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4 posts from December 2010

Preserving Artistic Vision in Group Collaboration


A reader of ChangeOrder, Amy, sent me a great question that merits being answered publicly:

"When working collaboratively in groups, with constant input and iterations of ideas, how do you avoid the flattening of these ideas?"

I think to answer Amy's question, we have to state it as follows: "How are you constructing your group collaboration to preserve artistic vision?" Here's some of my answers. I hope you'll leave yours in the comments!

Focus the team on a clear, higher-order vision and strategy. If everyone doesn't feel like they are "going somewhere" over the life of a project, they are going to start iterating on details that may not fit into the client ask. The team's focus should narrow as the project progresses, based on the team's agreements on the constraints you'll explore. Be sure to set clear goals and a quality bar for the output you're seeking.

Foster explicit agreement in seed ideas. If the entire team is not part of the initial brainstorming or ideation—or if the ideas aren't clearly described and "sold" to those not present—then a team may not work to improve those ideas through the design process. If an idea is crammed down a team's throats with nary a whimper of agreement, they won't be motivated to improve it as they execute.

Provide open space for your teammates to fill with their design ideas. It's critical for contributors on a project to have space to roam. When moving beyond initial ideas and delving into the actual design work, team members must be given areas that they can own and push.

Balance formal critique and impromptu idea sharing. A team's opinions must be heard and accounted for in the work, or eloquently acknowledged and placed in the parking lot with a proper rationale for why they may not improve the work at hand. (The only exception to this rule is when you're about to run out of time.)

As your team is working, create opportunities for both formal critique meetings—where everyone shares their work for in-depth discussion and possible improvement—and impromptu two to three-minute check-ins where team members point out new ideas and changes that may factor into other people's work. When working across disciplines, such as with visual designers, developers, art directors, user experience designers, business strategists, and so forth, these quick hits can be a great way to capture fresh perspectives without causing an extended critique session. These impromptu meetings form a "braid" that is woven from continuous, low-level contact in the midst of cranking on your designs. Low frequency of contact between team members will fracture a common understanding of the ideas being given form—as well as the casual cross-pollination that may make your ideas even better.

Allow proper integration of actionable client feedback. Teams often flatten ideas when they feel like the client is steamrolling their best intentions and efforts. An "us vs. client" mentality can create the perception that no matter what you create, the client may ruin it. So part of participating in and leading those teams requires structuring client/team collaboration as a partnership, framing the client feedback in a manner that leads to an improvement in the next iteration. This may require a little sugar-coating of the bitter pill, but if the client has a compelling reason for the change, it should contribute to some improvement in the final desired outcome of your client.

Kill the hierarchy when possible. Don't assume that the creative director's opinion always trumps individual opinion. Don't assume that everyone's opinion is better than the creative director. Explicit or implicit hierarchy in decision-making, causing team members to defer to the boss or vice versa, can reduce a team's drive. You only need someone to tell you what to do when you can't collectively agree to a point of view.

This sounds idyllic, as disagreements happen all the time between people on creative teams, but most of those disagreements emerge from a lack of buy-in on a creative approach/strategy, an inflated sense of ego and attachment in directions being explored, and the fear that making a change at the last minute may have a cascade effect and push people into overtime. The best teams understand that there can be a cost for pushing the best ideas forward, even if they emerge at the last minute.

Create spaces for emergent design thinking. Make every iteration visible, via printout, in a shared space for your project. Designers often want to perfect their thinking and then share out only their "best work." Instead, capture those iterations that lead to the "best work" and make everyone aware of the various stages in the process. Don't make this a venue for selecting easy ideas and moving them forward. Encourage risk whenever possible—and the ability for your co-workers to debate that risk openly.

So... what are your perspectives on this question?

This Week's Challenge: Rifftastic

Finding steady employment has been hard for many of today’s designers.

A few years ago, when our economy slowed down, many agencies and companies ended up cutting back on marketing, advertising, and other core activities that require designers. In the aftermath, the market was flooded with thousands of highly talented design professionals. In conversations with some of my out-of-work colleagues who have struggled to land a stable gig, many of them are now using their time off to seek out creative and fulfilling work—whether for new clients or for their own personal projects and efforts. For those that haven’t fared well, there often aren’t many stones to overturn for new jobs—and some are falling back on previous professions or other skills lateral to design, until they can land just the right opportunity.

This challenge is for you to help convince designers, through design, to not be designers in the immediate future.

Your local municipal government has tasked you with creating an eye-catching poster promoting the new career center that just opened in your town—specifically speaking to retraining out-of-work designers. Can you sell your creative peers on why they should find alternative employment? Take 30 minutes to sketch out your ideas.

If you have extra time, design the career center from the inside out, knowing you’re creating a space for people to give up what they want to do. What would the experience be like? What kind of materials would a designer receive there regarding retraining that they couldn’t find anywhere else?

The above artwork is by Little Brown Pen, a fine art photography and illustration boutique founded by Nichole and Evan Robertson. It is from a 12-month calendar that spoofs the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster that has made the rounds. Could you imagine your own posters in this style that could help guide out-of-work designers?

Want more challenges? The first 24 pages of Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills are available free on Scribd. Or you can buy your copy of Creative Workshop from

Reflecting on the Mess


We become more comfortable under pressure when we see our design efforts as a process, not an end product. So we have to train ourselves to be more comfortable with waste as a byproduct of the creative process.

