Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

Collaborate or Die

I was first attracted to a career in graphic design by the allure of authorship. I wanted to make published artefacts that could be seen by others, and for which I could claim personal responsibility. Perhaps this is the reason why so many young people choose, or crave, the creative life. It’s a hungry plea for individual recognition in an impersonal and indifferent universe. 

But as the educational theorist Etienne Werger, best known for his work on communities of practice, notes: “Today’s complex problem solving requires multiple perspectives. The Leonardo da Vinci days are over.” And it’s true that in recent years I’ve found myself drifting away from the idea of a craft populated by da Vinci’s, and come to regard the practice of design (except in rarefied situations) as an almost wholly collaborative activity. 

The case for the benefits of collaborative creative production is strong. Persuasive examples can be found everywhere. Take this by Simpsons’ producer Joel H. Cohen: “Every day, if I say 100 things, 93 of them aren’t going anywhere. But there’s always a little piece that might inspire someone else. Very rarely does something go right into the script without any improvement from someone else.”
It no longer seems possible or even desirable to be a soloist. If you want to function as a creative practitioner, you need to learn the dynamics of ensemble performance.

But is collaboration possible within graphic design? Paradoxically, the question comes at a time when digital technology allows us to function in isolation as never before. And while it is possible to make things as a soloist, it is no longer possible to design solutions to “complex problems” in splendid isolation. Graphic design production increasingly requires a breadth of understanding that is beyond the single or discipline-specific practitioner, and is more and more the product of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Many graphic designers function collaboratively—it comes naturally to them and they are untroubled with the idea of shared authorship. But, what is often described as collaboration, is really a sort of cooperation between similarly minded people. Or to put it another way, groups of like-minded people riffing on ideas, or sharing the production workload. This can be useful—productive even—but it is unlikely to produce the sort of ground tilting ideas that are needed for an ever more complex world. 

For this to happen we need “collaborative intelligence,” a term that describes heterogeneous networks of people interacting to produce creatively supercharged outcomes. In other words, it’s the collaboration of opposites that produces the best results; groups of people with vastly different views and skills combining to produce unpredictable outcomes. 

This is not easy. Many things conspire to make cross-disciplinary collaboration difficult. For a start, design history comes with an inbuilt bias towards the heroic individual. This is reinforced by an education system that insists on individual assessments: a system that is training graduates for a world that no longer exist. 

I run a project-based elective for my students (actually, I don’t run it, I co-run it, but there you see the instinct for self-authorship at work). The Collaborate or Die! elective seeks to harness the frequently expressed desire of students to learn how to work collaboratively, and to assist them in establishing cross-disciplinary modes of working. 

We began as a homogenous group of graphic designers. For some students it was a highly satisfying and productive mode of working. Yet it soon became apparent that collaboration meant different things to different people. For some, working in groups was an opportunity to avoid the searchlight of scrutiny—you can hide in groups! For one or two others it meant a painful loss of individual expression. And for yet others it was the realisation that not everyone contributes equally, a fact that ignited tense conversations about leadership, hierarchies, and the division of roles in creative practice. 

Yet it was only when we moved to a project with participants from two other disciplines (in this case vehicle designers and textile designers), that the true benefits of collaborative working emerged. This was because the student discovered that to collaborate with people from different disciplines, with different perspectives and different methodologies, a much higher level of personal reflection was required. 

But when these divergent modes of practice came together, the work was far more impressive than if more homogenous groups had undertaken it. It’s oppositional thinking rather than harmonious thinking that produces the unexpected. As Virginia Woolf observed: “… before the art of creation can be accomplished, some marriage of opposites has to be consummated.” 

Jobs | June 17