Joining a design collective can spark your creativity – and give your career a boost.
Joining a design collective is not something most designers build into their career plan, yet an increasing number of creatives are enjoying the benefits of group working.
The term ‘collective’ can refer to many different ways of working. It might be an agency with no hierarchy, or a loose co-operative offering an outlet for creativity beyond the day job; it could just be a vehicle for networking opportunities.
Collectives can also be founded upon an ideology, or purely practical considerations. There are many ways that creatives form collectives, but they usually start in response to a particular need.
Nottingham design collective 13 Souls (www.13souls.com) comprises between seven and 10 members; its members were drawn together by frustration at the limitations of the traditional studio.
Web designer Adam McKillop, who co-founded the collective, says: “We started out as a very small, traditional agency but found that sometimes we’d struggle to cover all the areas clients wanted, such as coding and illustration, and we weren’t in a position to hire people to cover these skills.
“That’s why three years ago we decided to form a collective, rather than try to cover these areas too thinly, or miss out on opportunities. It enables you as a small company to go for larger tenders and bigger names.”
The Design Collective (www.thedesigncollective.co.uk) – a three-man Staffordshire group – was founded in response to a specific need.
Sean Cusack and Martin Shakeshaft were friends and lecturers at the same college, and both had freelance projects. “When one of Martin’s clients approached him with a big web- based project it became clear the brief needed a wider skills set,” recalls Cusack.
“As neither of us wanted to take on the role of ‘boss’, we decided to take on the project on an equal footing. But we still needed to bring in additional skills, so we approached another friend, Chris Huthwaite, again with the intention of working on an equal basis.”
He continues: “One successful project attracted the next client, and so we decided to carry working as a collective.” Things are a little different for illustrators: they’re less likely to work collaboratively on a single project, such as a drawing – yet illustration collectives do exist, and they offer some useful opportunities to their members.
All-girl illustration collective Girls Who Draw (girlswhodraw.wordpress.com) formed in order to spread the cost of printing high-quality promotional materials.
Girls Who Draw member Gemma Correll says: “Litho printing is expensive, but together we could afford to get the Misfits postcard books printed, as well as a run-on of extra postcards.
A lot of the group also sell their own work, so the book was a good commercial product to have for online shops and existing stockists.”
Once the books were printed, Girls Who Draw realized that the collective offered further opportunities. “Most of us needed to exhibit more, particularly in London, but for an individual that’s a daunting task. Karoline Rerrie used the books to approach galleries and was offered a last-minute exhibition at the Exposure Gallery.”
The group found that by promoting work together, all the members benefited: “Putting together a mailing list for the group rather than individuals meant our work reached people who might not otherwise have seen it,” says Correll.
“We got coverage in magazines and books which may not have taken notice of us individually. Even a year after the Misfits book was sent out, we’re still getting opportunities.”
Free your mind
Birmingham-based design and illustration group The Outcrowd Collective (outcrowdcollective.blogspot.com) finds that working together gives them freedom and stimulation, as well as offering greater opportunities than they might find on their own.
With between six and 10 creatives from a range of design backgrounds, the group thrives on its diversity, explains co-founder Lawrence Roper. Like Girls Who Draw, Outcrowd members tend to show work and promote themselves together, rather than creating works jointly.
They’re also not shy about shouting about their membership of the collective at every chance. “Even if work starts out being an individual thing, it often ends up feeding into Outcrowd, so we help promote each other,” says Roper.
For example, the group benefits when one of the members has work featured in books or other projects. “In the book blurb that profiles the featured artists, we always say we’re involved with the Outcrowd, and readers of the book will see that and sometimes get in touch with us for work.”
Other collectives form for even more specific reasons – Subism (www.subism.co.uk) specializes in live illustration events. The collective brings together illustrators and graffiti artists, and provides them with a way to impress the public and other creatives at events.
Subism member Alex Godwin says: “I wanted to get involved in live illustration events and get my work noticed by more creative people.” Alongside the live events, Subism also promotes its members’ work and sells pieces through its website. But most of all, it offers its members the chance to promote their work and build contacts.
