“We have found that when putting together teams of strangers who attend our workshops, the methods of storytelling and literally acting out design solutions helps people break down the social barriers that are often a natural hindrance to successful collaboration.”—Katherine McCoy

Katherine + Michael McCoy, High Ground Design / Buena Vista CO

“we have found that when putting together teams of strangers who attend our workshops, the methods of storytelling and literally acting out design solutions helps people break down the social barriers that are often a natural hindrance to successful collaboration.”—katherine mccoy

How has collaboration in education changed over the years?
Katherine: The National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) set standards for communication design and industrial design. They just rewrote their standards this past year, and it includes a larger emphasis on collaboration. I am one of their trained “accreditors” for site visits, and we have to use those standards. NASAD recognizes that design is becoming more complex, and collaboration is a necessary method of working. Projects are becoming very large and span many different disciplines, so teaching students collaborative techniques is an essential part of design education these days.

Michael: What’s interesting to me is, within industrial design and product manufacturing, it has always been a collaborative process, whether people want to admit it or not. But if they admitted that it is a collaboration, then they’d be able to use tools and methods to enhance it, rather than make it painful.

How do you teach collaboration?
Michael: In studio courses, selecting the right project is important. If you want students to engage in a project that involves collaboration, teachers have to give students a project that is complex enough where they actually need each other’s skills and insights. Ergo, a single logo probably isn’t the best type of project. It’s really about understanding the moving parts of a project, and what points require different skills. Then students have to initially agree on a theme, philosophy, and approach. Along the way, everyone can do their own thing at the appropriate moment. Eventually it comes back together and fits as a whole, as opposed to having fragmented, disassembled parts. So the choice of the project, and the way that it is worded, is quite important. From the beginning, students should pretty much understand that they really need each other, and that they won’t be doing identical things. Each student brings something different to the table. Over the past 20 years, Kathy and I have really focused on storytelling and narratives as a way to get everybody involved in collaboration.

Katherine: These are some methods that ease and stimulate the collaborative process. Storytelling, for instance, is a technique that we have used. Over the past ten years, we have been conducting studio workshops and studio conferences that teach collaborative techniques. We call them the High Ground Design Workshops. In doing so, we have found that when putting together teams of strangers who attend our workshops, the methods of storytelling and literally acting out design solutions helps people break down the social barriers that are often a natural hinderance to successful collaboration. Especially in the early stages of a collaboration, storytelling is an excellent idea generator and collaboration method. It helps people who are working across groups with diverse skills and personalities, because everybody knows how to tell stories. Storytelling is one of the earliest skills that people learn because stories are told to them, and read to them, from the time that they are little babies. Storytelling is such an integral part of human development and culture, and it’s a technique that everybody understands.

Michael: I find it’s a problem, especially with complex industrial design projects. Engineers, designers, and financial people are pulled into that first meeting, and everyone is nervous because they speak a different disciplinary language. Everybody is unfamiliar and doesn’t know how to talk to one another. Storytelling is a good way of getting a group to function together.

What are people’s reasons for coming to the Higher Ground Design Workshops?
Michael: A lot of them are people who work on teams in organizations or corporations. They usually have to produce some kind of product or service and are looking for better ways of being able to do that. They want an outcome that is coherent and powerful. A poor collaborative team has multiple voices tugging in different directions, so our guests want to learn how to work better as a whole, while not succumbing to that unfortunate design-by-committee phenomena. The worst kind of collaboration is one that’s really bland because everyone beats each other up to the point where everyone just says, “Okay we give up.”

Katherine: Yeah, it’s like that phrase, “A camel is a horse designed by committee.” Fortunately, the business world has really discovered design thinking in recent years. One of the key elements of design thinking is conceptual synergy, and that is the result of successful collaboration. And so we find that many of our workshop participants are not designers. We find people that are interested in learning the tools that help collaboration. We think it’s important for these groups to learn how to flatten out their hierarchy.

What are your thoughts on co-teaching?
Katherine: You’re probably thinking that since we shared department chairmanship at Cranbrook for 24 years, that we must know something about co-teaching. But, as the years went by, we divided the department into 2D and 3D. We did large team projects from time to time, but we didn’t co-teach all that much. Collaboration sort of just sprang up naturally because we had an interdisciplinary design mix in the department. Communication designers worked with interior designers, interior architects, and industrial designers, but a lot of that happened informally. Because Cranbrook was a studio environment, that could happen. We have seen a lot of excellent examples, especially in more structured undergraduate situations. There is certainly a need for structured curricula that encourages collaboration.

Michael: I think a lot of the same rules that apply to putting together a collaborative design team also apply to co-teaching. Sometimes you have two teachers who don’t really know each other, or that don’t necessarily have the same philosophy, but that have to agree on a theme, an approach, or a point of view. Having strong views is good, but so is being open to other possibilities. Co-teaching with somebody who totally disagrees with you doesn’t work very well.