Or, to put it another way: Knowing when to walk away from a design idea can make you a better designer. You just need to have enough ideas to know which to walk away from.

You don't have any boundaries as a creative thinker, except for fear: fear that you'll come up short with terrible ideas, fear that you won't know enough about the subject to provide an informed response, fear that you'll run out of time before you are satisfied by your design output. While such fears are oft battled by artists and designers alike, they are self-imposed and reinforced by our peers. "Designer's block" can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. (As one of my colleagues Ric Ewing likes to say: A race-car driver should never stare at the boundary wall if they're worried about crashing into it.)

These fear-driven situations most often occur because we aren't being generative, papering the walls with our thoughts and sketches. We're tapping our pencil against the notebook thinking about how we have no ideas. There's nothing for our minds to react to other than what's inside them. An idea discarded in the mind is useless to a designer, and quickly buried in a tangle of neurons soon to be obliterated by caffeine, alcohol, or accidentally smacking into the dude in front of you in the coffee and/or alcohol line because you're checking your Facebook status.

An idea captured through whatever vehicle you choose—computer, pencil, food sculpture—is the snowball rolling down the mountain that slowly incites an avalanche. And you need an avalanche of ideas before you can start being a critic about which ones are rockstar. Such avalanches also serve as shrines to progress. They make our bosses and sometimes even our clients stop wringing their hands about a project outcome and stand back a few paces, fearful of being buried in the haystack before they're presented with the best damn needle you can muster.

So, backing up a few steps from the soapbox for a moment: What value is there in walking away from your ideas?

By abandoning them, you can create space in your mind for them to intermingle and cross-pollinate. This can lead to those aha! moments where various strains of creative DNA recombine to form a new species of solution.

Last night, I had my students from my 80 Works for Designers classes over to catch up. In our conversation, we shared our experiences of "solving" 80 design challenges, where we all had anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours to create a rough sketch of a design solution. I place the word "solved" in quotes because without fully executing that sketch at a high level of fidelity, we didn't always know if our original ideas would survive unscathed or fall to pieces.

One of the strange byproducts of living through such a process—layered on top of our full-time responsibilities as designers, where every project had to end in a completed deliverable—was that we were acquiring tacit knowledge about where our boundaries existed as purely conceptual thinkers. We had trouble finding them, and probably you would struggle to bang into them as well.

This was quite different from learning how to close down to a final design direction and execute it via the appropriate medium. It made us more willing to suspend judgment, step backward from the precipice that would lead to a muddy, murky swim (courtesy of Photoshop), and consider further iterations that diverged from the first idea/not always best idea. In short: I no longer desired executional completion early in the design process, and I rarely saw the same impulse in my students. Besides, what a designer carries from any final, tangible form they've constructed is a somewhat false sense of completion. "Well, now that I'm done with that logo, I can move on to a new project."

Being done, however, only happens when you run out of time, client money, or patience. Perhaps a better word is satisfied, and while we often are able to deliver artifacts that meet our client's level of satisfaction, it's the mark of a strong designer to be fairly unsatisfied no matter how amazing your comps may look to a client's eye. They need to meet your standard first… though your false sense of completion is also marred by the realities of providing a service to your client, pinned to a set of deliverables that meets a specified need. You could hand a finished logo to your client and they'd make some horrific improvement to it. Or you could instantiate it across your client's online properties, and they could be acquired by a holding company that forces a complete rebrand. The list of possible ways that your perfect logo could be violated is endless.

So, perhaps what I'm saying is this: Our clients and peers may judge our output as the measure of our effectiveness as designers, but what most satisfies us creatively may come from a greater breadth of exploration through the process. We will never have enough time for an eternity of pencil sketches, so we need to learn to best use what time we do have, at the appropriate points in the process.

What kind of form does this knowledge take, if we never have a chance to fully realize the design iterations we've been considering? Whatever form it needs to in our physical world, except unvocalized thoughts blown away in a hot summer wind.

Without a mirror to hold our mind up to, we cannot effectively reflect upon what we create.

This Week's Challenge: Realpolitik

Every designer needs to have a clear ethical stance toward the client projects that they’ll take on. Many designers would rather not help sell industrial-grade weaponry or promote industries that may not contribute a net-positive benefit for society. However, designers often don’t know their own boundaries with clarity until they’re offered what seems to be a plum project, only to realize as they dig into the client problem that the end result runs counter to their beliefs.

The following challenge will help you better understand the slippery slope that all designers face when taking on a client problem that may not align with their personal politics. Two or more designers can fulfill it in 60 minutes.

Part 1: Write down on a slip of paper three products that, for ethical or political considerations, you just can’t bring yourself to take on as a client. Trade lists with another designer. Choose one product from their list and sketch the most compelling, polished billboard design you can muster promoting that product.

Part 2: You are now a key decision maker representing one of the products you would never take on as a client. The designer that created a billboard for your company must give a three-point presentation as to why their design will meet your product’s needs in the marketplace. You will be allowed to ask three questions regarding their work, press-conference style, in order to better understand the ethical stance they are taking with regard to said product. Then you must trade places with the other designer, and present your billboard concept to them—while they play-act being your client.

If you'd like to take it further, when time is up, create a poster that you’ll keep in your studio that outlines your personal policies towards the kinds of work you’d like to do in the future—and the kind that you should always decline.

The image shown above is from's "13 Most Evil Vintage Ads in History."

Want more challenges? The first 24 pages of Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills are available free on Scribd. Or snag your copy of Creative Workshop from