Collaboration in Design

Published: 17 August, 2017

Categories: General

Collaboration in Design

Design briefs have become increasingly complex. As a result, collaboration in design has never been more important (Deakin, n.d). Collaborative designers need to practice humility, must learn to trust others, and see the value of different perspectives. While this may seem like a lot of soul-baring and -searching, it’s worthwhile to remember that collaboration produces better results: solutions that won’t exist without the help of others.

Here are three types of collaboration that designers could engage in.

Collaborate with different creative disciplines

Steven Johnson’s video explains this well as the collision of “half ideas” from others to create something greater than disparate “slow hunches” (Johnson, 2010). As he justifies, this is historically “… why the coffee houses in the Age of Enlightenment, or the Parisian salons of Modernism were such engines of creativity, because they created a space where ideas could mingle and swop.” (Johnson, 2010). Perhaps we should take a page from history and dedicate more time talking about design practice over flat whites (who needs convincing?).

Beyond coffee shops, the Internet has become a tool for virtual collaboration. Hit Record is a great example of this. The organization, founded by actor/director Joseph Gordon Levitt, connects creative through briefs designed for co-creation through collaboration. These briefs could be seen as “passion projects” for when industry becomes a bore. But Hit Record showcases stories of the value for collaborating in this way – bringing together the “half ideas” to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

Collaborate with peers

The classroom is a great place for sharing ideas and resources, and therefore a great place for collaboration (AIGA DEC, 2013). There’s much to learn from research about the benefits of collaboration in design education (Poggenpohl and Sato, 2009; Carstens, 2015; Chmela-Jones 2013, 2015).

We’ve already discussed the benefits of collaborating with other creatives, so it seems obvious that design classrooms should focus on collaborative group reviews of work-in-progress on design projects. This gives students a space to practice for the real world and benefit from the input of their peers (not to mention the endless learning opportunities). Learning to collaborate in the safe space of the classroom sets students up for success in the industry.

Collaborate with the client

We’ve heard it before: the client is king. But then students may wonder: what are we studying for? We’re in a time when designers need to use their knowledge and professional practice to collaborate with clients.

I’m a big fan of Netflix. One of their more serious productions – and no less entertaining – is a documentary series called Abstract: The Art of Design. Episode 2 explores the 23-year collaboration on Nike Air Jordan between Tinker Hatfield and Michael Jordan (Netflix, 2017). The voyeuristic look at the process of creating the successful sneaker range is extremely satisfying, and shows how the designer truly needs the input of the client to fully realize a product.

Whether designers work with one client, or with large groups of stakeholders, collaboration remains important (Steely, n.d). Designers working with the latter will, however, want to avoid the ‘design-by-committee’ trap. While it’s important to collaborate with the stakeholders, designers also need to learn how to gradually reduce their input in the interest of moving forward with projects – see the article by Riddle and Treder (n.d).

There are many useful tools to guide collaboration, like the Human Centered Design model by IDEO (Design Kit, n.d), or the principles of Participatory Design (Armstrong and Stojmirovic, 2017). Whatever is used, the focus should always remain on producing results that integrate the perspectives of the client and/or stakeholders, not merely what is pleasing to the designer.

Is collaboration for you?

If you’re still wondering about this, you need to take a dive in the ocean of research on collaboration in design. We’ve only been “skimming stones”…


AIGA DEC (American Institute of Graphic Arts Design Educators Community). (2013). Collaboration, interaction, participation: a panel on participatory art and design. Retrieved July 26, 2017, from http://educators.aiga.org/collaboration-interaction-participation-a-panel-of-participatory-art-and-design/

Armstrong, H. and Stojmirovic, Z. (2017). Participate: design with user-generated content. Retrieved July 26, 2017, from http://www.participatorydesign.site/

Carstens, L. (2015). Towards human-centered desifn solutions: stakeholder participation during brief development. In 2015 DEFSA Conference Proceedings, 2-3 September 2015 (pp. 34-42). Johannesburg, South Africa: Midrand Graduate Institute, Midrand. Retreived July 26, 2017, from http://www.defsa.org.za/sites/default/files/downloads/2015conference/CARSTENS%20Lizette.pdf

Chmela-Jones, K. (2013). Democratising graphic design: the role of human-centred practice within communication design projects. In 2013 DEFSA Conference Proceedings, September 2013 (pp. 34-42). Vanderbijlpark, South Africa: Vaal University of Technology. Retreived July 26, 2017, from http://www.defsa.org.za/sites/default/files/downloads/2013conference/K%20Chmela-Jones%202013%20DEFSA.pdf

Chmela-Jones, K. (2015). The ethics of Ubuntu and community participation in design. In 2015 DEFSA Conference Proceedings, 2-3 September 2015 (pp. 34-42). Johannesburg, South Africa: Midrand Graduate Institute, Midrand. Retreived July 26, 2017, from http://www.defsa.org.za/sites/default/files/downloads/2015conference/CHMELA-JONES%20Kate.pdf

Deakin, F. (n.d). Paradigm shifts in the design industry. Retrieved July 26, 2017, from http://www.defsa.org.za/articles/paradigm-shifts-design

Design Kit. (n.d). What is Human-Centered Design? Retrieved July 26, 2017, from http://www.designkit.org/human-centered-design

Johnson, S. (2010, September 17). Where good ideas come from by Steven Johnson [Video file]. Retrieved July 26, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NugRZGDbPFU&feature=youtu.be

Hit Record. (n.d). Retrieved July 26, 2017, from https://www.hitrecord.org/

Netflix. (2017). Abstract: the art of design. Retrieved July 26, 2017, from https://www.netflix.com/za/title/80057883

Poggenpohl, S. and Sato, K. (2009). Design integrations: research and collaboration (eBook). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Riddle, R. T., and Treder, M. (n.d). The right way to do collaborative design: how to avoid designing by committee. Retrieved July 26, 2017, from http://99u.com/articles/51643/the-right-way-to-do-collaborative-design-how-to-avoid-designing-by-committee

Salonen, E. (n.d). A designer’s guide to collaboration. Retrieved July 26, 2017, from http://www.designingcollaboration.com/

Steely, J. (n.d). Design feedback made simple: 4 steps to better collaboration. Retrieved July 26, 2017, from http://www.aiga.org/dont-fear-design-feedback-team-collaboration 

Chantelle Warburton is a Graphic Design lecturer at Inscape Durban. She recently submitted her Masters degree thesis – a study that focused on reflection in blended learning for graphic design. Her passion for design practice is applied to the work she does at Studio Warburton with her husband, Hylton.