“Being part of a collective is invaluable in terms of meeting other artists and networking,” says Godwin. Some groups choose to work collectively rather than forming a traditional studio for ideological reasons – because it simply seems to them to be the only way to work.
California-based Design Action Collective (www.designaction.org) is one such organization. Self-taught designer Innosanto Nagara set up the collective in 2003.
Unlike many collectives, its six members share a studio, and regardless of age or duration of service, they also share equal status as owner-workers.
“The biggest advantage to us as members is that we own our labour,” says Nagara. “Most designers spend the majority of their waking hours at work, and unless they are the principal owner, they have to check democracy at the door when they step into the studio.
“Being in a democratic workplace allows us to be full participants in our democratic society, and more free human beings in general. It sounds grandiose, but that’s the idea.”
Design Action’s attitude also gives it a helping hand in picking up work in its specialist field, explains Nagara: “Our expertise is serving the needs of non-profit, activist, labour, grassroots and green organizations.”
However, when there’s no boss, how do projects get driven along, and what happens when problems arise? “People who are creative can often be prima donnas, and you can have some big egos,” says 13 Souls’ Adam McKillop.
“You can reach a creative stalemate, where people will just not agree on the best way ahead – a situation you don’t get in agencies so much, as you pretty much have to do as you’re told. If you’ve got seven or 10 opinions, you can easily lose half a day arguing.”
To beat stalemates like this, 13 Souls employs a full-time project manager. “He’s not a designer, but he understands design,” says McKillop. “It’s up to the project manager to keep people in line and to keep projects within budget.
"He’s also the one point of contact for clients, which is important because they don’t like to deal with a different person every time they call.”
Sean Cusack of The Design Collective says respect underpins creative relations in a collective. “Everyone’s opinion is valid; you have got to trust those opinions. Because the collective is based around friendships you learn how to get the best from each other far more than if, say, you were just commissioning an outside photographer to contribute to a project.”
If creative impasses are an occasional occupational hazard with collectives, then – for Design Action’s Innosanto Nagara, at least – this is more than offset by the benefits of freeing creative talent from the rigidity of hierarchy.
“The joy is in seeing the development of members,” he says, “from being new employees to being fully fledged worker- owners. It doesn’t happen overnight, because so many of us are trained heavily to be employees of bosses.
“But in a place where everyone is equal and there are no bosses, ultimately everyone’s true abilities are able to flourish. Employers don’t realize how much they suppress the creative potential of those working for them. But as a collective, we are able to best in ourselves.”
The Outcrowd Collective
This was established in 2004 by artists and designers Lawrence Roper and Simon Peplow. They’re certainly not in it for the money, says Roper. Instead, “it’s about escaping, creating work we enjoy, and it’s about creating a network to share ideas, collaborate, exhibit, and commission.”
Outcrowd began life with a group exhibition, and now Roper views it as being “more of a co-op than a collective: there’s an ever-evolving number of members and co-conspirators, projects, opportunities and networks.”
One of the most important elements of Outcrowd is the networking opportunities it offers its members. “It works as a mutual promotional tool,” says Roper.
"A lot of the things we’ve done as individuals wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have the network provided by the collective.” Much of the collective’s activity centres on the gallery space that Roper runs in the Custard Factory, Birmingham.
“The gallery works as a bit of a focal point,” says Roper. “I pass any email and phone enquiries I get [as a result of events staged] on to artists I think those projects might suit. Most members’ individual projects end up linking in to Outcrowd in some way.” Much of the collective’s work involves mounting group exhibitions, which provide promotional opportunities for everyone.
Nottingham-based 13 Souls offers PR and copywriting strands, as well as design services.
The venture began life as a traditional boutique agency, but has widened its skills base by introducing new talent on a flexible, non-hierarchical footing.
This means it can draw on the skills of a coder, illustrator, designer, art worker or copywriter, as the project demands. This model is similar to a small agency that gets freelance help on an ad hoc basis, but co-founder Adam McKillop says there are key differences.
“A collective grows as you go along, but when you call someone in ad hoc, they tend to come in, do the job and that’s that. Also, some freelancers won’t work for less than £300 a day, regardless of what the budget for the job is. That’s not how things work here.
