The design community loves heroes. Think how we venerate those alchemists able to turn a base brief into D&AD Gold. And quite right too. We should celebrate them, we should want to find out more about what they think and feel, how they work and why they’re designers (rather than brilliant artists or surgeons or botanists).
But in our fascination with individuals we sometimes forget some fundamentals. Like the fact that most design work is produced by groups of people working together. And that when interesting people work together the real hero is the process, not one person. ‘The design process’: it’s a bit of a dry term. It doesn’t have the resonance of, say, ‘Peter Saville’. And yet it’s a major determining factor in a project’s success, or failure.
A good design process is something wonderful, something to celebrate. It’s about people moving together through a series of individual and collective backward, sideways and forward steps, with a skip or two here, a squashed toe there, and an occasional leap (often in the dark). Many seem to share my enthusiasm. Phrases such as ‘our unique blend of multidisciplinary skills’, or ‘our innovative team-working approach’ are randy little memes, if design agency websites are anything to go by.
And yet, in practice, most consultancies stick to uncreative processes based on the core skills of whoever works in the studio. A creative director (a sort of institutionalised hero) leads the ‘development’ and a design ‘team’ contributes ideas, when allowed. Now and then a ‘specialist’, such as a writer or photographer, may be asked to perform a clearly defined function, a bit like a performing dog in a circus.
It’s a peculiarly conservative approach for companies promising clients creativity and difference. In contrast, I like the open way Bruce Mau (graphic designer) has been working with Rem Koolhaas (architect). Here’s something Mau said about that, in an interview in Architectural Record: ‘When I started working on the Seattle library with Rem, I asked him, “Do you want me to do signage, or do you want me to think about the project?”. He said, “I want you to think about the project”.’ Mau goes on: ‘A lot of the things that are sort of unsatisfactory in the world are those where there hasn’t been a synthesis across disciplines. So we need to develop methods that are cross-disciplinary…’
Seems Mau and Koolhaas see their specialist skills as a starting point for a collaboration that might go somewhere interesting, not a set of expertise that will take them to a predetermined end.
I’ve long wanted to include a musician in a design project. I like the way composer Philip Glass works when he writes a piece for the opening of a new building, such as the Milwaukee Art Museum. He finds inspiration in the relationship between the structure and function of the building and the structure and content of the music. This gets me what-iffing. What if an architect involved Glass at the conceptual rather than the commemorative stage? What if the client commissioned him before the architect? Unfortunately, in the words of Glass: ‘The trouble is, real collaboration has to begin very early. By the time they think of the composer, it’s very late.’
Tomato exemplifies how exciting life can be when musicians and designers (and writers, animators, film-makers et al) play together nicely, to nick David Stuart’s brilliant phrase about collaborative working. And one of Tomato’s most successful projects is a book called Process, which explores all sorts of creative interplay. Now they sell places on the Tomato creative workshop – £1350 per person for the nine-day experience.
What if more design agencies incorporated a broader mix of people into their processes? What if artists, poets, scientists, engineers, gardeners and others flowed in and out of studios? What would happen? A guest thinker might not be appropriate on every project, but surely many would flourish with the addition of non-design design ideas. I’m currently involving a philosopher in one of my projects – seems a valuable person to have on board when exploring a corporate brand personality.
Works of design are created to go out and live in the world, but few people from out there are brought in to be part of the process that creates the work. Little wonder so much of what we do looks, feels and behaves the same. A case of not enough what-ifs, perhaps? Or, put another way, dull process, dull work.