Hand in hand

Working in collaboration has many creative and commercial attractions for designers, but there are pitfalls. Designers recount their experiences to Liz Farrelly, while lawyers and business professionals give John Stones the low-down

Are you looking to strike up a creative partnership, perhaps for a project you don’t feel comfortable tackling on your own? It’s an increasingly common approach, and requires mutual respect for each other’s differing skills, talents and aesthetic sensibilities. But there are also some legal and commercial issues to bear in mind. Here some designers share some of their experiences of working in collaboration, accompanied by advice on the business side to help you on your way.


The business collaboration


Alistair Sim, Managing director, Love
The great benefit of being an independent consultancy is that we can work with whoever we think is best for the job, and this ultimately produces better results for our clients. Our network of partners has been built around people who share the same values. It is often the rather old fashioned ideals of trust, honesty and mutual respect that bring like-minded people together to work in new and different ways.

A third of the floorspace of our new office was up for grabs and we were looking for small businesses and start-up groups that would complement Love and benefit from the shared office. So far we have had two ex-directors from BDH/TBWA who started up the Kings Arms, which has since moved on. Neighbourhood is a new motion graphics start-up, which rents a large portion of the space on offer. We have worked with both. On another thread, we have been working with the Brand Experience Company, set up by Ralph Ardill, former head of strategy at Imagination. Additionally, D&AD has set up its first out-of-London office here.

In collaborations, it’s vital to discuss the finer points of business up front. We suggest that, together, partners should draw up a basic ‘heads of agreement’ document. This should broadly cover: project scope and schedule; roles and responsibilities; fees and payments; IP ownership; communication and dispute resolution. We do use lawyers where necessary, for example, if we are negotiating large and/or overseas projects.

Iain Stansfield, Partner, solicitor Olswang
Collaborations can lead to legal problems, commonly around the issue of intellectual property. There can be a tug of war between designers as to ownership because, where parties contribute jointly in creative terms, each can have equal claims. They can become co- owners, and English law makes it difficult for one co-owner to exploit or sell the idea without the say-so of the other.

Of course, creativity comes first, but once something has been created, the designers can enter into a joint ownership agreement which will govern who can do what. It is much cheaper and easier if the parties have already figured things out. But if the parties are already at loggerheads, it all becomes a lot more expensive. Sometimes one party will have received a great commercial offer. If one co-owner comes to the table with pound signs in their eyes, this can make things difficult.

If the collaboration is an international one, that too complicates matters, as you need to ascertain in which country the collaboration took place, as it will often be that the law of that jurisdiction then applies. But, as is often the case, parties are collaborating across territories, e-mailing CADs to each other and so forth, so just deciding that jurisdiction point can require a lot of unpicking.

Other disagreements can arise if only one of the parties goes on to commercialise the design. For instance, there is the issue of who then carries any product liability claims. Another common problem is if one party gets the money from a commercial deal first, and the flow of the money becomes an issue. One other thing to consider is an agreement that reflects or offsets costs incurred in the design process. For instance, one party may have been responsible for the building and testing of prototypes.

Deborah Dawton, Chief executive, Design Business Association
As a sector, we tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. But an agreement at the outset is a good idea for any collaboration – setting out the terms of separation – otherwise, it is like going through a divorce. Many of the issues are similar to when a partner leaves a consultancy.

We will soon have downloadable contracts for intellectual property for our members, but for collaboration agreements, the likelihood is that any agreement will be so diverse that all we would offer is bullet points, rather than set contracts. You can protect yourself by drawing up your own contracts with a bit of research.

I always advise contacting other design groups and asking them, informally, over a cup of coffee, about how they deal with the issue. On business issues, designers are often happy to impart advice.

Christina Onesirosan-Martinez, Chartered Society of Designers
There is an increasing demand for various specialisms to come together to answer today’s clients’ needs. Collaborations are very important for designers who are working for overseas clients and therefore partnering with overseas designers.

