Why viewing other creatives as collaborators, not competition, is beneficial to everyone.
Many years ago, I thought of creativity as something that comes from a singular endeavour. Something magical, born only in moments of inspiration, struggle and solo expression. As it turns out, this is bullshit.
During my time as a student, I attended a lecture by Neal Fox of Le Gun (the photo seen above is of a print by Le Gun, also here: https://legun.co.uk/ ). Over the course of his hour-long speech, he opened up about how Le Gun work and how collaboration is at the core of what they do. For those who don’t know who Le Gun are, they’re an art collective who often illustrate and paint together on large art pieces, installations and exhibitions, adding to each other’s work as they go. I love Le Gun’s work, they’re amongst my favourite artists, and their openness to collaboration is a way of working that many more creatives should take inspiration from.
In the current design industry, the idea of collaboration is often spoken about enthusiastically, but less commonly actualised, with the focus centred less around collaboration and more around competition. Agencies compete with one another, as do freelancers, and it’s increasingly the case that freelancers are in competition with agencies for larger projects.
Most of the time, it’s a price war between competitors: decided by who can do the work for the cheapest price, with agencies often undercutting each other to win the work. This way of working is harmful to everyone. The short-term effects are that people underquote for their services, meaning they either can’t service the job within the budget, running the risk of making a loss, or if they can do the job within the budget, the quality suffers. In the long-term, the monetary value of design is reduced because of the increasing pressure to do the same amount of work for less money in order to compete. Why would a potential customer pay full price for a branding project when, due to creatives undercutting one another, the norm appears to be a fraction of the true value?
A change in attitude towards collaboration is not only an ethical move, but a smart business decision and a source of potential creative benefits. In terms of business, an increase in collaboration between competitors would be a step towards more work being shared and a step away from the price war. In turn, this increases the sustainability of creatives working within the design industry — something that’s good for all of us who rely on it from time to time. I understand collaboration on every project is unlikely, due to budget or time restraints, but with careful handling it need not be costly or drain resources. The net gains are clear: as more areas of a project are undertaken by specialists there’s not only better superficial quality, but also more commercial expertise and value coming from these experienced specialists, minimising risk of under-delivery and maximising the potential value of the finished job.
In terms of creativity, working collaboratively has massive benefits. Last year, at Likely Story, we worked with Illustrator and Creative Director James Oconnell (http://james-oconnell.com/) on a website for a London-based travel app agency. Working closely with us during the design stage of the project, the value he provided to the end product was far beyond what we could have hoped to achieve within the budget we had. Collaborating on the project created the opportunity for us to share our different approaches to creativity, which facilitated the production of new ideas.
Currently, we’re working with freelance developer and front-end wizard Thomas Aufresne (https://thomasaufresne.com/) on a few different websites. Working with him has given us the opportunity to take leaps forward when it comes to the final delivery of the work we do. As I write this piece, Thomas is finishing up the build of our own website (www.likely-story.co.uk). Along the way he’s pushed ideas, encouraged us to develop areas of our own style and approach development challenges in creative ways. Like with James, working with Thomas has helped us develop as a creative studio and produce some of the best work we’ve done since starting Likely Story.
In recent years, there’s been an increase in the number of small design studios, and the trend of smaller agencies focused on specific fields is a phenomenon we’re not likely to see the end of any time soon, and rightfully so. I believe this is the best way to operate in today’s design industry, as it keeps overheads low while enabling the freedom to work flexibly with more creatives. But an increase in the number of small design agencies will inevitably bring about a downward spiral of competitive pricing if undercutting continues. Whilst it’s not always possible or necessary for everyone to work collaboratively, an increase in collaboration is a step towards a better future for our industry.