Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Why Collaborate?

Essay, 2005.

“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 fifteen 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 “insure 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, Web sites, 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 Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), we have been actively pursuing group projects at the graduate program over the past two years (http://www.micadesign.org). One is called BUY*PRODUCT, where 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 in London (http://www.dependence-daze.com/dependencedaze.html).

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 (http://www.wildluv.com/). 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.