Group effort

If your client wants a complete design solution, working with other specialists may be the best solution.

What is the attraction of collaboration for designers? More brokers and middlemen? Isn’t that just what they don’t need? Designers have been working directly with clients for many years, without the need for third parties, and surely that is the most satisfactory way to run the relationship.

Well, yes and no. Yes, designers need to have control, to feel they are getting their brief from “the horse’s mouth”, and that they are not so far down the supply line that their impact is more cosmetic than conceptual. However, the designer-client relationship is still far from perfect, in terms of the challenge and inspiration for the designer, the satisfaction and stimulation of the client, and the quality and effectiveness of the final design solution.

The fast-changing and increasingly noisy communications environment is a powerful reason for design and other disciplines to be looking for new ways to produce new solutions. In this environment only the clearest, most integrated, well-targeted and innovative corporate communications will work. Examples like First Direct, Orange and Go, where design ethos and communication expression appear one and the same, are still exceptions rather than the rule.

E-commerce is one of the key factors driving this sea change, and has already forced the convergence of once disparate media and ways of thinking.

The design and production of the Boeing 777 was one of the first major projects that relied on Web-enabled work groups. Organising a project team of 100 000 across 15 countries would not have been possible without a collaborative spirit empowered by the Internet. Today, user group sites such as Visto and e-group are hosts to hundreds of complex projects that would previously have been unthinkable and unworkable.

Gary Lockton, of new media consultancy Deepend, which worked with Circus for NCR, hopefully expresses the zeitgeist when he says: “The days of end-to-end solutions are numbered.” He suggests that the collaborative approach “has to be a key element in the future”.

Single medium solutions are no longer going to work, and “integrated” offers will always suffer from disparities of quality across the board, or dominance by one medium. There are too many brilliant thinkers and makers out there to deny them the opportunity of working together as a cross-discipline team. Clients should therefore get the chance to access a broad mix of top practitioners, and experience teamwork at its most creative, with reassurance of good management and accountability.

Architects can exchange ideas with designers and actors, advertising creatives get exposure to composers and event organisers. This way, fresh communications solutions are generated which are truly integrated, and with a total impact far greater than the sum of their parts.

It sounds like a good idea in theory, but can you get people to do it? Advertising and design are both guilty of resisting change and openness to working with like-minded specialists. There are signs that the barriers are coming down, not least due to Richard Seymour’s valiant tenure at British Design and Art Direction and his championing of synergy between the two disciplines.

This lack of co-operation has long been a source of frustration for many designers. Rasshied Din, who approached Circus to collaborate on creating the Princess Diana Memorial at Althorp, had been doubtful that the sort of creative community he had encountered in Italy could happen here. “We pigeonhole,” he says, and in his experience even companies claiming to be multidisciplinary don’t work effectively across departments.

Obviously, there is no point in designers getting involved in this kind of process unless it is a win-win situation all round. We have found collaborators have overwhelmingly good things to say about the way it works.

People who have experienced this first hand, like Sean Perkins of North, who worked with Circus on an innovative new financial services offer, feel that the client and the quality of solution benefit, but there are also huge dividends for the designers themselves. “No-one is precious about where the ideas come from,” says Perkins. “Everyone just enjoys the process.”

Tim Ashton is a founding partner of Circus, which specialises in media-neutral communications strategies, working in collaboration with groups from the creative industries.

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