Katherine: At Cranbrook, Mike and I were notorious for offering students conflicting critiques. It was something that we all laughed about. But it occurred to me that this is actually an important part of a student’s education. Opposing viewpoints challenge the student to consider their values while weighing the different critiques. Students then have to decide how to apply those differences of opinion, and see what fits their objectives and what doesn’t. It is a good challenge for them to clarify their goals and processes. I don’t know if that’s something that can be formalized into a co-teaching technique, but it worked very well for us.

Michael: School is like a greenhouse laboratory where students are constantly making their own decisions and moving forward. This will only increase once students leave school. They have to find their own navigation system.

What is integral to the collaborative design process?
Katherine: Last year, Mike and I gave a lecture at Arizona State University’s Design School about collaboration. It was an interesting moment for us to reflect on what we know about collaboration, since we have always done it spontaneously. But collaboration isn’t something that you necessarily think about or develop into a methodology. Regardless, I would like to share with you some of the key ideas that we came up with:

1) Scale. It’s a little more difficult, or less necessary, to collaborate on a small-scale or singular project, like a poster. Whereas a large-scale, complex design project needs a collaborative team, like making a movie.

2) Physical Proximity.

Michael: Having a physical team space is an ideal ingredient, although it’s not always feasible. When you have multiple disciplines actually working together in a shared, relatively open, interactive environment, very subtle ideas can be passed back and forth. In an immersive space, everyone can gain a sense of the whole and how things are evolving, no matter what stage they’re at in the process.

Katherine: Another instance is situated learning, which is another way of describing the studio environment. A lot of sharing of resources happens in physical proximity. Consider a book left open on a drawing board that prompts somebody else to stop, pick it up, and start reading. And then maybe they leave a note. To some extent, you can reproduce this effect in a digital environment, but the sharing of resources really is about having physical proximity.

3) Timing. How do projects run in relationship to multiple collaborators? A project can follow a linear sequence, which is probably the most traditional form of collaboration, or maybe it’s not even considered collaboration. With a linear trajectory, you may have a specialist start the research, then the next person writes the project brief, then that person hands it over to others for conceptual sketching, then technical people take over to produce the piece, etc. People are playing their roles in a linear sequence, but this is not the kind of collaboration that graphic designers are interested in now.

Michael: This process is more relevant to industrial design. It’s just how it works, because the engineers can’t really start their work until the design is well along, and that can take three or four years. That’s why we think it’s important to establish the narrative with everyone that will be involved over a several year period. When an engineer finally gets the design, they can remember back to the time when they were involved in the preliminary workshop. This way, everyone has a better frame of reference for the original idea and the task at hand.

Katherine: Part of the challenge is figuring out how to develop a collaborative vision over time. A twist on this technique is a linear sequence but with iterative looping. This basically means setting up checkpoints for everyone on board, so that the team can keep referencing the original, shared vision. Lastly, and probably the most ideal, is a simultaneous and integrative process, where the group establishes that initial vision with all of the team members present, and then all the participants begin their part of the process. Team members report back at various stages along the way, so that everybody’s parts are moving synchronously in a parallel direction.

Are there different kinds of team types?
Katherine: We hear these terms get thrown around a lot: transdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary. I think it would be useful for everybody to develop a clearer sense of what each of these three modes actually mean.

1) Transdisciplinary seems to be the current, preferred collaborative mode in which discrete disciplines work together, and in the process, they actually create new languages and new processes. Also, the synthesizing is more equal and simultaneous.

2) Multidisciplinary, on the other hand, is a mode where you have discrete disciplines that all contribute, but they are not all inventing together.

3) Interdisciplinary is a mode in which professionals from related disciplines, like an architect and an industrial designer, work together and use similar languages and processes.

How has collaborative design has evolved?
Katherine: Collaboration has definitely developed in design through the years. In the beginning, there was the fine arts model, in which a lone artist slaved away in his garret, working on an individual vision. That evolved into an early design mode in the 1930s. On one hand, you had the hero designer, who was sort of the big focal point of a project. On the other hand, you had the commercial artist, who was still the lone-wolf person, working long into the night on a project. Fortunately, our profession has come a long way since then, and we’ve developed more design methodologies so that contemporary design really stresses team collaboration today. Now, where does it evolve from here? That’s a good question.

Michael: Technology, like social media, makes it possible to be more “integrative” and “collaborative,” while not necessarily being close geographically—

Katherine: Oh yeah! Like the Adobe Creative Cloud! The “creative cloud” is one of the rhetorical devices that they use to sell it.

Michael: I’m sure there is going to be a lot of rethinking with that.

Katherine: Who knows where all of this will wind up?

