Collaboration. Sounds a bit furtive, doesn’t it? In most people’s minds it sits, uneasily, somewhere between its primary meaning of working together on a joint project, and the secondary one of co-operating as a traitor.
The prospect of it occurring can certainly expose hitherto hidden passions in some people. For instance, we recently met a potential client who began the meeting (we hadn’t introduced ourselves yet) with an icy warning that he was totally au fait with “agency bulls**t” and that we mustn’t attempt any. What could it mean? Perhaps the biscuits were a little too ostentatious, but they were balanced in a kind of catering feng shui by the old mugs. Ah well.
This rich imagery of designers and dung, despite in itself being a potential area of outstanding natural comedy, did play to a particular passion of my own – collaboration.
Designers are too often treated, at best, as suppliers by clients and, at worst, as a kind of giant Etch-a-Sketch (with correspondingly unconvincing results). In turn, designers themselves often miss opportunities to fully harness the power of collaboration to best effect.
Before you turn the page, let me use the phrase “return on investment”. Employing design is an investment in the success of your venture – the return on which can be measured. If you’re a potential client, think about this. Design is a process, a way of thinking and solving problems, of which you’re a part. Too often it’s equated with a commodity that can be “delivered” (hence my reference to suppliers).
Some design agencies seem to think this way too. I recently visited a website that offered me a visual identity of my choice for a couple of hundred pounds. I was surprised not to be offered a bottle of drink and free delivery within a five-mile radius. When you engage with designers, you are actually working with people who are not only naturally predisposed to bringing order to bear, identifying as well as creatively solving problems – but people who are professionally trained to do so, and are natural collaborators.
The role of a designer is widely misunderstood. We share most in common with composers. Most designers are talented soloists in their own right, but it is in concert with others that they most effectively apply their talents and skills in research, interpretation, synthesis, creation, innovation and communication.
The ideal client is a hybrid of paying punter and an essential part of the orchestra (this is not audience participation). OK, before I twist this metaphor into saying anything I want it to, my point is this: design is not a product or a service – it’s a collaborative, dynamic, flexible, iterative process with a tangible outcome or artefact.
The commoditisation of design seems to me to have run in parallel, since the 1980s, with the commoditisation of the public domain. It seems that the ripples of Schumpeterian economic philosophy through Thatcherism still spread today. Many agencies continue to behave as if it were the 1980s – but I detect that clients today are actually, given the opportunity, seeking a more meaningful engagement.
There are a growing number of people who are not satisfied – and nor should they be – with waiting in the frosted glass room for the boards to be brought in. Unfortunately, one of the ripples still being felt is the clumsy and ineffective way that design is procured, particularly in the public sector – methods that take no account of relationships and which often rob those clients that would like to collaborate effectively of the opportunity to do so.
Pitch for free
If designers are not being subjected to processes meant to obtain photocopier paper at the best price, they’re being asked to pitch for free. This practice began with ad agencies, where it makes sense to spend £20,000 chasing a retainer that one could retire on. This does not translate well into the design world, with its (generally) much smaller budgets.
Next time you are considering arranging a design pitch, ask yourself whether you would be prepared to work for free, without being fully briefed, on the basis that your employer will only pay you if they’re entirely satisfied. Are these the kind of circumstances under which you could add most value to your job, project or organisation?
If I didn’t have to type, I would hold my hands up to the fact that designers themselves are not always very good at communicating the added value that they can bring to a client. I once attended a talk by a prominent graphic designer who I admire very much. He was speaking about the role of designers as non-executive directors. On this occasion, however, I was disappointed that he seemed to think the role involved being a “right-brain” thinker, wearing a funny jacket, asking naïve questions and not shaving properly.
To be fair, he was being no more flippant than I have occasionally been during this article, but it did seem like a lost opportunity at the time. Designers’ skills can bring insight and clarity to process, infrastructure and methodology. They can catalyse innovation and amplify talents. They can help people to see things differently and communicate effectively. Who wouldn’t benefit from this?
As I hinted, the tide is turning. I’ve recently been lucky enough to collaborate on some inspiring, integrated campaigns and branding. We are currently collaborating on a project with a Government department and several private sector trailblazers, which involves working together on some tremendous issues. I can’t say more than that without being woken at 4am by four men in a black van. You are out there. And, for the rest of you, mark my words – effective collaboration is essential for ensuring excellent return on investment, and the only defence against violent acts of random.