Design Lab is at the Seattle Design Festival this year! Find out more at: http://designinpublic.org/event/critical-collaboration-experiments-in-working-together/
Collaborative work holds the promise of bringing forth ideas and solutions that would not emerge from isolated work. What is the key to working as a team that yields this productivity? When the collaborative process of charette is examined critically, the subject of observation and critique shifts from the creative outcome of the charette to the practice of collaboration and productive cooperation. This shift from the end product to the internal dynamic of the process also shifted the emphasis of observation from creative production to interpersonal practice: in the moment that it occurs, collaboration exists as communication and shared objectives.
Thus, the most interesting images of the collaborative charette process, from the standpoint of critical practice, are the images that allow me to observe individuals operating as team members, and the questions that those photographs introduce have less to do with graphic skill or creative originality, than they have to do with engagement. Introducing another mode of critical practice, the tools that reveal the dynamics of group interaction can be found in critical discourse analysis. Like the critical examination of the charette, critical discourse analysis recognizes the significance of who speaks, and how they speak, and who responds.
The critical collaboration is a practice, embodying the multiplicity of meanings embedded in the idea of practice: it is a physical act of working with others toward a goal, a rehearsal of a set of material skills in order to improve; the sense of practice found in yoga, or meditation is also present in collaborative practice. In these two cases, the emphasis of the practice is not the end product, but the cultivation of an inner capacity or awareness. There is an important difference between inner practice and collaborative practice, however: the collaborative process requires and effort that faces out, toward the world, toward cultivating the potential for an entire group.
During the quarter there was some discussion about team roles; as practice, critical collaboration should call forth all of the different roles within each person. While observing the charettes in progress, the most critical position seemed to be striking a balance between careful listening to ideas and suggestions, while also considering how to further those goals. This is a facilitating role, that the individual simultaneously gathers group sentiment and considers how to move group goals forward. This role of facilitator and egalitarian progress can run directly counter to two significant forces in group dynamics: first, the reality that a team will sort into hierarchy, and that turns are often decided by strength of personality; and second, that collective opinion will rarely coalesce around a single goal, especially if there is an attempt to move toward an egalitarian model.
These two present the most fundamental challenges to real collaboration, the difficult questions that remain unchanged by practice, critique and self-reflection.
As one extreme of the teamwork image, the weekend team-building retreat makes it easy to fall off a table backwards: everyone knows the whole activity is covered by a liability insurance policy somewhere. Workplace hierarchies make clear the extent to which input and engagement is welcomed, but they also develop over a much longer time, potentially allowing for negotiations, exchanges, and critical engagement. In pragmatic terms, the charettes in this course presented the challenge of teamwork with an interesting real-time twist.
Meeting professionals, receiving a design prompt, and attempting to bring together all of the different moving parts into a completed whole, within the span of 3 hours does not permit time for abstract discussions of teamwork, nor does it allow time for informal or indirect conversations that might be used to defuse tensions or test ideas. Within the constraints of the time allowed, the process ran most smoothly when there was a concrete prompt or a clear category of design: charette teams faced with abstract goals or difficult-to-define categories spent a great deal of time in conversation building consensus around how to limit either the prompt or the category in so that it would be possible to produce some action upon the site that could be traced back to the original challenge.
Arriving at the end of the quarter, the meaning of ‘critical’ in the context of working among individuals, across disciplines, and within the challenges of social dynamics, does not seem to resolve into a simple set of phrases or easy formulae, and the outcome is that the challenge—and vital importance—of collaboration is that much more pointed.
Draw Early and Often
Commitment to the Process Yields Excellent Product
Allowing room for the creative process in lieu of “over preparing” material for a design charette is a key to success. Groups in our class that spent a lot of energy preparing material pertaining to the assigned topic of their charette either didn’t use it at all, and found the preparation a waste of time, or they spent the entire charette with tunnel vision goggles on. This means they focused so much on trying to stick to their original plans, that they didn’t let the charette flexibly and freely progress to take its own unpredictable form.
For our first charette, our student team focused solely on structuring the very beginning of the charette to ensure both students and the professional guests were “on the same page” even if our real and perceived expertise levels varied. This helped cultivate an atmosphere of everybody being an equal team player, and no one had more authority in the charette than anyone else. Expertise and age differences aside, starting off with the structured activities also equalized all participants in regards to airtime. After receiving the design task from the facilitators, we had everyone take a few silent minutes to independently consider and respond to the task. This exercise avoided the situation where someone steps up first to speak which invades others’ creative process, and might put them in a dominant role. After time was taken to independently think about the task, we went around in a circle to share what we had been thinking, drawing, and writing about. Feedback was refrained until everybody had shared their initial thoughts to ensure the space started off as comfortable and open for sharing as possible. Then, we went around in a circle again but this time sharing feedback about what we had heard from other people. This was a crucial activity because it forced people to actively listen to what other people had shared, and not just talk about their own ideas.
