Design has always had collaboration at its heart: between the individuals directly involved in its creation; with the various stakeholders and sponsors, internal and external; and with any third-party specialists. In the wake of the pandemic, the shift for many to a remote workflow may have necessarily put more focus on digital tools and processes, but it’s all still powered by people.
“It’s not just about being productive and collaborative,” reflects Samantha Warren, design director at Adobe, based out of San Francisco. “It takes a village to run a design team, and building a strong team requires investing in people. The focus needs to be on how we can enable those people to be more creative.”
At Adobe’s annual creativity conference Adobe MAX, various Creative Cloud updates were announced to help facilitate smoother creative collaborations. Warren’s session, entitled Designing Creative Collaboration in a Remote Workplace, explores remote collaboration from two angles: the tools that facilitate it, and the human perspective of the teams that use them every day.
Warren manages a team of 34, spanning 10 cities in six time zones. “There’s a very short window when we’re all awake at the same time,” she says. The widespread acceptance that people can now work from anywhere gave her a global net to cast for the best talent. But having been enraptured by the energy of design studio environments from an early age, like many she found the loss of that face-to-face dynamic tough.
“I love in-person workshops, white-boarding and brainstorming out ideas,” she explains. “Trust is a key component of creativity, and that’s not always so easy to build when you’re spread out all over the world.”
Consider everyone’s perspective
It’s a problem shared by Marty Buccafusco, video creative lead at Coca-Cola Creative Studios. In his Adobe MAX session, Creative Collaboration Across a Global Team, he considers how the collaborative process works for an internal creative agency within a vast international organisation of over 700,000 people, spanning 200 countries.
“One of the most challenging things is how many varied points-of-view go into the work,” explains Buccafusco. “Our team’s one small part of that. We walk a razor’s edge, constantly asking: Who’s the audience? What do we need them to learn? How do we know it’s a success? And does it meet stakeholders’ needs up and down the chain, around the world?”
Managing the review and feedback process can be a headache for any project. But scaled up to Coca-Cola proportions there are countless places for bottlenecks to occur. “Every creative project has a lot of stakeholders,” points out Scott Belsky, Adobe’s chief product officer, in the opening keynote at MAX. “You are at the centre; everyone else is a stakeholder.”
Belsky draws attention to one point of friction in particular: sending and converting huge files for those stakeholders to review. One of the key announcements at this year’s MAX was Creative Cloud’s newly upgraded Share functionality, which enables collaborators to view and edit many different file types simply by clicking a link – and, crucially, to add feedback and contextual commentary within their browser even without access to the app with which the file was originally created.
Ask the right questions
Having spent her entire career living the mantra ‘I am not the user’, Warren found an opportunity to stress-test the effectiveness of Adobe’s suite of collaboration tools in tandem with developing them. “We made ourselves ‘user zero’ – collaborating using products while designing a product to enable people to collaborate,” she explains.
In practice, this involved two parallel tracks: a five-year vision for the project focused on the big-picture challenge of running a successful design team remotely, and a one-year workstream to prototype the MVP required to get to market quickly.
“Defining a problem is about paying attention,” she continues. “How do you promote awareness? By identifying the things that you normally do and calling attention to them.” For instance, one team member asked, in the moment, how best to combat video-call fatigue: the answer was for the whole team to jump into a spontaneous canvas so they could play with ideas visually rather than just talking about them.
“Brainstorming at a moment’s notice helps create innovative concepts,” adds Warren. “We’re constantly white-boarding, but also doing fun activities and team culture events, like pasta-making classes.” To add variety, her team also regularly work analogue techniques into their remote creative process, from drawing on iPads to scanning in pencil sketches.
Shift your perspective
Every creative project will have defined boundaries within which the team must work. “Identifying and accepting those limitations is essential,” argues Buccafusco. “As soon as we slash away options, our brainstormers then become sharpshooters focused on finding that needle in the haystack.”
He describes the constraints of a brief as a ‘sand trap’: “Shrink yourself down so that sand trap becomes a beach,” he says. “Then look for unique opportunities that you wouldn’t have seen from the other perspective. Find clever ways to explore the boundaries from the inside. There may be more room to play than you originally considered.”
Buccafusco shares Warren’s view that happier people make better work. “Be good to each other, and tough on the work,” is his advice. “It’s a serious business at times, but that doesn’t mean we have to take ourselves too seriously. By putting efficiency and quality on a pedestal, it makes it a lot easier to be goofy and giggle throughout the day.”
Without mutual respect, even the best-intentioned collaboration will collapse. “Respect your people’s time, and their energy,” he urges. “Look for ways to improve their workflow and remove unnecessary stress. If you laugh together during the good times, there’s a better chance of laughing during the tough times. And if you trust each other when stakes are low, you’ll trust each other when stakes are high,” adds Buccafusco. “Lead with love, get the work done, keep the flame alive. Because if you’re not having fun, what’s the point?”
Catch up on Adobe MAX on-demand here and watch Warren and Buccafusco’s insightful sessions in full.