Thoughts on collaboration

As a graduate student, a lot of emphasis is placed on the idea of collaboration. There are studios where students are required to partner up or form groups, to design together, to manage the workload of the studio better, and to instill in the students the notion that collaboration is a worthwhile and necessary aspect of the profession.

I personally have struggled with projects where teams were required.  The interpersonal dynamics of group settings in which design decisions must be made by consensus has seemed daunting.  Of course, good ideas should not be diminished simply because they are the product of an individual instead of the group, but what is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ design idea is sometimes a hard conclusion to draw consensus on.  Collaboration can become  synonymous with gridlock, diminished designs, unpleasant compromise, and in a way, bureaucracy.

I know that it is cliché in architecture to reference ‘The Fountainhead’ but I’m going to do it anyway. Ayn Rand didn’t do much for the notion of architects as collaborators with her main character, architect Howard Roark. She reinforced the image of the architect as the iconoclast, the solitary figure in the tower wrestling with concepts, the individual who would eventually emerge with the genius solution that resolves all problems.

This oversimplified and perhaps impossibly individualist personification of the profession may be easily rejected, but true, effective, and valuable collaboration still remains elusive at times.  One of the most valuable lessons I may learn from my graduate studies is to adopt a productive and open attitude toward collaboration. I still seek to advocate for my own ideas, and the ideas of others that I feel produce the best design, however, once that seed is planted, it can grow much faster and further if it is discussed with others. Depending on the project, these others can be friends, paid consultants, or other design professionals. It doesn’t matter who they are, the point is that they are hearing about the project and then adding their own take on the idea or ideas behind the design.

This is a shift in how I have viewed collaboration in the past.  Collaboration has, for me, become less about consensus and appeasing the group and more about supporting an idea. I have actually had projects where the initial idea, while decent, didn’t end up driving the project. Along the way, through discussion, another idea was turned up, one that incorporated the initial concept along with addressing other challenges unique to the project. The end result, while started by the initial idea from the designer, is more a product of the thoughts, and comments of everyone involved than the work of an individual.

This shift has resulted in a new willingness on my part to expose my ideas to others; friends, family, designers, whoever wants to talk about it. Instead of having to rely on just my own ideas, I am now able to harness the creativity of anyone who wants to talk.

In the end, perhaps collaboration is just honest communication. It’s just a conversation about ideas between two interested parties. When it’s defined that way, the design process becomes that much more approachable.  And I would wager that a truly collaborative design process will only benefit a designer’s clients and ultimately the public engaging with and utilizing the designer’s work.

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