10 ways collaborations won’t work … 10 ways to make them work for you

collaborate lede

[Marshall Rake] Whether you’re fresh out of school or a professional with years of experience, at some point you’ve collaborated. And if you’re anything like me, half of those collaborations failed miserably. The good ones produce the best work of your career. The bad ones keep you up at night questioning your choice of profession. Here are 10 pitfalls that can cause collaborations to fail … and more to the point, how to use them to make your collaboration succeed.

This essay is adapted from Terry Lee Stone’s two-book series, Managing the Design ProcessConcept Development and Implementing Design.

1. Ego
If you are the more talented designer in the collaboration, keep your ego in check and get other people involved. Collaborations succeed only when all involved are feeding off each other. If none of you has anything to offer the other, there is no reason to be partners.

2. Differing interpretations
Every designer brings a frame of reference to the brief. Make sure you take the time to go over client and project goals. Put the discussion in writing — it’s always good to have something physical to refer to if and when differences mount up. This can be a squabble solver.

They magazine is a serial publication, a collaboration between Marshall Rake and Azita Rasoli — an examination and repurposing of everyday life.

3. Poison project
Sometimes it’s not your fault. Sometimes all you can do is make something bad a little better. And it may be that if you do that, you’ve done your job. You won’t win any awards, but you’ll make some logo for some small coffee shop in some small town just a tiny bit better.

4. Unfamiliar relationship
Collaboration is just like any other relationship in your life. Just because you have seen someone’s portfolio doesn’t mean you know them. Your project may have a three-week deadline … and the pieces in the portfolio may have taken three months to complete. Understand your partner’s work, not just the glossy portfolio.

5. Work habits
You know how you work; you like how you work. You are a diligent designer, you labor mightily, and you stay focused. Your partner relies on Hail Marys and all-nighters. A collaboration is a short-term marriage. Make it work!

Adjust to your partner’s schedule. You may have to sacrifice some of your habits for the good of the project.

6. Work plans
Your place or mine? Early or late? What exactly is early? It’s hard enough to keep to your schedule. Now you have to balance two.

It’s not always necessary to work in the same room — but when starting a project, it’s helpful to physically work together to establish the relationship. Once you’re both on the same page, feel free to work on your own — but don’t overlook the importance of checking in face to face regularly.

Rake collaborated on this installation in Sweden. It was a 2009 Adobe Design Achievement Awards semi-finalist.

7. Designer-to-client relations
Designers are in the people business, and communication with clients can make or break a project. Handle clients well, they’ll begin to trust you, and the project will become infinitely more enjoyable.

Pick one collaborator to communicate with the client. Work as a united front. Send all client e-mails from one account; place all phone calls from one number. Keep it simple. Don’t confuse the client.

8. Inhibition
Speak up. If you have a good idea, let your partner know. Don’t fear rejection. If you’re unhappy with how the project is turning out and don’t speak out, you only have yourself to blame. It is your project, too — you have to like it.

This newsprint publication (above and below) contains the whole novel, The People of Paper — a collaboration by Rake with five designers.

9. Base knowledge
We haven’t all attended the same school, looked at the same books, or had the same software and professional training. Don’t assume everyone understands things the way you do; in fact, assume no one else knows exactly what you know. You might have to explain things to your partner … and you might need some things explained to you.

Be patient, and if you don’t know, ask.

10. Communication
You can avoid all of the previous issues by doing one simple but difficult thing: communicating. Be open and upfront. If everyone involved knows exactly what is going on and exactly what needs to be done, the collaboration will be enjoyable and fruitful.

The next time you start a brand-new collaboration, keep these things in mind, and you could come out a little happier, and a little richer.

Marshall Rake is a graphic designer and writer based in Los Angeles.

Terry Lee Stone is based in Los Angeles and specializes in the management of creative people, projects and processes. The author of several books on design, her recent two-volume series is Managing The Design Process, published by Rockport Publishers. Buy her books here or from your favorite local bookseller.

Header graphic by AdamsMorioka. This text is excerpted from the book Managing the Design Process: Implementing Design.


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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by Cian on 07.19.11 at 11:05 am

    Thoughtful, sober words… and stuff hard to remember in the heat of creative fire

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