Do you have any predictions on where it will wind up?
Michael: If we look at what’s going on in education, at schools like IIT and Carnegie Melon, I think they are teaching much more about collaboration. In earlier iterations of design education, it was only implicit, whereas now it is explicit. Schools like these are deliberately teaching tools and methods by which people can get together and collaborate more fluidly, rather than by committee.

Do you think collaborative design is, or should be, an ideology?
Katherine: That is an interesting question, because a lot of people that do collaborate, see collaboration as the savior of design. There is a tendency among designers that stress collaboration, to exhibit some skepticism towards the singular vision or the lone-wolf artist. Yet we know from design history, that mavericks can create very resonant, moving, and effective design work. It would be unfortunate if collaboration becomes an abused ideology to the point where it’s thoroughly anti-individual. I hope for a balance between both collaboration and individuality. How can we create rich collaborations while also cultivating the unique individual visions?

Michael: The prescription to that problem is for each designer to do both. In other words, some of a designer’s projects should intentionally be individual, so they can develop their own voice. Then when a designer actually does work on a team, they have something to say.

Katherine: Yeah, I think that’s spot on.

Michael: I do a lot of furniture design. I do one-off pieces, that are not team projects. But then I also do other projects that involve a lot of people because they are technologically complex. I think it’s really healthy for designers to exercise both ends of the spectrum. Otherwise, your collaborative group will have people with no real particular point of view in the world, and incredibly bland voices.

Collaborative Furniture Design

courtesy of the mccoys

Streams of Modernism

courtesy of the mccoys

Katherine: You don’t want collaboration to eliminate the quirky vision or the unexpected response. We are really talking about function, because users respond to design solutions that include an element of the unexpected.

Michael: Improvisational jazz provides a good model for smaller design collaborations. The group of musicians first agree on a thematic structure, such as a time signature. Then each member has opportunities to go “solo” within that thematic structure, while the group backs them up. This allows individual interpretations on the theme while keeping a coherent, overall vision. In design, this approach works especially well for families of objects or graphic design, where variety is desirable but an overall theme needs to be perceived.

The Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse book and poster are good examples of where this kind of theme-and-variation method worked very well.

The New Discourse Essay

courtesy of the mccoys

How does your home and studio inspire collaboration?
Michael: We have always worked in the same studio so that we can talk to each other, even if we are working on different projects. We keep up with each other’s work.

Katherine: Proximity is important in our collaboration.

Michael: Our home and studio in Colorado has three buildings that are separated by bridges. So we have to leave the living space and walk across a fifty-foot bridge to the studio. There is a separation between the living space and the working space, although it’s a very short commute of fifty feet.

Katherine: But of course we have a computer on the dining room table and we work all over the place.

How did the Cranbrook studio inspire students to collaborate?
Katherine: We had a number of spontaneous collaborative groups spring up. Sometimes the students would assign themselves a project or a theme, and then each person would do a piece. In the late 80s and early 90s, there were a number of students like Ed Fella, with his four other design pals, all exploring the same issues. One of them would propose a problem or polemic, and another person would respond with a piece, usually a poster. And then the next person would respond to that, taking it even further. A poster series would come out of a single prompt.

Michael: Like the exquisite corpse. It’s an interesting form of collaboration.

Katherine: Oh yes! In the late 80s, there was a Gilbert Paper promotion. You know how paper companies ask designers to do things? Well, Rick Valicenti in Chicago proposed an exquisite corpse product to Gilbert Papers and Gilbert supported it. Nine people were invited to participate, and the end product was a brochure. Each of us were given a dimension and then we were asked to make a piece. It could be about anything. Then they asked that we put it on a floppy disk and send it to the next person in line. For each step, we were free to modify/add/delete the piece that we received, in any way that we wanted. The final brochure result that Gilbert printed was nine finished pieces, but they also showed the process work for each piece with the previous two steps. That was a really interesting collaboration, because in that case, we were all given permission to alter somebody else’s piece, so there was no guilt or sensitivity.

Back to Cranbrook. Perhaps we should mention a team project that was highly structured and deliberately collaborative?

Michael: Kathy and I worked with a few of our Cranbrook students, including Patrick Whitney and Meredith Davis, to create a middle/high school learning kit for students to study design processes. We physically occupied a team room and gathered lots of images, text, and data. Instead of doing textbooks, we made a set of five large posters. We also used a fairly standard grid for structuring the information, much like Richard Saul Wurman’s information architecture. It wasn’t as much about the form of the posters as it was about how to put together a design curriculum for middle/high school students.

Katherine: Everybody participated in the research, conceptual development, writing, and visual execution. The team developed 62 projects and also developed in a teacher’s guide, as well as the posters. It was a really complex project, and our team of five worked out really well.

Michael: Because we are designers, we believe it reinforced our conviction that design is the ultimate discipline. Design is the problem-solving discipline that brings everything and everyone together. People in middle/high school don’t really get much exposure to that aspect of design.

Problem Solving in the Man Made Environment Posters

courtesy of the mccoys