“We all see one another socially and help each other out on our private jobs sometimes. We know each other very well, both as people and professionals. We know each other’s limitations.”
McKillop says that all of 13 Souls’ members work remotely. “We’re all based around the Nottingham area, and a lot of the time we communicate electronically, and use an online project-management system called Basecamp,” says McKillop.
The collective is a key source of work for individual members, says McKillop. “For example, we’ve got a CMS guy, and if someone approaches him privately with work then he’ll come to me and ask me to design the front end of the CMS. We’re all in different markets, and if any of us get approached for work then somebody else from 13 Souls usually gets something out of it too. We feed each other work.”
Design Action Collective
This is a co-operative design studio that was founded and is run on an ideological basis. Its founders, Innosanto Nagara and Kym Thomas, set up the collective as a democratic workplace from the start: “We’re a worker-owned co-operative with direct democracy and equal pay.”
The non-hierarchical structure is key to ensuring that all members have an equal voice. For Nagara, this is the only way to work. “We believe collectives do it better, and are the right way to organize a workplace. As collective members, we are equally invested in the quality of our product, and we share equally and proportionally in the fruits of our labour.”
Nagara believes the democratic nature of Design Action gives clients a higher level of creative service. “You get a group of designers who are empowered to express their best creative selves. Every designer here that clients work with is a principal, who is invested in the project as an owner is.”
Working collectively allows them to offer clients a range of skills, style, and flexibility — and, of course, there’s also an artistic benefit for the collective’s members.
“We also get feedback and ideas from each other, so we don’t stagnate as designers. On individual projects we can help each other overcome any ‘designer’s block’ on a given project.”
Girls who draw
Girls Who Draw found that clubbing up to exhibit and promote has practical benefits: for example, when Karoline Rerrie got the group a last-minute exhibition at a London gallery the team was able to prepare — designing invites, contacting press, getting drinks sponsorship — rapidly.
The group gives its members access to other freelancers. “Working as an illustrator can be very solitary.
Being in touch with a group means there are other people around for support and motivation — it can give individuals more confidence,” says Gemma Correll.
In all creative groups, there’s a danger of some members hogging the spotlight. “We were lucky that a few of the group didn’t overshadow the rest,” says Correll. “Nearly everyone got something back from collaborating, be it selling work at the exhibition or having work published.”
Girls Who Draw’s members have freelance careers, which can make things tricky when trying to organize a big project. “The main drawback is that it is a lot of work and some people contribute more than others,” says Karoline Rerrie.
“I hadn’t anticipated that Girls Who Draw would need someone to take charge, and wasn’t prepared for that role — if jobs didn’t get done I’d have to do them. When things went wrong, I felt responsible.”
Trying to divide time between the collective and members’ own careers also proved tricky. “We had two things to promote — both the group and our own work,” says Rerrie.
“Much of the time my own work took a backseat, and rather than doing something creative I’d be sorting out finances or searching out new people to send books to.”
In the end the group decided to work together on a less close-knit basis. “There are as many drawbacks as benefits to working as part of a group... It proved impossible to maintain the group on a long-term basis, probably because it was so diverse in terms of work and experience, not to mention geographically,” says Rerrie.
“Girls Who Draw will continue as a collaborative project, but not as a formal collective. This allows people more freedom.”
It’s Okay To Make Mistakes, by Simon Peplow.
Lawrence Roper skating his installation at the second Outcrowd Exhibition.
London 2012 Olympics/Coca-Cola skateboards, by Lawrence Roper (top) and Vaughan Baker (above).
Blue Moon by Ben Javens.
The Outcrowd Shed at Supersonic Festival 2009.
Broken Rainbow by Lee Basford
Alex Godwin’s illustration created as part of a Subism Live event at Glug, the designers’ networking event in London.
This is my Cat by Gemma Correll (www.gemmacorrell.com).
Bulbous brains by Bogus Baby (www.bogusbaby.com).
Chains by Tanya Meditzky (www.milkkitten.com)
Poor Tomato by Karoline Rerrie (www.lonelypanda.com)
Trees by Yee Ting Kuit (www.yeellustration.co.uk).
Illustration: Jamie Cullen