Like two pugilists in a ring, creative collaborations require passion, ambition and a good dose of competitiveness if they're to deliver results that matter.
I've been giving 'collaboration' a lot of thought. I guess that's inevitable when you work in a company that's partner to one of the longest running collaborative gigs in design consulting. In design circles, especially around award time, collaboration gets a lot of airplay—but what happens to it the rest of the time? Why is something we praise as being so conducive to design success so infrequently discussed in design forums? More to the point, what is it about collaboration that makes me giddy with optimism on one hand while forcing me to contemplate popping an antacid with the other? I guess, when I come right down to it, it's that collaboration, by definition a joint enterprise, is often invoked by persons or interests having very little patience for the stuff. Sure it's nice to make a lot of noise about it, but should you act on it, or call upon it in earnest, you'd better be sure collaboration is what the folks sitting across the table have signed up for.
As a young designer, I always believed that when someone spoke to me at length about collaboration it was some veiled reference to my impending need for behavior modification. Alternatively, when I found myself in cultures that used the term liberally—my gut shrank up trying to determine if 'collaboration' was code for 'the client-is-always-right.' Three and a half years after returning to the world of consulting, I've come to believe that collaboration is quite possibly THE pivotal dynamic in generating great design results. No big surprise right? But when I think about collaboration, what I increasingly imagine is something I like to call competitive collaboration, an all out, skin-in the game style of cooperation that requires real commitment from both parties, not the whimsical feel-good stuff that so easily dissipates at the first sign of trouble. With that in mind, I thought I'd share a few observations on behaviors that I believe lead to successful collaborations and, when we're lucky, great design programs.
WORK HARD aka ENGAGEMENT
As Philippe Starck has eloquently observed "Design hates lazy people" and it does. Design is hard work for clients and consultants alike. The best results stubbornly defy us by the elliptical fashion in which they arrive. You can work your ass off on a given problem and move it an inch or, you glance out the studio window and move it a mile. The rub of it is you can't count on either track to yield consistent results. Instead we work. And work again. Some might say it gets easier with experience, and it does, but the fact of the matter is, if you find design problems getting easier—you are most likely repeating yourself. Attacking a problem with fresh eyes means daring to start fresh—and that is hard work. Beyond the adrenaline rush of the creative chase, the thing that makes this otherwise intolerable process bearable is engagement; the zone in which we find ourselves fully committed to the pursuit of that first spark and the subsequent journey with which we eek out its promise. The only way I know how to get there is through deep engagement—my own, my colleagues and my clients. Without it, programs drift leading dangerously toward indifference, which in design most often leads to mediocrity and crap.
GET DIRTY aka PROTOTYPE
While you're doing this 'hard' work, you will of course get dirty. Which is just another way of saying you'll need to check your ego at the door, roll up your sleeves and be willing to fail—more importantly, be willing to make. Making is an inextricable part of good design exploration. PowerPoint is an abstraction of an abstraction. Things don't fail quickly in abstract. Nothing brings clarity faster to an abstract conversation like a 'thing.' If you want to drive powerful, effective decision-making with your client, the type that leads quickly and brutally to decisions—my advice is to MAKE. Whether we are talking about things, experiences or otherwise—prototyping, putting your ideas into action so that they might (more often than not) prove you wrong, is critical to the mechanism of design. Today we have an arsenal of tools at our disposal to make and fab: Dimension machines, Aruduino boards, After Effects, you name it. There is little excuse not to make. Which begs the question, if the team you're collaborating with isn't bringing 'things' to the table, what are they bringing? Talk? If a picture is worth a thousand words, I'd be willing to bet a prototype is worth two thousand, easy. The difference between a good idea and a great idea is execution. My advice: make.FIND UP aka EMBRACE AMBIGUITY
If design had a heartbeat it would be 'Finding up.' Finding up is the innate rhythm of the design process; a complicated mix of intuition and deduction informed by experience. Or, in the absence of experience: tenacity. While it became fashionable in recent years to conceal the messy business of design in the sanitizing shrink-wrap of 'design thinking' and 'process'—design remains at its core an imprecise science. Luckily for us, and our clients, it's not unpredictable. Having worked at three design consultancies and two corporate groups, it doesn't surprise me that all of those experiences have shared certain indisputable rhythms: the common trajectory of exploration, discovery, reflection and execution. You can change the names, invent acronyms, draw diagrams—but the foundation is always there. The biological beat of inquiry. One of the greatest challenges to 'finding up' however is safeguarding the time to find. In our fast-paced, left-brained world, schedules and meetings chew up a lot of 'finding' time. The design process needs distraction, a chance to open the windows and let in fresh air. When this isn't allowed for, ideas become stilted, growing into outsized caricatures of their former selves. In my experience, great collaborators understand this and work hard to defend the time needed to find.
