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I'd love to collaborate, as long as I can work alone.” I often have felt
that way about collaboration. Sure, it’s a great idea, as long as it
doesn’t violate my personal work schedule or on my sense of control and
authorship. I have been a museum curator for nearly 15 years, so I am
familiar with both the pleasures and pains of collaborating. It’s a joy
to work on a team whose members have clearly defined roles and
distinctive skill sets. It can be frustrating, however, when a few
people are doing the heavy lifting and the others are there only to
“ensure consensus” or “weigh in” on concepts. A museum exhibition, like a
Hollywood film, can’t be produced by one person; everyone involved must
learn to get along (curators, educators, designers, editors,
fundraisers and so on).
The situation is different in school, where each student is a paying
customer and the overall goal is the education of individuals rather
than the production of large-scale projects. In my own experiences as a
student, I have enjoyed voluntary, informal collaborations with my
friends, but I have resented being forced into arbitrary, mismatched
teams in the name of social correctness.
Students create social networks in school that can last a lifetime. The
people you hang out with are a source of artistic inspiration, healthy
competition and informal education that could be more important than
what you officially learn in class. You can work with your schoolmates
to create magazines, websites and events that will bring together even
more people, yielding an organic, underground design community. (That’s
how AIGA started way back in 1914.) Working with a group, you can take
on freelance projects that might be too big to pursue alone, and, after
you graduate, your collaborators can continue to provide a network of
support or even the basis of an independent business.
I was struck, recently, by an article in Surface magazine about
hot young architects. I was impressed not just by their work, but by
the fact that many of the firms mentioned in the piece—such as Free
Cell, SHOP, and Open Office—are teams of younger designers who have come
together to pool their skills, their financial resources and their
social connections. Architecture, even more than graphic design, is a
notoriously difficult field in which to make a name for one’s self, and
these emerging designers have succeeded in winning important commissions
and getting their work seen by the larger community. They are also,
presumably, making a living, while working outside the established
system of single-name firms and big corporate offices.
At (MICA), we have been actively pursuing group projects at the
graduate program over the past two years. One is called BUY*PRODUCT, in
which each student develops an original product (t-shirts, stationery,
housewares, fashion items), while the whole group works together to
promote and organize events where we offer these goods for sale. The
students have invested their own labor and creativity into their own
products, but they each know that the success of the overall undertaking
relies on teamwork. This past year, our graduate students and faculty
wrote a book together (D.I.Y: Design It Yourself, forthcoming
in Fall 2005 from Princeton Architectural Press). Again, the project
worked because the students had a degree of individual ownership over
their parts of the book, as well as a commitment to the coherence of the
overall project. Other projects include a trans-Atlantic collaboration
with students at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design in London.
Successful collaborations are like democracy writ small. Members of a
civil society expect to have individual freedoms and opportunities, but
in order to exercise and protect those rights, they need to participate
in the larger social system. Some people believe that such civil
behavior is in danger of disappearing in contemporary American life.
Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
(2000) looks at how the interests of the individual have been replacing
team efforts in everything from the organization of neighborhoods to
how people use bowling alleys (where the “league” once held sway and
individual play has taken over).
Collaboration isn’t just for kids. Design world legends Lorraine Wild,
Louise Sandhaus and Rick Valicenti recently formed the trans-continental
partnership Wild LuV,
which is allowing them to work together and tackle big commissions that
draw on all of their talents. Collaboration is becoming more important
across many fields of creative work, and I expect to see more of it
happening with the rising generations of graphic designers. In response
to this article, I’d love to hear about successful (and unsuccessful)
attempts at collaboration, and the role of social networks in the
emerging design practices of today.
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