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Stuff They Don't Tell You Collaboration

There are lots of things for creatives to think about beyond having good ideas. We’re here to help, with our advice series Stuff They Don’t Tell You. Here, James Cartwright looks at the most effective and enjoyable ways to work with other people.

Illustrations by Jill Senft.

The best thing about being freelance is getting to call your own shots – you can work your own hours, take on projects that excite you, and choose who you want to make work with. That last one is a lot more important than you might think. Getting the right balance of collaborators can have a huge impact on your career and, much as you might like to, you can’t always just work for your mates.

These days, creativity depends on collaboration. “We are in an open, forever shifting, sharing economy now,” says art director Gem Fletcher. “Creativity is not something you own, and gone are the days of individual, god-like artists. We are in a new time where creativity is fluid and creatives flex between different media and forms of expression. There is so much more strength and power in collaboration.”

What’s more, collaboration keeps one of the major challenges of freelance life at bay – feeling isolated. “Nothing can prevent feelings of loneliness in the freelance world,” says photographer Osma Harvilahti, “but it does help to walk through this trip with others.”

Both Osma and Gem have tailored their careers to incorporate more collaboration; Gem through a seemingly endless network of photographers, stylists, set designers and project managers who form the backbone of each new project she undertakes, and Osma by running a seven-strong collective and art space in Paris called The Community, that brings together creatives from different disciplines to share ideas and celebrate art.

So if collaboration is key, how do you go about picking the people you team up with? And once you’ve gone all in, how do you keep those relationships sweet? Here are a few tips to help you out.

Making great creative work is a whole lot easier if you’re doing it with people who share your values and goals.

1. Creative chemistry is fundamental

This sounds obvious, but making great creative work is a whole lot easier if you’re doing it with people who share your values and goals. “You can really love someone’s work, but if you don’t have a shared vision on some level, the collaboration won’t be viable,” says Gem.

“My work is often focused on individuals who want to evolve their practice in some way. For me, it’s important they are open to experimentation and push themselves outside of their comfort zone while ensuring the work feels true to their vision.”

Osma agrees. “A perfect collaboration is when we break out of our usual habits and rely on our senses to play this abstract game. You can create something brilliant if you let yourself be shaken out of your routine.”

2. Get to know your collaborators first

“For me, it’s really important that there is enough time to get to know each other before jumping into a shoot,” says Osma. “Sometimes I get a bit zoned out while shooting due to being really focused, and it helps to know the people around me, so that communicating things feels more natural. It’s so important to really understand the person and where they come from.”

3. Lay out ground rules

Whether you’re strict about how you approach your work or prefer to improvise when it comes to collaboration, you’ll need to set out some ground rules to ensure your whole team understands their roles and responsibilities. It always helps to have certain things defined in advance.

“I always discuss how people prefer to work ahead of a collaboration and explain clearly how I work,” says Gem. “It’s key to have this discussion upfront to avoid any confusion further down the line. It’s important to establish the objective of a project before you start. Over time this could grow and evolve, but you need a starting point to keep everyone focused.”

4. Keep an open dialogue

Once you’ve established your goals, things will inevitably shift as the project progresses, so maintaining an open dialogue with all your collaborators is key.

“I love to work with people who do their best to respect others and take care of people in different positions on the set,” says Osma. “The best collaborators have the patience to hear other opinions before rushing to put forward their own.”

Learning how to handle disagreements effectively can make or break a project.

5. Don’t worry if disagreements arise

Disagreements are a vital part of working with collaborators, and learning how to handle them effectively can make or break a project.

“If an issue arises, I always deal with it head on and see if we can work out a compromise, or course correct to get back on track,” says Gem. “Points of friction or tension can actually be good at sparking new ideas and pushing things forward.”

“It’s a natural need for us as social beings to require direction, critique and feedback on how we work. Sometimes there are compromises that need to be made and that’s just a natural part of the process,” says Osma. “It’s a nice skill to be able to see through a wider scope and try to understand how one contribution serves the bigger picture.”

6. Cast your net wide

The whole point of collaboration is to bring different skill sets together and to work with people whose abilities are totally different from your own. Some projects naturally require a wide range of skills, while others might see you working with people whose talents overlap your own. Try to be at ease with both and don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone.

“The wider team is critical,” says Gem. “I have a huge network of creatives I draw from to build specific teams for each project depending on the skill sets and personalities required. Being able to blend different expertise fuels the collaboration.”

For Osma, the whole success of The Community comes from the wide range of skills and disciplines that come together under one roof. “All of us have a special point of view towards what we do and who we work with. Our members have varying experiences in the art world, fashion, graphic design, publishing and other large productions and we are all playing several roles at a time. For me, this experience has opened up all the possibilities in multidisciplinary collaborations and changed the way I look at photography as a medium.”

7. But keep your friends close

I know I said you can’t always work with your mates, but sometimes they’re the only ones for the job. In creative collaborations a steady, stable, familiar pair of hands is sometimes what you need to make a project come together, whether that’s to hit a tight deadline or to find new and exciting ways of working together.

“Recently I worked on a book project for Louis Vuitton,” says Osma, “and needed to figure out a production plan that would mirror the way I approach personal projects. To make the process more natural, I decided to work with a good friend who doubled as the creative producer. The idea was to abandon the production-related conventions of a commercial project and try to have a positive shared experience.”

Remember, you’d be having a lot less fun working all on your own!

8. Go with your gut

None of these are hard and fast rules for successful collaboration. The nature of working with other people is that it’s unpredictable and difficulties will arise. In those situations you just have to go with your gut. Remember, you’d be having a lot less fun working all on your own. Good luck!

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