Collaboration in Design


By Paul Phillips

We recently had the pleasure of having Connor O’Brien intern with us from the York/Sheridan design program. You can check out his portfolio over at

Aside from some solid help on projects and being great lunch company over beers and brisket on a bun, Connor has benefited from some great instructors. He’s got a great head on his shoulders and a good perspective on what it takes to thrive as a designer.

As a final assignment, I asked if he’d like to write a post based on some of the conversations we’ve had over the last few weeks. Below is the result.

Thanks again for your hard work Connor!

Designer as Collaborator

In the designer world, it’s tempting to want to be the sole creative visionary on a project and have complete control over the scope of your work. After all, when the credit is attributed to a single individual, so too is the recognition. However, due to its very nature as being tied to culture, design is rarely if ever an entirely individual pursuit.

In his essay, The Problem with Provenance, Micheal Rock argues that due to this collaborative process in commercial design, it becomes hard to attribute the success of a project to one single individual. Should the success be attributed to the Art Director who oversaw the process, the senior designer who came up with the idea, or the intern who created the finished product? The answer here is not always so cut and dry and probably lies somewhere between all three. So who should get the credit, but more importantly, why is this important?

Collaboration in Design Education

The romanticism of the lone creative visionary amongst younger designers can largely be attributed to a failure of the design education system to promote collaboration and set realistic expectations for commercial design. On the theoretical side we are mostly taught about the “rockstar designers” such as the Paul Rand’s and Stefan Sagmeister’s of the world. These are generally designers who have developed a reputation for their unique way of approaching design. However, it becomes incredibly difficult to know, even with these design icons, what went on behind the scenes and how many other people were involved in the process.

On the more practical side of things, the idea of human-centred design has become incredibly important in recent years. Though this is talked about a lot, my experience has been that the majority of design school projects are self-initiated design briefs that ask the student to be both the client and designer. Don’t get me wrong, design school should be an environment where students can flex their creative muscles to explore new ideas and grow as designers. However, this ideology becomes problematic when designers refuse to relinquish this control when working with actual clients. Commercial design is inherently a part of a business and few clients are willing to pay for you to have the freedom to explore yourself creatively. So when it comes to design education, the important question we need to be asking is, does human-centred design really still work when you remove the humans?

Be a Team Player

One of the most valuable assets of creatives is the lens with which they view the world, so to speak. Each individual on a team brings with them their own unique way of viewing a problem. This is incredibly valuable as the number of good ideas increases exponentially. Some of the best projects I have worked on have come from working with like-minded people and each of us building on each other’s ideas. In addition to this, it’s always valuable to surround yourself with people who will challenge your methods of thinking. When solving creative problems it can become very easy to get stuck thinking about a problem in a particular way without even realizing it. Having multiple unique perspectives on the problem helps prevent that from happening, rapidly improving productivity.

Of course, with collaboration also comes the idea of compromise. Sooner or later you will disagree on the best way to proceed with something. The key here is to have some perspective and know when to pick your battles. In any creative industry, it’s never an easy thing to have your ideas rejected, however, it’s a necessary skill to be able to remove yourself from your work and truly recognize when someone else’s idea is better than yours. Not only will the overall outcome be more successful, but your teammates will realize when you’re advocating for something truly important.

In a similar vein, when dealing with clients it’s important to know when you’re expected to be an expert and when to defer your judgement. Clients hire us not just for the work that we do, but because they trust our judgement to see a project through. Be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses and play to them. Sometimes if you’re not the best candidate for a job, the best course is to refer them to someone with more expertise. This shows to both the client and the designer that you’re looking out for their best interests. This kind of trust goes a long way with people and can be incredibly beneficial in the long term.

Similarly, know when to defer to the client’s judgement. You’re expected to be the expert in what you do, so let the client be the expert in what they do. When they have legitimate feedback, listen to their concerns and let that inform your decision-making process. I’m not advocating to just roll over whenever your ideas are challenged, but be open to compromising your creative vision if it will benefit their needs.

In Closing

Though it’s discussed a lot, genuine empathy and a willingness to work with others is a core aspect of a good design process. The ability to be flexible and work well with others will positively impact both your work and your working relationships with people. When it comes down to it, good design should be about creating a dialogue between people rather than lecturing them.

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