Collaboration in Design

Foreword

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 connorobriendesign.com

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.

The value of custom artwork versus stock photography

Stock photography can become a huge point of contention in the design industry. Sometimes being seen as dated, overused or generic in the corporate world, stock photography can quickly become a homogenous visual landscape with competition producing bizarro versions of each other. It’s my hope with this article that we open the door a bit and establish when and where to use stock – if you must do so.

Despite what the uninformed believe: One cannot simply grab any image from the internet for their purposes. Click To Tweet

Finding the right image for your project comes with the territory when branding your business. It could be one item, or a series of imagery used throughout your material – be it in print or online.

There is a wealth of choice of pre-made artwork available from many different collections available for use, all within reach with the click of a button. With a world of providers offering similar services, how do you pick and choose? You could potentially manage the project in house, but sometimes special attention needs to be made or you need some help, and that’s where you might call in a company like us at Jackson Wynne to help.

Start by determining your target audience. I’m not saying you need to have focus groups necessarily, but understanding your end goal is helpful in determining what sorts of imagery you end up with. You have options.

Some types of standard artwork:

– Photography
– Illustration
– Video
– Animation

These are just a handful of types of artwork, but are most common. Depending on the situation, it might make sense to use a custom illustration to communicate your message, instead of a generic stock photo where possible.

Full disclosure: I am personally biased to using original artwork, but it’s not always possible. What can you do?

Determining Budget

A very important first step is to figure out how much you have to spend. This is crucial because it can dictate what options are available. On the lower end, you can purchase royalty free stock photos, illustrations, and video. If you have more spend available, consider custom artwork at the top of your list.

Enterprise companies have larger marketing budgets whereas a startup or small business may have limitations and need to get creative.

Stock Photography

When I say “stock photography” in the general sense it applies to photos, illustrations, video etc. available for purchase from stock providers.

This is a good option and can be quite economical.

Pros

– Affordable Pricing
– Lots of options
– Ready to use

Cons

– Available to anyone
– Sometimes generic in nature
– Quality Control

Consider the control you have here. With various licensing options available, you have to consider the application and usage.

Stock photography provides a mountain of options, for better or worse. If you know what you’re looking for and can distinguish the good from the bad, you can run with stock to your hearts content. If you’re on a limited budget, there are certain design treatments and ways to use stock to end up with a good looking product.

I get it, we don’t all have budgets for photo shoots. Sometimes you just need an image for a quick promo or are waiting for the right direction or timing to do it right.

Perhaps the biggest pitfall of using stock is that you might perhaps end up with a generic image, or worst case – end up using the same imagery as your competition. Stock photography in general can get quite interesting.

That being said, I have seen and used some stock photography where the quality has been quite good and professional – so it is definitely not anything to turn your nose up at. If you have the eye for it and enjoy a good hunt, it can be a good option. Even just as a temporary measure until you can swap out with more original work.

Young woman using digital tablet at home against city lights.

There is some good stock photography out there. If you develop an eye for it you can find some decent options available.

One of the largest hurdles to get over is sifting through the endless amount of options. Where do you start? Where are the good photos? Is this a good photo? Does it align with the goals you are trying to reach?

Not *ALL* of your artwork needs to be custom necessarily.

Let’s compare with custom artwork.

Custom Artwork

Custom artwork is imagery made especially for your project, mostly unique in one way or another considered “one of a kind”. This could mean putting together your own photo shoot, or hiring an illustrator to provide you with hand drawn, custom imagery that helps position your business.

Pros

– Original artwork
– Control of the final product
– Investment into long-term brand building

Cons

– Can cost more
– Timeline may be longer
– Expectations of results

The path of custom artwork is not good for those who desire instant gratification. It takes a bit of time and work to produce great things.

If you have a clear direction and can put together a team that understands your brand, custom can be very rewarding. Think beyond your logo. An extension of your brand, custom imagery can help reinforce your message and build a level of continuity and enjoyment that your customers will appreciate.

Although custom artwork can cost more, in the long run I would consider it an investment. Who else in your industry will have similar images? [tweetable]Ideally you stand out from the crowd, and save yourself from embarrassment[/tweetable]. The internet makes the world a small, small place.

Ideally you stand out from the crowd, and save yourself from embarrassment.

Whereas stock can have a shorter shelf life, with custom artwork – you should be getting a lot more mileage out of it.

Style vs Substance

Style can be very subjective. One person’s taste is not another’s, and in the end – you really can’t please everyone. Think of your audience first, if it makes sense for what you’re doing. If it fits with your brand. If you can set aside your personal taste, and look at things from an agnostic standpoint – this is even better.

Sometimes you just need to trust and take a leap of faith.

That being said, beware of running with something that is “cool” just because. It also needs to connect in some way with what you’re trying to promote. The balance of form vs. function.

Final Considerations

Other than the artwork by itself, does it match your brand message? Do you have strong copywriting to accompany it? How is your brand working together as a whole?

Never use custom artwork as a bandaid for a poor brand. You could have the greatest artwork in the world, but if the content doesn’t match or no one ever sees it, it might all be for naught.

Next time you need artwork for your project, think twice about your options. What do you use?

Sidenote

How much did we spend on artwork for this blog post? The picture frame was from a free resource. The line drawing inside the frame was a custom draw vector illustration to fit. The texture was from Subtle Patterns. Two photos were purchased from Stocksy. A grand total of $27.48 CAD (plus my time, of course!). Not bad.

Resources

Since we’re talking about stock photography, I’ve collected a few useful stock websites that provide a breath of fresh air. Ranging from free to paid, there are plenty of options:

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