How to collaborate: The creative & the practical

10 minute read

To many people, Collaboration is nothing more than a buzzword. Some hear it and think innovation and open-minded exchanges, while others envision stale boardrooms and ‘blue sky thinking’.I see collaboration as the natural first step of the creative process. Not all projects call for, or can accommodate, a phase of creative exploration and exchange. It’s a matter of the known objective vs. the yet to be defined.

Collaboration will be as successful and fruitful as you want it to be. Simple.

It requires a handful of things to get off the ground, mainly a suitable environment and a bunch of open-minded folk. There’s a heap of tools and resources out there that take collaboration to a new level and gift it the value and significance it merits.

The act and meaning of collaboration has changed. How people interact and share has redefined the creative process itself, as well as the roles of collaborators and the milestones of a project.

Technology has come to play an integral role in widening the scope and definition of collaboration. Distance, time and limited resources haven’t stood in the way of developing ideas. Platforms for sharing and communication, such as group video calling, and online note-making or content sharing platforms have become part of our everyday, and are used as prominently as email or Twitter.

In short: collaboration has become less of a ‘step’ and more of a medium in itself.

New process, new thinking

Over the years as a copywriter I’ve seen a million and one ways of working a project. Every agency, start-up, individual and company do things in their own way, good or bad.

Start-ups often have smaller budgets, fragmented teams and no concept of traditional working hours - I love it.

With many agencies reluctantly tied up in the politics of budgets, timelines and restricted resources, it definitely appears that the most proficient collaborators have become the less institutionalised start-ups.

Collaboration flourishes when there is a willingness to embrace new practices and thinking. Many agencies have a commitment to their long established processes. Forged as a mark of consistency, these processes often restrict fresh perspectives and fail to see each project for the unique collaborative opportunity they present. Essentially, they can be stuck in their ways.

Free from the traditional, agency-imposed boxes to be ticked, start-ups can be in an envied creative position. However, the success of a collaboration is reliant upon integrating it into every stage of the project’s development, a process based less on creativity and more on introducing the right talent to the right tools.In my experience, collaboration is essentially;

  • Fostering a positive collective attitude.
  • Encouraging a new acceptance of ‘process’.
  • Remaining enthusiastic and curious about new tools and technology.

All features and traits that any organisation could adopt.

Attitude: The Good the Bad and the Realistic

When you think start-ups and attitude, a lot of folk think giddy enthusiasm and creative freedom. As much as positivity is key, it’s the temporary acceptance and attitude towards failure that sets the good ideas apart from the bad.

The Good

Collaboration is pretty much possibility. You’d think this freedom would require the most natural of attitudes, but remaining open-minded and free of competitive spirit can go against what freelancers instinctively behave like.

Collaboration is entrepreneurial at heart. It is driven, focused and looks to do what hasn’t been done before. It may seem like a process more fitting to an individual than a collective of free-thinkers and varied experts.The reason why this collaboration works - a dedicated attitude to Conversation.

The team at the Dubberly Design Office state:

‘The creative process involves many conversations—about goals and actions to achieve them—conversations with co-creators and colleagues, conversations with oneself. The participants and their language, experience, and values affect the conversations’.

Their ‘Model of the creative process’ illustrates that conversation determines the big and the small. No topic or idea is off the books, it’s all there, in the open and up for discussion. These conversations affect every outcome, each one building on the foundation of the idea.

How to make Conversation part of your process

Don’t type. Talk, live.The best ideas come to life thanks to instant feedback, thinking too much can kill the essence of the idea itself. Let your mouth run at the speed of thought. What you may deem as ridiculous and insignificant, someone else may see as gold.

Get the whole team involved at every stage, regardless of their role. The more people feel valued, the better their input will be.Conversations aren’t perfect, they don’t need to be.

Tools: There are a ridiculous amount of tools available that allow teams to connect live online.

Being fragmented and seas apart doesn’t mean you can’t connect and chat at any time. Whether you are a start-up or part of an agency team, the act of conversing itself is about giving every member the freedom and space to voice their opinion.

The Bad

Where there is conversation, there will be criticism.A culture of criticism means the exchange of honest thoughts and productive opinions is encouraged and holds a valuable weight.This attitude towards criticism redefines the meaning of the word itself. Criticism is seen more as growth, a phase where an idea may not be formed completely and is adopted and nurtured by the entire team. Ownership and the urge to be proven right aren’t given priority, there’s little room for the unproductivity of egos.

Regardless of source, each idea or thought sparks a series of new ones, branching out and exploring fresh perspectives and concepts.

