More than the Sum of the Parts

‘Collaboration’ is the word on everyone’s lips. With digital platforms like WhatsApp and Skype making communication ever easier, everyone claims to be at it. And most maintain their ‘partnerships’ go way beyond the traditional relationships between, say, graphic designer and printer, or architect and engineer.

At a recent debate on the topic, staged by Thomas.Matthews, urban planner Euan Mills of Future Cities Catapult spoke of how technology is facilitating collaborations on a massive scale. That growth is challenging the ways we can communicate imaginatively. But how much of this entails genuine partnerships and how do you get the best out of sharing leadership without descending into mediocrity?

‘It’s about absorbing one another’s stories.’ That is how environmental engineering star Patrick Bellew of Atelier Ten described the art of collaboration among professional peers. Patrick was one of the team, with TM, landscape architect Grant Associates and others, which created Singapore’s seminal Gardens by the Bay almost ten years ago and arguably set the bar for effective collaboration.

For architect Keith Bradley of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, who worked alongside TM on the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, it’s about sharing ‘a common purpose, a common sensibility’ and a belief that the best ideas can come from anyone on the team. ‘We are more than the sum of our parts,’ he says.

Collaboration is inherent in the DNA of TM, Grant Associates and FCBStudios. Since the three came together some 20 years ago on Doncaster’s Earth Centre, they have combined their talents on projects bringing nature and placemaking within the built environment. An exhibition of some of that work is currently on show in FCBStudios’ London office, until the end of July.

At TM it underpins everything the studio does. It is implicit in its role within Useful Simple Trust, a social enterprise whose mission is ‘to blaze a trail in the integrated, intelligent and ethical provision of the human environment’, and shines through all its projects.

‘Collaboration is inherent in communication design, particularly in placemaking projects’ TM creative director Leah Harrison Bailey says ‘…and working closely with local communities brings out the stories of a place.’

Take the studio’s wayfinding for Stratford town centre, which builds on the character of the East London hub to create a destination for locals and visitors. Evolved through close consultation with the local community, the ‘enhancement of the public realm has had a very positive impact on the local businesses and community spirit’, says Gianluca Rizzo, manager of Stratford Original, which set the project.

Leah Harrison Bailey also believes that collaboration with the likes of marbling expert Jemma Lewis, who created the patterns for the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire wayfinding, and other skilled crafts folk is ‘integral to the creative process’. At Stratford mural painters, vinyl experts and other specialists were part of the Collaborative process.

Indeed, a collaboration between Sophie Thomas and glass artist Louis Thompson led to ‘The seven stages of degradation’, a campaigning artwork detailing the way a plastic bottle slowly erodes in the ocean, was accepted into London’s Royal Academy’s 2018 Summer Exhibition.

True collaboration is the art of letting go, listening to each other and valuing each other’s contribution to a project from day one. Being in at the start is a rare situation for communication design, but it pays off all round. Leah concludes that putting visual communications at the front of a project ‘delivers a different quality of work than usual – a better quality.’

Collaborative by Nature runs on weekdays between 9am and 5.30pm until 27 July at FCBStudios, 20 Tottenham Street, London W1T 4RG.

Post written by Lynda Relph-Knight



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