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The evolution of design collaboration

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This post is the second in our blog series “How to Build a Successful Design Team”. In this series, we explore different aspects of the most successful design teams and how you can implement new design processes and strategies within your own organization.

Check out Part 1 on Rethinking the design process.


If you’ve never seen Mad Men, much of the show consists of writers, designers and illustrators, and account managers sitting around a table hashing out ideas and sketching possibilities; otherwise known in those days as collaboration. When boiled down to its definition, collaboration sounds pretty simple – the action of working with someone to produce or create something. Maybe back in the Mad Men days, working together was a little simpler. But with today’s shift in workplace culture and technology, it’s rare to see in-person, computers-down type of collaboration. The way we work together is changing, and changing fast thanks to an increase in remote workers, and the emergence of new skills and job types.

Dispersed teams

Back in 1998, Anthony M. Townsend, an author and technology consultant, Samuel M. DeMarie, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Iowa State University’s College of Business, and Anthony R. Hendrickson, Dean of the Heider College of Business at Creighton University published a paper called Virtual teams: Technology and the workplace of the future. They predicted “advanced computer and telecommunications technologies” would provide for the advent of teams collaborating from anywhere in the world. Congrats to them, because they couldn’t have been more correct.

Emmet Connolly, who leads Product Design at Intercom is used to working with people who aren’t sitting in the office every day. When we talked to him about design collaboration in his office, he said, “Things like how we’re talking now [via Skype] is incredible. The fact that this even exists is mind-blowing in some sense.”

Entire companies exist off of making long-distance collaboration as seamless as possible, but it’s harder to design for the other piece of the collaboration culture shift – brand new skills and job types.

Diversified players

Today, collaboration doesn’t just mean looping people in from many different places, it means looping many different types of people in from many different places. Now it’s not just writer, designers, and account managers sitting around the table. As technology, business, and customer needs grow, we’ve had to make space for engineers, project managers, multiple designers, and sometimes even clients themselves, which adds a new challenge to collaborating, as we explored in How To Make Clients Happy Through Open Communication. And it’s not just making room for these new roles, it’s understanding how best to work together and get the most out of this set of diversified skills. As we previously discussed in How Marketers and Designers Can Work Better Together, that requires a sense of emotionality built on attunement, buoyancy, and clarity.

Getting back to real-time

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, it’s been nearly 20 years since a trio of tech thinkers predicted how technology would affect today’s workplace, and contemporary visionaries have guesses on where design collaboration is headed now. Writers Matt McCue and Kiana St. Louis include some insightful forward-thinking comments from design leaders around the world in their article The Future of Design (And How To Prepare For It). Duane Bray, Partner and Head of Talent at IDEO says learning how to work together will only become more important, “We’re seeing teams of people from different disciplines spending time together from start to finish on a project. How do you maximize their creative potential? The core skill is unlocking collaboration between teams.”

Many offices have already added tools to enable better collaboration across distances, and institutions like Indiana University believe so strongly in the future of collaboration they spent $21 million to build a dedicated space to foster “sharing ideas and content across multiple devices and users.” Stacy Morrone, IU’s Associate Vice President for Learning Technologies sees it as “the future of classrooms.” She says, “We’re moving toward models where students are doing more problem-based learning, working together in teams, and sharing what they’re learning with peers and professors. This is the type of teaching and learning our new classrooms must support.”

Most teams already rely on collaboration tools like Wake, Slack, Google Hangouts, and Skype. But technology will continue to evolve until dispersed teams can collaborate almost as if they’re sitting in the same room, around the same table. Sound familiar?

In the next post, we’ll take a look at design feedback and how it’s changed to keep up with cultural and technological advances.


Need to improve the collaboration among your own design team? Check out Wake, the leading design collaboration platform aimed to improve your design process and team.

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