We recently returned from P2Con, our annual company all-hands conference. The event was a cumulative effort by the Creative Services, Communications, and People teams here at Phase2. This year’s gathering took place in New Orleans and the theme was Expand Your Experience.
If the immediate feedback we have received is any indication, the event was a great success and left most team members inspired, energized, excited about, well, expanding their experience.
Wait, who did what?
As with any event of this magnitude, there are a lot of moving parts, a long list of assets created, and a wealth of behind the scenes choreography. Every element was intentional, from the order of the talks all the way down to capturing the essence of New Orleans in the visual identity for the event.
But shortly after we returned back to our desks, I had a conversation with a colleague (let's call this colleague Jordan) that highlighted the fact that there isn’t really an understanding of what our director of Creative Services, Caitlin Loos, has begun to call “the creative blur.”
Jordan said, “I don't know exactly how much of what I experienced was you...and I kind of wish we had a bit more of a formal 'credits' for this thing, so we could know who actually put all the work in.” And I responded by saying, “That is the crazy thing about collaboration, there is really no way to say where one ended and the other begins. Overall, we really just were one big Venn diagram.”
How does creative collaboration actually work?
Before I go any further, I must point out that in this post I am going to focus on the collaboration between design and content, but the incredible collaboration and stellar planning provided by Casey Etzel and Sheena Morris of our People team created an exceptional experience for our entire staff. Explaining how we all worked together is too complex for a blog post, but all of the tenants we lay out below apply to the work we did with them as well.
Okay, now let's talk content and design. After 3 years of working together on content (me) and design (Caitlin and her team), we’ve become very comfortable and skilled at building upon one another’s ideas and work to create a final product that could not have come from one of our brains alone.
As the senior communication strategist at Phase2, I am responsible for the brand voice, content, and messaging across our touchpoints. The actual tactics vary from project to project based on the deliverables and the scope, but for P2Con specifically, I was responsible for:
- Narrowing down and cementing the core message of the event
- Identifying what we really want people to take away from it
- Developing an overall communication strategy and messaging
Creative Services was responsible for:
- Creating a visual identity for the event and carrying it through all of the touchpoints
- Crafting the physical experience for attendees, from wayfinding to a conference survival kit
- Bringing the event theme to life through design and creative at every touchpoint
But here is the important factor, all of this was done collaboratively through conversations with key stakeholders and collaborators of the event. Nothing I created was done and thrown over the proverbial fence.
If this sounds a little unclear, let’s take a look a the creation of the theme (Expand Your Experience) for the event, as an example.
When developing a theme, I typically spend a good amount of time in divergent thinking mode. In case you aren't familiar with it, that is the mode of thinking where I brainstorm and expand my ideas as far as I can to create a wide set of creative options, and force myself to write down any and all ideas. Even, gulp, the bad ones. I then schedule a meeting with Caitlin and her team and have in hand a list of around 20 - 40 ideas, 3 of which I think are the best.
We all then try to poke holes in them, play around with the language, and explore visual metaphors and experiences that could be associated with them. Then, we settle on one, or sometimes two or three, to pitch to the key stakeholders.
In the case of P2Con, once we decided on the theme, Creative Services was off and running creating the visual identity and event touchpoints, but you guessed it - the collaboration extended through the design phase as well. From crafting the narrative to fit the visual identity on the event website to adjusting the tone of certain pieces to reflect the spirit of the creative experience, it was a back and forth at every turn.
Key Components of a great design and content partnership
Even though the scope and type of projects change, we have identified key elements of an exceptional design and content partnership.
- Check your ego at the door. The only way a partnership works, especially over the long term, is if there isn’t one person trying to outshine the other. There has to be mutual appreciation and respect and an absence of spotlight hoarding. When ideas flow so freely you can’t pinpoint who actually uttered the winning idea, that is a wonderful thing.
- Kick off the project together. In creative work, ideas often form over time, so we’ve found that an early informal project kick off that involves content and design sets us up for success.
