Collaboration and Conversation



Written by Russell Shaw

Published on March 22, 2013

Last Edited on June 06, 2014



Forty to fifty years ago – a short timespan relative to the history of graphic design – a firm would hire a host of individuals to execute a campaign, each person carrying out one specific task that all added up to the final product.


There was the illustrator, the photographer, the letterer and typographer; these were all separate from the logo designer, the graphic designer, the typesetter, the layout designer, the production designer and the prepress designer – and all of these operating under the art director’s supervision, to produce the concept of the creative director. The idea that one designer would be expected to typeset an editorial, design its layout, illustrate its content, incorporate graphics and photography, and prepare it for print and circulation would be unique and unexpected, to say the least.

The number of individuals involved in the production of design has lessened over time. While large firms still employ individuals to perform specific functions for a campaign, the prevalence of information and technology – as well as the necessity for efficiency and smaller teams due to economic concerns – has created more and more creatives who wear multiple hats throughout the process of making. Even in firms and studios, it is entirely normal now for one designer to be expected to typeset, design the layout, concept and execute graphics, and insure quality print production. As more and more designers enter freelance positions, we are beginning to see individuals who span even broader spectra of the creative industry. Jessica Hische has noted the rise of a new class of creatives that she termed “designistrators” – individuals who might letter a project, illustrate custom artwork, and bring everything together for the final design. The lines of specialties in design will likely continue to blur.

As an aside, we can see this happening in many other professions within the creative industry as well. The director is also the writer, and the photographer, and the producer, and maybe even the actor. The guitarist may now also sample herself playing the piano, mix and master it all in Logic on her own – maybe even produce and release it on a site that she maintains by herself.

There is a lot of value to selecting certain creative pursuits to focus on rather than chasing them all – the argument for a specialist who is great at few things over a jack-of-all-trade who is mediocre at them all. But a lot of other people have already talked about this so I won’t waste much time on it here.

Instead, I want to make a point from a different angle: the importance of collaboration in the profession. Collaboration forces us to express our ideas to other people so they can contribute to the end result. There is an incredibly valuable process that happens when we have to explain our ideas to someone else. It makes us dig deeper, think harder, and figure out how to communicate more effectively. Because design is visual communication, the more that we have to communicate the idea to others on the front end in collaboration, the better we will understand how to communicate it through design in the final product. When we ideate and create in isolation, the concept may seem clearer to us than when we are required to hash it out with a colleague. We may never know how complicated an idea really is until we have to really break it down for someone that we want to help us build it; or, to put it even more bluntly, we may never know how truly stupid an idea is until we have to communicate it fully to someone else.

Conversations in collaborative relationships make us dive deeper into an idea than we might otherwise go. As someone who might identify all too well with Hische’s “designistrator” terminology, I have many opportunities to work on something for a client that doesn’t require involving anyone else at all. But I am trying to fight this. As I look back over the body of work that I’ve built in just a few years, I can already pick out stronger and weaker designs that I have made and, more often than not, the strongest pieces of the lot exist because I built a community of people around them during the process of creation. I had to explain the concept to someone who I wanted to help me build it. And when I did, the person offered up points of concern that were in my blind spot, or used their unique perspective to contribute additional ideas that I never could have come up with on my own. As we build teams around projects, we exponentially increase the creative potential of the finished product with each fresh voice added to the process (there is, of course, a breaking point for this, where keeping teams small enough for an open and inviting environment is important).

It is possible for one individual to perform many design functions on a project all in one day without outside influence. But when we involve others, we force ourselves to really work through our ideas in collaborative conversation – exposing weak points, and opening doors for entirely new ideas. The result will be projects and campaigns that are stronger than we ever could have dreamed of on our own.



“Because design is visual communication, the more that we have to communicate the idea to others on the front end in collaboration, the better we will understand how to communicate it through design in the final product.”