How to welcome Criticism

Aside from attitude, the other thing you will need is a space to share and view notes.You need to have an adequate platform that encourages comment and can record daily musings and notes.These records are not just about creating the new. They hold past thinkings and angles that may have not been ideal then, but will most definitely be of use in the future.

Collaboration lives in a state of constant development so logging everything as it happens is an investment in the future.

Tools: Weaving this ‘logging’ into your everyday routine not only benefits the team at a whole, but yourself too. Tracking trains of thought can help you visually observe how you approached an idea, and offer new ways of getting hands-on with a concept.

The Realistic

Ideas fail and concepts lose their relevance, this happens everyday.One of the reasons why start-ups progress and move so rapidly is that speed tests the stealth of the idea itself. It is tirelessly workshopped, re-approached and innovated to ensure it has appeal and a real place in the market. Momentary failure is part of this process.Constant idea research and generation is hard work. People run out of inspiration, become sick to death of a concept or lack the knowledge to turn the initial spark into a workable project. Before I write one word I research. My ideas, knowledge and focus come from research and knowing my subject inside and out. Idea generation and market research are no different.How can you be sure your website, product or app will be successful or even needed if you haven’t studied who will use it, or what already exists?

How to revolutionise Researching

You don’t need to spend hours digging through jargon-filled consumer reports or bulk emailing potential targets. Researching is as much about what you don’t find as what you do.Don’t limit your research to one practice. Get off the internet and talk to local creatives and peers, check out what educational studies may be in the pipeline by contacting industry experts and institutions.

If you do use the web, find a way that works for you. There’s apps aplenty out there that make research thorough and easy, and enable it to be as simple and addictive as hopping on Twitter.

Tools: Your phone or ipad can be invaluable for sourcing and storing your findings. I’m a stickler for writing by hand, a habit and a hassle, so get into the best routines from the start.Categorise as you go and make sure what you find can be easily shared.

Process - From the Brief to the Boss

I’d argue that collaboration adds a natural structure to this less traditional creative process.

In fact, the entire generation and development of ideas and concepts is a back and forth of problems, solutions and honing - a fat-trimmed alternative to the industry hoops many companies find themselves having to jump through.Many agencies out there recognise that structure and constant exchange is an integral part of the collaborative process, and many facilitate this by creating their own methods of encouraging this back and forth.

One such agency is Cooper Design - San Francisco-based Design & Strategy firm.‘Better together; the practice of successful creative collaboration’ is a peek into the ethos of Cooper Design.

They have observed how the industry praises the individual and neglects the ideas of teams, or pairs, in the creative sphere.

Cooper note that,

‘Many of the ways we talk about creative work only capture the brilliance of a single individual. But creativity also thrives on diversity, tension, sharing, and collaboration. Two (or more) creative people can leverage these benefits if they play well together. Cooper’s pair-design practice matured over more than a decade, and continues to evolve as we grow, form new pairs, and learn from each other every day. While no magic formula exists, all of our most successful partnerships to date share remarkably similar characteristics’.

They model their collaborative partnerships and team dynamics on ‘Foundations, Grounding Principles and Practices’, matching these customised creatives based on similar characteristics and ways of thinking.The What (brief), Where (environment) and How (collaborators) of a lot of companies lifecycles are often in a state of flux. Getting results and meeting objectives isn’t about ticking boxes, it’s about finding the most inventive and innovative ways of hitting the target.

How to build on a brief

A brief is a mysterious thing. Some of the briefs I’ve received have consisted of pages and pages of scribbles and hand-drawn sitemaps, some a two line paragraph and others just a name.

When you sign up to be a part of a collaborative process, you accept and embrace the madness.

One of the hardest things you have to do is pick the perfect team. Like-minded, independently specialised and open are all key attributes.

The brief is as unfinished and open-ended as the project itself is, merely because collaboration is actively encouraged. After all, what is collaboration if not a process of collectively filling in the blanks.Before a collaborator can do their job, they need the right info. Simply sending nothing is not acceptable. You do need to be flexible in your demands, especially at an early stage of a project, but hold steady in requests for the basics.

For me, as a freelancer, I find putting together my own brief helps my personal understanding and gets me thinking from the off. Being able to easily share and access files and docs is a huge part of the collaboration process.

Tools: Correlating and sharing info, thoughts, scribbles or contracts needs to be standard practice between all collaborators.There’s a whole host of file sharing platforms and software out there.

The redefinition of the creative process has had a knock-on effect on it’s associated terms and practices. ‘Teamwork’ and ‘brainstorming’ conjure up all kinds of aged connotations of strip-lighting and trust exercises, these are no longer an accurate representation of the collaborative process.