Beginning the charette with this structure was essential to establishing an equal and respectful atmosphere for our group. Although structure may sometimes seem counterintuitive to the design process when everyone involved is considered to be a mature, intelligent, and competent adult, it proved to be a crucial component for some personality combinations. Some groups featured very down to business, dominating, talkative, goal driven personalities, and with a lack of structure or mechanism for reining them in, the rest of the group was stomped out, shut down, and felt unable to participate. For other groups, members were strong facilitators, aware of their air time, good at posing questions to the group and coaxing comments out of more quiet members. For these groups, the structure proved to be kind of unnecessary, but who knows what might have happened without it.
A theme that proved to be true and consistent throughout our charettes is that a commitment to the process, rather than the product, results in success. In both charettes in which I participated, the bulk of the preparation was focused on how to loosely structure the process, not ideas for a potential product, and the end result of the charette was a tangible idea for a product.
Another critical component of the charette process is to not avoid conflict, but rather to encourage productive dialogue, which isn’t always exclusively agreement and compliments. If there is no editing or revision process after the initial ideas and brainstorms are put on the table, it is very difficult to finalize a concise product. While everyone should be respectful and pleasant, not everybody has to be 100% happy for 100% of the charette. In some charettes, the goal seemed to be to make everybody happy and not cut anyone’s ideas out. This could partially be due to the fact that the charettes were “performed” for observers in the art gallery, and no one wanted to seem rude. Also, the Pacific Northwest is a region known for people not always sharing what they are actually thinking for the sake of peace.
Valuable lessons I learned from my experience taking this class are as follows:
Don’t be afraid to disagree or challenge what someone has put on the table . Strategic and productive ways to do this include asking probing questions or asking them to elaborate, rather than flat out shooting down or disregarding their idea.
Take the time at the beginning of a charette or other collaborative session to understand each member’s goal of what you are doing together, or what stakeholders they represent—this not only helps guide the discussion, but also enhances understanding and provides perspective on each individual’s actions and contributions.
Though the conversation may be great and stimulating, start actually doing something tangible early—whether it be sketching, modeling, or drawing. In our last charette about ecologies, group members kept directing the conversation back to the design task to make sure we weren’t getting tangential. Another group member kept bringing up how much time was left, which made us start physically representing our ideas.
This class, as well as, the group discussions had me think in a different way about myself and my role in a group, I learned how my personality fits in with the group dynamic, what I’m comfortable with and let me experience work with likeminded individuals, in different academic paths. We were all able (and encouraged) to switch roles with in our group based on our personal experiences, strengths and weaknesses. We were able to explore what personality and collaboration is all about and hear from seasoned professionals about their work/personal experiences in such settings. Everyone benefited from such a diverse group in different ways, but the chance to be creative was what I will take away from this class.
This Critical Collaboration class was true to its name from my standpoint. It was an experience of COLLABORATION from conception to implementation in a college that CRITICALLY needs more of an emphasis on interdisciplinary interactions. That was the concept of this experimental class and it was just that. It was refreshing to obtain realworld group experience by simply promoting working together with that as the goal. The emphasis was on creating/creativity and collaboration, as opposed to final product or simple memorization, which allowed for anything to be possible. When you take that sort of pressure off of the table, it allows for ideas you necessarily wouldn’t expect.
The collaboration of preparation and meetings within our team progressed very naturally and easily, Kate and Gabriel are a creative and productive pair of individuals. There were no dominating personalities within our group and everyone was able to present many ideas without feeling discouraged or ignored. All of our ideas were incorporated into the charrettes in some fashion, and we all got along; which was nice, but isn’t always the case.
Not knowing what to expect from an experimental class, plus presenting in the Henry Art Gallery on top of that was where to pressure was felt the most for myself. With complete creative freedom comes that overwhelming idea that anything goes. The stress to create a product to museum standards was felt momentarily by myself and probably others, since I have never presented or showed an exhibit in an art gallery before. The experience of working in such a professional space legitimized our work and was a great platform professionally and personally for me.
Since we are all busy and this class took some preparation beyond class time, it was a little challenging balancing meetings with all of our schedules, but it all worked out in the end. Deadlines and time sensitive projects are what drive me to perform best under pressure, and learning from truly motivated individuals was a really inspiring aspect that is lacking with some other college experiences I have had.
I will take with me more than I know from this experience. The sounds, sights and interactions of Aurora stand out most. Working with a local non profit and creating my first furniture piece. A lot of laughs were exchanged and the ability to look at this area and the community there in a completely different light is important from a urban planning standpoint.
From this class I would, personally, like to explore more creative possibilities in art galleries and pursue my artistic side that I was able to experience this quarter. Professionally, I will keep in mind and bring to the table that “anything goes” mentality when collaborating and working in groups. All too often realistic and literal interpretations happen professionally and the only way to make an impact is to think big.
As a student looking to work professionally in the city of Seattle, our professional collaboration was a really intrical part of this class. We were able to work together creatively toward one goal, regardless of our status. We didn’t always see eye to eye with the professionals, but that is real life experience that you want from a class at the University of Washington.
All in all, we were able to produce work that we are really proud of, learn from local professionals and build lasting memories and friendships at the same time. Our group showed a piece at the Henry and I am grateful that Rob and the College of Built Environments saw the value in a student run class, since their experiences are most relevant being recent graduates.