PUSH PEOPLE aka CHALLENGE ASSUMPTIONS
Heidi McBride, Teague's director of strategy, talks about challenging orthodoxies; I call it pressing the point. No matter what you call it, a good collaborator should stand ready to challenge assumptions and push people. Why? Because a great idea is usually unfamiliar; if it weren't it would merely be an idea. When confronted with the unknown people necessarily pull back, but this behavior shouldn't distract us from the fact that the new and unfamiliar are where economic and creative opportunity usually coexist. The importance of the push isn't an invitation to be arrogant or rude, it's a challenge to both parties (consultant and client) to be ready to hold uncomfortable conversations for the sake of delivering the value your time and their money are paying for. Most people shrink when you talk this way about client interactions, but the great thing about design is that it's goal-driven. We don't, or at least we shouldn't, make too much of a habit of pursuing the process of design without the intent of delivering on it. This focus on goals gives design teams latitude to engage in conversations that invariably trigger passionate reactions. That's good. Passion is a key component in understanding 'what' motivates people and organizations. The early stages of a design program provide a great opportunity to probe your client and figure out what's culturally set in stone and if so, why. The trick is to understand the difference between pushing for the betterment of the project vs. pushing to get your way.
REPEAT aka HUMILITY
While some might find it disagreeable, ego remains the catalyst that converts the subjective world of ideas into objective reality. Consequently it's a critical ingredient in creativity and design collaborations. Why? Because in a world of shareholders and committees, the path to commercialization is littered with Noes and Can't be dones. In this landscape, it's an evolutionary necessity that creativity and the design process attract personalities blind to habitual rejection. What keeps this potentially disruptive behavior in check is the leveling-out the design process affords. Even the most headstrong designer or entrepreneur, once they've racked up some mileage (and the occasional fiasco), realizes that the process requires other people and a sense of common purpose. Dictators can't get there alone; at least not very often. The success of any one program, that sense of accomplishment or opportunity realized, only lasts for so long. Inevitably after the final presentation, the last delivery or the accolades of your peers—the next project comes in and when it does, we begin it all over again; a chance to rise to the occasion or miss the mark. That sobering reality is enough to humble any outsized ego.
If consulting is a relationship business, creative collaboration is an intimate act—and as with any intimate relationship, proximity offers us a front row seat to the best and worst of one another. Reflecting on what constitutes a good design collaboration I find myself, not surprisingly, relying on the same set of principles I use in my assessment of any interpersonal relationship. We expect the people in our lives to meet certain prerequisites: fair hygiene, decent manners—but what differentiates our most successful relationships goes beyond this basic set of factors to more abstract qualities like personality, judgment and dependability. I'm not proposing any of this is new, what I am proposing is that if you want to elevate your design results, enrich your process and maybe win a few awards along the way—get a lot smarter about assessing character. If you find yourself doing work you're not happy with or don't believe in, maybe you should look in the mirror and ask yourself who you're spending time with?
In the course of writing this piece, I stumbled across Dieter Rams' recent comments regarding Apple's design culture in The Telegraph. Rams' comments hit home because the Entrepreneur-Designer collaboration he singles out as conducive to great work, is in essence the binary code behind the type of collaboration that is essential to good design: Passionate egos working together to achieve their best and deliver something truly 'good.' For those of us who don't work at Apple and still strive to help organizations harness the true power of design, my advice is roll up your sleeves, work hard and get ready to rumble. Just remember it's not personal—it's about doing what it takes to move the needle in earnest.
Tad Toulis is the Creative Director of Teague's Seattle-based Design Studio. Prior to joining Teague, Tad worked at Lunar Design, Motorola's Advanced Concepts Group and Samsung's LA LAB. He was also a founding member of designRAW, a San Francisco-based design collective. Tad is a frequent speaker and lecturer at universities, conferences and design symposiums. His work has received numerous awards of distinction and has appeared in publications across the globe.