Although these elements are still very much present, they have been reimagined and reimplemented to offer a real creative and functional value. Popplet for example is a fun, smart and simple way of displaying and working on ideas - brainstorming.

Moulding these ideas into workable content is a challenge, but one that can be aided by the structure and categorisation of the content itself. Gaps present themselves and common themes appear urging fellow collaborators to jump in and get to work.

Online and off, collaboration, especially that which is focused on content, is being made easier and more efficient.

The act of collaboration

Talking, honing and presenting aside, the actual act of collaboration needs to be facilitated by best-of-breed products and tools.

The ‘tools’ aren’t always of the technological realm. Stripping back the act of collaboration can often bring existing components to the forefront. Freelancing can be less of a status and more of a tool for those looking to champion collaboration.

Freelancers often pick their projects just as much for the challenge as for the financial gain. By tapping into this wealth of speciality and flexibility, the act of collaboration is continually enriched and ever-changing.

Young & Viral, a London-based Collaborative Agency, have taken this observation a step further and formed an agency that consists solely of freelancers.In the design industry, freelancers often collaborate with one another to extend their skill base and draw on others expertise. Drawing on the skills of all their freelancers they are able to offer the full media agency package.

They ‘believe in collaboration, in fact it’s in our DNA. We see collaboration as an obvious way of getting things done, and as a driver of creativity’.

With freelancing on the rise, collaboration is a great means of ensuring that all creatives implement teamwork into their problem solving. Many have seen collaboration as a new means of establishing a business, and see freelancers as the greatest advocates of collaborative working.

This collaborative working is a process that can move fast and generate a lot of results and content. Planning, structuring, requesting and sharing potential content doesn’t need to be the cumbersome, lengthy conclusion to the creative process. It can be an insightful and valuable as every other step.

Tools: From presenting and collection to storing and sharing, these tools make the technicalities of collaboration a breeze. More than just tools for organisation, these apps and software give emphasis to the quality of the content and the role it plays.

Role of Collaborators - Jack of all trades, master of the lot

Regardless of creative scope, setting goals and objectives is key.Collaboration and the development of ideas could go on indefinitely so as footloose and fancy-free as collaboration may seem, it is a carefully monitored and focused endeavour. As with all projects, there needs to be some level of management.The roles of collaborators can be a fluid thing. Some of the smaller start-ups I’ve worked with have encouraged all involved to get stuck in and be an overall pair of hands. This all hands on deck approach is nothing if not good for morale.The times that I have offered above and beyond my fee, are the times I had a rare opportunity to learn something brand new from a true expert.

How to manage the process

The best project managers are invisible. They quietly facilitate and motivate, getting the best from the team they have.Nick Lovegrove and Matthew Thomas (2013) discuss ‘Collaborative Leadership’ and found six distinguishing characteristics;

  • Balanced motivations. A desire to create public value.
  • Transferable skills. A set of distinctive skills.
  • Contextual intelligence. A deep empathy of the differences between language, culture and key performance indicators.
  • Integrated networks. A set of relationships across sectors to draw on when advancing their careers, building top teams, or convening decision-makers on a particular issue.
  • Prepared mind. A willingness to pursue an unconventional career that zigzags, and the financial readiness to take potential pay cuts from time to time.
  • Intellectual thread. Holistic subject matter expertise on a particular issue by understanding it from every perspective.

Tools: The role of a leader in collaboration can be somewhat overlooked. Effective project management requires a load of plate spinning as well as the ability to always see the bigger picture. Sharing credit, simplifying the complex and balancing strategy and creativity are no easy tasks.Any applications or resources that aid in task-mastering and project management are highly valued, and there are some beautifully designed, simple to use examples out there.

The Future of Collaboration

The evolution of the art of collaboration rests on the shoulders of agencies.It will always be part of the start-up frame of mind, but collaboration as a viable creative medium in itself needs to be better adopted by the design studios, marketing firms and creative institutions.

Read next: Learn how Leicester City Council use GatherContent for content collaboration.

Collaboration is an attitude, a new understanding of ‘process’ and a hunger for new technology and tools. It is a creative dialogue that distils traditional practices such as the noble brainstorm, down to their purest form - conversation.Regardless of budget, timeframe or politics, the principles that form the basis of collaboration can re-homed and personalised by organisations of any shape or form.


Content Project Brief

A template to help you plan for and ensure your content projects are successful.

About the author

Nic Evans

Nic is a freelance copywriter based in Glasgow; she believes that no matter what the medium, brief or platform, using the perfect words in the best possible way can create a story, a natural communication between people, their ideas and the rest of the world. You can learn more about Nic over on her [beautiful] website, and you can also follow her on Twitter.

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