Designing Collaboration

I am always looking for new ways to be collaborative with others. This led to an online seminar hosted with Randall Hom (@randallhom) on the subject of collaboration. The participants included a diverse group of designers brought together by John Maeda (@johnmaeda) and Jackie Xu (@jshoee) over a series of Dim Sum. As John said:

There’s no “I” in “TEAM” but there’s “EAT” in it — I am a big believer that eating together is a powerful team building exercise.

Our goal was to gain insight into how designers actually work together. What unfolded was a glimpse into how a number of design leaders work together with their partners, team, organization and clients.

Designing Design

Randall kicked off the conversation with a discussion on design sprints, a methodology for rapid design iteration.

It’s such a great exercise for moving fast and building out great ideas that come out of brainstorms. I love that such a big part of it is user research and usability, so you come away with user validation and data to back up decisions made.

This set the stage for our conversation which led us roughly through the following:

  1. brainstorming — generate ideas
  2. production — produce the work
  3. test and gather feedback — evaluate the work alone and/or with others
  4. repeat — iterate/goto 1


Randall referenced a few rules on brainstorming and pointed out that they aren’t just for product design. Here’s a shot of his cultural team in action:

Karin Hibma (@karinhibma) expanded on this by drawing an analogy between brainstorming and improvisation. She pointed us to Tina Fey’s “Rules of Improvisation” and its applicability to collaboration. The following is a summary from Fey’s book Bossy Pants:

  1. Agree: Always agree with what someone says and say YES. It keeps the conversation going and avoids making people feel self conscious.
  2. YES, AND: Once you accept what someone else has said add something. Contribute to the discussion.
  3. Make Statements: Meaning don’t just ask questions. It puts undue pressure on others.
  4. There are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.


How the work actually gets produced is another opportunity for collaboration, though as digital designers working with computers the process is only designed for a single user. One method which addresses this limitation is Pair Designing (via Pivotal Labs), where two designers alternate between operating a workstation (synthesizer) and providing feedback (generator). For details on Pair Design take a look at the following article by Stefan Klocek (@igniting).

One form of pairing which has proven successful in software design is the combination of an interaction designer and a visual designer. This type of team has the ability to illustrate vision within the medium of computation. If we expand this to include a developer lead and product manager you get what George Arriola (@arriola) calls “The Tiger Team”. A team capable of efficiently shipping a visionary product. Worth noting is that not only do the individuals need to “click”, but they also need to understand their own roles and those of the others on the team. This is akin to musicians in a band. The drummer plays the drums and so on.

Ideally designers would be able to improvise in real time in ways similar to comedians or musicians, but so far the medium has not generally allowed for simultaneous collaboration. The good news is that we are the ones who define the medium and this means that we can change it.


Feedback is essential to good design. An iterative approach of increasing exposure can help good design become great. A tiered review process usually begins with an all designer review and ends with an executive product review. What became clear in our discussion was that at each stage of the review process there should be at least one person who is moderating for a positive outcome. Someone who can create a safe environment where the presentation of a design becomes an opportunity as opposed to a responsibility. Bob Baxley (@bbaxley) points out:

If the forums are safe; managed; and populated with articulate, imaginative, and insightful minds, designers will seek out these opportunities because they know it is the best thing for the work.

This may sound obvious, but in practice I’ve found this to be quite rare as it’s much easier to poke holes in a design than to understand its intent and make it better.

Along with feedback, both accountability and transparency foster successful collaboration. Stefan pointed to a system he put in place at Google whereby every day everyone on a team is required to send out an image to their group with a short description.

You see a spreadsheet that someone is using to track user feedback, or you see a survey they are developing, or you see a set of wireframes with a similar pattern to what you are working on. Individual contributors see what mangers are working on (sometimes it’s just a screencap of a full day of meetings in your calendar) and designers on different teams can see what others are working on. It has fostered a sense of the team’s overall contributions and sparked good conversations and questions about patterns. The sentence helps designers practice summarizing their work which is an important design skill. It’s also really lightweight so it’s not a burden or a drain on productivity.

The process of collaborating on collaboration led us to a number of powerful insights and practical approaches. Some of my favorites include

  • The rules of comedic improv apply to brainstorming
  • Role delineation is critical for collaboration
  • Visual designers pair well with interaction designers
  • Reviews are an opportunity for better design
  • Transparency can be achieved through an image and a description

I’d like to thank everyone for such an insightful conversation around collaboration and a special thanks to Randall Hom (@randallhom) for pairing up with me to lead the discussion. I’d also like to thank Jackie Xu (@jshoee) for the opportunity to engage you all in such an interesting topic. And of course to John Maeda (@johnmaeda) for bringing us together to collaborate over one of my great pleasures, food.

Design Playbooks, for #DesignInTech

are read-write, and illegible sometimes …

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store