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How Collaboration Makes us Better Designers

The concept of the solitary creative genius is a myth. When I first began as a designer, I felt like my designs had to be complete before I could show them to anyone. I think this vulnerability stems from a feeling that we as designers have to think through every element before we can call a design complete. As a result, it can be tempting to withdraw—to fully embrace the solitary designer stereotype—and assume the problems we’re facing are uniquely our own. But here’s the thing: usually another person on your team has dealt with similar challenges, and a collaborative design process is the best way to learn from their experience.

It can be nerve-wracking, vulnerable, and challenging at times, but getting out of our own heads and incorporating collaboration into our design process can make us all better designers. Over the years, I’ve come to learn that designing collaboratively means putting your egos aside to make something that transcends the sum of its creators. Here are six techniques from Constructive’s design practice that you can use to be a more collaborative, and hopefully a better designer:

1. Start a Conversation

I spend most of my days independently thinking through interaction concepts and visual executions with prototypes, wires, sketches (lots of sketches), and of course .jpgs, .pdfs and some .sketch files. But the computer can be one of the worst tools for problem-solving because we start to think more based on what the tool can do, not what we’d like to accomplish. So it’s critical to step away from your screen and talk through the work with another person (or two…or three!) to make sure your ideas and intentions are coming through in your designs and that they make sense to people. When I get to a place where I feel comfortable that most chips have landed in approximately the right places, I usually first reach out to my fellow designers to get quick initial reactions, advice on how to elevate the work, and general tips on what’s working and what’s not.

2. Embrace Internal Reviews

We always review internally as a team before presenting our design work to a client, spending a good amount of time discussing things both big and small. This talking through a design system with a team of designers is an invaluable way to add expert perspectives to your thinking. What’s working? What’s an outlier? How can we can extend the design system? Usually after we talk through a problem, I get reassurance of how to go forward because I know how other people have interacted with the prototype. It’s easy to justify a system’s flaws in your head when you’re the only person who’s seen the design, so it’s critical to get a second or third or fifth opinion on design so we can make certain the system works and is helpful for everyone.

internal design collaboration review
Live shot from one of our internal reviews.

It’s also good practice to test your ideas in presentation mode before having a formal client presentation. What sort of language am I using to describe the design? Is it intuitive enough or do I have to explain my rationale in order for someone to understand the intention? If the latter is true, it’s a good indication that I might need to work through the design to get it to a place where it can exist without me explaining how the user should interact with it.

3. Incorporate Prototype Testing

A prototype can be almost anything—a piece of paper, an interactive InVision board, a card sorting sitemap, or a fully-coded interactive experience that can be used to test how a typical user engages with a design. When I’m uncertain about an assumption I have about a design, it helps to do some informal user testing both with our agency’s entire team—both designers and non-designers. This testing with members of your team is a really helpful exercise for thinking through basic user experience patterns because everyone brings a unique understanding of web accessibility standards and how to improve usability. For example, when we were creating The Air Quality Life Index, a website with a complex data visualization tool, I did several rounds of user-testing with colleagues early on in the process of developing the information architecture before doing an additional round with target audience members. As a result, I was able to streamline controls and make sure there was a solid understanding of how things functioned from our team before asking external people who had no understanding of the product for their feedback.

4. Schedule Weekly Design Huddles

In addition to our focused internal project reviews, we also have weekly design huddles, or stand ups,  that allow us to get aligned on what everyone is working on and give us the chance to have a focused conversation on trends, processes, and inspiration. It’s important to come together as a group like this because it creates a forum for bringing up issues and opportunities that we’re experiencing as individual designers.

design team huddle
A Constructive design huddle in action!


5. Share Inspiration

Browsing the internet is primarily an individualized activity—unless of course you’re forcing everyone around you to watch videos of thirsty pets. We try to share and keep an organized record of all the things we see online that inspire us. We do this by using Slack channels and Dropmark to categorize links to sites we like. This is an important practice because it makes browsing the internet a more collaborative activity. It allows us to understand each other’s reference points. And since we’re continuously learning from new experiences, it’s important to share what speaks to us in creative, professional or personal ways. It’s also a good way to gauge what your competitors are doing and what techniques or trends are shifting the industry to new and exciting places. By keeping an inspiration library, we can easily reference industry-specific sites in project strategic briefs. It also helps us align as a design practice through having a shared knowledge base about our creative inspiration and aspirations.

Screenshot of Dropmark - collaboration web service we use to organize sites we dig.
A screenshot of Dropmark – the web service we use to organize websites we dig.

6. Collaborate on Larger Projects

Larger projects demand even more collaboration between designers. Some of our recent team projects have been re-launching our own site and designing the Communication Network’s journal Change Agent. These projects have allowed us to put our egos aside and engage in meaningful conversations about what’s best for the overall project. It has been challenging to give constructive criticism on a colleague’s work, but when something is bothering one person, it’s usually bothering more too. Giving each other feedback forces us to have tough conversations about what we’re trying to convey with our designs and understand if something isn’t as inclusive or accessible as it could be.

Working toward one unified idea also allows us to learn collective processes and knowledge. I didn’t know that much about production work before redoing the Constructive site. So I racked my brains for several months figuring out how to optimize images for the web (see future insight). It was only when the other designers started helping with production that we learned from each other to create a process that worked based off all our shared knowledge. Methodology and process solidify when they happen many times with different people over time.

Final Thoughts

Why am I telling you this? The obvious answer is that any team needs to collaborate to work successfully. That holds a nugget of truth, but the real answer goes much further. No matter your discipline—design, development, content, or strategy—I believe we get better each day as individuals by engaging in challenging conversations with each other. This, in turn, creates a much stronger, more powerful team.

Hopefully, these collaboration techniques from Constructive’s design practice can help you improve your design process, which I’ll summarize with:

  • We all strive to create excellent work that conveys truth and value.
  • Our differences make us stronger together.
  • We’ll never recommend using Helvetica as your brand typeface. (Okay, we didn’t explicitly say that here but it’s still true!)

About the Author

Doug Knapton

Doug Knapton

Doug is a visual and UX designer who is passionate about creating positive brand experiences for mission-based businesses and nonprofits. He specializes in interactive data visualization, mobile design optimization, and long-form editorial storytelling. After graduating with a BFA in Graphic Design from Pratt Institute in 2015, Doug joined TIME, where he specialized in creating long-form digital experiences and cross-brand native advertising campaigns. At Constructive, Doug collaborates with clients to create user-centric UX and visual design—working closely with team leads to ensure that design execution is aligned with strategic priorities. In his free time, he enjoys illustrating absurd compositions.

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