting collective Eclectcollect with fellow members Lok Ming Fung and Visuallyodd last year, after sharing a stand with them at Paris fair Maison & Objet.

Working within a collective has its drawbacks though. ‘We have differing opinions,’ admits Vigrass. ‘And it’s hard to balance doing individual commissions with Peepshow work.’

Outweighing these and other disadvantages, however, is the positive light in which clients generally see collectives – as an unknown quantity, and unpredictable, yet often rewardingly so.

How do you define a collective? Greater than the sum of the parts…

‘An illustration collective is a group of like-minded people who work both collectively and
as individuals, and come together to share resources and experience’

‘A design collective is a group of designers joining forces to create work that outshines the sum of their individual contributions’

Okay Studio
‘For us, a design collective is not about a manifesto or a dogma – design should not be defined. It is about friendship and a shared curiosity for different approaches to design. It is about creating a good environment where we work alongside each other’

‘Individual designers with similar work ethics and goals come together to showcase or launch new work under a collective name. We share ideas and practices, and collaborate on different projects. It is like a support group [of individuals] helping each other to grow’

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