In this meeting we typically discuss and ID:
- Who the primary and secondary stakeholders are
- The overall goal of the project
- Constraints and parameters of the project (budget, timeline, requirements)
- Trends we are seeing related to the project
- Projects we have done in the past that we can use as a starting point
- Identify audience and purpose. Every creative project is doomed if there are not clearly identified and articulated audience and purpose. A shared understanding of this across content, design, and key stakeholders is vital. And every asset created should be created for the audience identified with the purpose identified. Constantly reminding ourselves of this throughout the project is critical to success.
- Listen, communicate, and then listen some more. It’s important that you avoid being a blocker to one another in this process, so be open and transparent about when you plan to work on your portion of the project. This is not the only project our teams are working on, so timelines often shift. A simple, “Hey, I thought I’d be able to work on this on Tuesday, but now it’s looking like I’ll be doing so on Thursday. I’ll have what I owe you by EOD,” can help the other party(ies) plan accordingly and not be blocked. Also be confident and comfortable enough to make recommendations that relate to each other’s areas.
- Know when to work together and know when to work independently. It’s important to understand that working together doesn’t mean ALWAYS working together. There are often times when we go off and create some space to think through a certain part of the project independent of the other team.
- Work iteratively and share throughout the process. This part takes TRUST and an ability to look at drafts and outlines of work, with the goal of understanding the key element that consensus is needed on. For example, I showed Caitlin a long list of potential themes I was playing with and asked if my direction felt right. Conversely, she showed me mood boards to ask me if the visuals felt like they were in alignment with the tone of the messaging. This is an important place to remember the fundamentals of giving great creative feedback.
- Share credit and responsibility and embrace the fluidity of ownership. Few things kill trust and creative collaboration more so than working in a group and having other parties take full-credit for something that they aren’t solely responsible for. If you are given credit for something by a stakeholder, don’t hesitate to say, “Thanks! Caitlin really helped figure out exactly what we were trying to communicate.” And when the failures come...yep, you’re in it together then as well.
- Capitalize on the creative tension. Here at Phase2, I often joke that our organization thinks that we share one brain when the opposite is really true. I mean, of course, we don’t share a brain, but our perspectives, approach, backgrounds, and creative process are actually quite different. And that is a good thing. Our differing viewpoints allow us to see something the other person may have completely missed and, in the end, creates a better product. That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of frustration. There certainly are - but we work through them to reach consensus.
- Point out areas of overlap and clarify who is leading and responsible for the deliverable. There are things that are clearly design (like color palettes and typeface of our event presentation templates) and things that are clearly content (like copy on printed activity instructions) and then there are all of the things that fall somewhere in the middle. It’s helpful to create a document that identifies who is ultimately responsible for creating the deliverable on time. We often work with an informal RACI process (a tool that can be used for identifying roles and responsibilities).
- Be each other’s eyes and ears. Insist that the other partner be present in meetings that you think will touch their area or may just be helpful for them to be present at for context. This may seem like a waste of time, and may not always be possible, but it can actually end up saving time and preventing blind spots. At the same time, don’t hesitate to pass on a meeting that is in the weeds and more tactical in nature related to something definitely outside of what you need to be involved in.
- Trust the process. I can’t remember a single time that the outcome of a creative collaboration was what I thought it would be going in, and we have learned that our first ideas are never our best. Caitlin and I know that in any project we undertake, we will throw the vast majority of our ideas away, we will end up nowhere close to where we started, we will feel lost at one or more points along the way, but we also know the result will be better than we imagined.
How to find your collaborative partner
This relationship is one that is certainly not contained to content and design - it can exist in any related disciplines where two different activities are working in parallel towards a common goal. To find and make the most of these relationships in your work:
Identify places in your work where you have a tension with a different role and turn that tension into a healthy one - one that pushes both of you to be better than you could be on your own.
Find your people. These partnerships take time and trust to develop, and it is so worth the investment.
Develop a process and repeat it every time you seek an extraordinary outcome. Avoid the temptation to “win” or “lose” in discussions over the right course to take. Take the opportunity to expand your thinking, be challenged, and innovate.