We offer accredited members standard documentation, which includes the relevant material to enable designers to set up collaborations. If this is between designers from different counties, our solicitor and international partner can assist on intellectual property, contract and working arrangements.


The creative collaboration


Eley Kishimoto (Mark Eley, Wakako Kishimoto) and Harriman Steel (Julian Harriman-Dickinson, Nick Steel)
‘A mutual friend in fashion PR suggested that we meet Mark,’ explains Julian Harriman-Dickinson, one half of Harriman Steel (along with partner Nick Steel). ‘She said, “He’ll like your work, you’ll get on”. We called him seven years ago and we’re still working together.’

Harriman Steel is one of a handful of consultancies that cross over between design and advertising, as at home directing commercials as designing print, Web and 3D solutions for predominantly fashion-based clients. That uncommon versatility is just what Mark Eley, of fashion and textiles company Eley Kishimoto, is happy to work with. When asked who instigates projects, Mark replies, ‘If Eley Kishimoto has a problem, Julian and Nick resolve it for us.’

Harriman-Dickinson in turn recognises an ability to ‘decipher… with understanding and patience’ as a quality his group brings to the mix. ‘Plus, we’ve just asked Eley Kishimoto to contribute to Rubbish, a magazine that looks at the silly side of fashion – so the river flows both ways’, he adds.

Meeting at a stage in their careers when, as Harriman-Dickinson recalls, ‘we were full of enthusiasm for just doing great work and wanting to put the world to rights’, the pairing have often produced design solutions that use cost restrictions as a creative spur. ‘Mark wanted a seasonal ‘look-book’. We came back with the idea of an ongoing newspaper, as it would fit with Eley Kishimoto’s wabi-sabi aesthetic, is affordable and could be turned around very quickly… we’re on issue nine now’, explains Harriman-Dickinson.

‘They can do things with cardboard that are as cheap as chips, but beautiful,’ adds Eley. The prime example being the packaging of a bone china tea service, which needed to withstand the rigours of worldwide shipping. ‘We generated very industrial packaging, contrasting the delicate, refined product with an oversized box made from standard B-flute, corrugated cardboard, silkscreen-printed with the Ditsy Flower pattern’, recalls Harriman-Dickinson.

While Eley respects Harriman Steel’s ‘uniqueness and honesty’, the duo appreciates Eley’s ‘energy, randomness and ability to show great enthusiasm’. And, when the pressure is on, both teams resort to table tennis to let off steam.

Anna Gerber and Anja Lutz
Writer Anna Gerber and graphic designer Anja Lutz are co-creators of Influences, a lexicon of contemporary graphic design, published at the end of last year. It’s a weighty tome that, unlike many books on design, is crammed full of words, the premise being to enquire, from a wide range of designers, who and what influences their graphic output. Calling Gerber and Lutz co-creators instead of ‘author’ and ‘designer’ points up the difference in their backgrounds and their collaboration. With a degree in philosophy, Gerber did an MA in Communication Design from Central St Martins College of Art and Design, and has authored books and designed projects. Lutz, on the other hand, is a designer who’s been compiling the self-published magazine Shift! for the past decade. Both are as used to working with words as with images and layouts.

The two ‘met’ by e-mail in 2003, but not in person until a year later, as Gerber lives in London and Lutz is based in Berlin. Now they get together to teach workshops, at various colleges. Asked to contribute to Gerber’s first book, All Messed Up, Lutz turned the tables and persuaded her to help out on Shift! Re-appropriated, a book of visual re-edits. Much e-mailing and phone-calling takes place. ‘The strength of our collaboration lies in the fact that we both get involved in all aspects of a project,’ reveals Lutz. ‘But we respect each other’s input.’ Gerber adds, ‘The delineations are a bit blurry; we both bring rigorous thinking to the work.’ Influences grew from the realisation that they were pursuing similar themes. Such symbiosis is rare. ‘We’ve both found working partners we never thought we’d find,’ admits Lutz.
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