A class like this would be useful for the College of Built Environments, in any context. The connections and networks I have made have reached beyond this class and outside of my field of study. I would not have had the chance to meet some really great people if I wouldn’t have had the chance to experience this class.
Prior to the development of this course little collaboration has occurred among the entities of the College of Built Environments; BE Labs scrapped the surface on the possibility of multi-departmental engagement, but said labs came and went quickly. Considering that designers in their respective professions must interact on a regular basis it seems ridiculous for design students to be isolated to their departmental units.
the act of working with another or others on a joint project
something created by working jointly with another or others
the act of cooperating as a traitor, esp. with an enemy occupying one’s own country
It is interesting that in the definition of “collaboration” there is nothing to be said for the difficulties that inherently exist in the process of collaboration. While charetting within the confines of the Henry Art Gallery students and professionals are not stakeholders of the problem at hand – we had little experience with Aurora, and nothing was going to change as a result of our decision making process. Collaboration requires equal investment and dedication from all parties. Collaboration requires passion.
Furthermore, the role of the devil’s advocate is an important one that ultimately enhances the quality of any end product. The devil was lacking in the crisp environment of the Henry; everyone knew that at the end of these three hours our lives [and those that we speak of] would go back to normal. The point for many was to get through the three hours rather than extrapolate on what it means to collaborate. As students perhaps that is where we get stuck…Interestingly enough nearly all of the guest speakers that joined in Tuesday conversations spoke to how successful collaborations are a result of individual people doing what they do best [on their own], but generating concepts by playing off the ideas of one another – collaboration via individual interpretation.
Ultimately, I found that the basis for collaboration is an even playing field, for if anyone has more “power,” or the appearance of such, that individual shall dominate the conversation. To a certain extent collaboration is a result of self-awareness, as well as awareness in general. How am I speaking to others; in what tone do I respond; what voice is perceived? How is said person responding to my voice; is he/she being included, etc.? The ability to read one’s body language is key in determining one’s next move forward.
Personally, the most I gained from the course as a whole was a result of my fellow team members; the team was composed of a landscape architect, architect, and interaction designer. Our conversations inspired actions and reactions. Of course it takes time to get to know one another, to gain insight into the inner workings of others, but as a few weeks passed we found ourselves functioning as a unit.
Generally speaking, if the notion of critical collaboration continues within the College of Built Environments [which it should], perhaps facilitators should come from a variety of fields rather than solely architecture, for we all think differently and it is necessary to have all voices represented. Collaboration should be emphasized more in order to foster the development of adept individuals that can advocate of a solution, or rather multiple iterations of a solution.
Studying and testing collaboration is a lot more insightful about what does not work or what should be avoided rather than what the perfect recipe for collaboration entails. Knowing what not to do is, in itself, as important as being able to define and replicate fruitful collaboration. If a clear common ground is established prior to or at the beginning of the collaboration process that everyone can agree upon, as well as a collective vision, then a commonality between each collaborator is created. Rather than harvesting peoples’ egos and potential for over-empowerment, a greater good is established where individual talents can be utilized instead towards one collaborative vision greater than the sum of its parts without which it would not thrive as fruitfully. Everyone wants to be heard, be respected, be recognised for their individuality, be utilized for their strengths, thrive over challenges, experience insightful social interaction and have fun while doing it. This can all be experienced with the process of fruitfully collaboration, despite the product results. Though there is no perfect recipe for this, there are basic elements that can help channel it.
Ground rules, like in every board game whether one is playing alone or in teams, helps create an equal and fair platform that everyone is subject to. No amount of power should override the ground rules. Of course these rules should not hinder the collaborative process, but help jump-start it. For example, being respectful in a collaborative process is crucial. “Step-up and step-down” is one of the many terms commonly used to make people aware of the importance of not only sharing ideas, but actively listening to them as well. Sometimes an individual will be assigned to reinforce these rules, which can be effective when collaborating in a large group (e.g. community board meetings). There are however fun and simple ways of helping people become self-aware of how collaborative they are being. An example would be using a physical object that would only allow the person holding it to speak. It could be a “magic stick” or a phone with a photo of a microphone taped to it. This easy trick will force people to think before they speak, be aware of how long they are speaking for. By physically having to pass this object to someone else, people are actively showing respect for the next person and their idea. Everyone is made to feel important and equal. Communicating ideas and actively listening to others’ ideas are just as important when it comes to the fruitful collaboration. Formulating ground rules as a group can become a helpful and short exercise to start engaging the process of collaboration towards the next step.
Establishing a common set of goals and a vision is the first struggle of most collaborations, but crucial to keep the process flowing and focuses. These goals and the vision can adapt depending on the direction that the conversation takes place, which can help or hurt the process and product. However, a good set of goals for a common vision will usually become even more informed if the ideas and its process are fruitfully collaborative.
The process is more important than the product. The fear and pressure to produce that perfect and innovative product can prematurely halt or overshadow the process of collaboration. Both the process and product are as fruitful as the ideas of its collaborators. A collaborative ambiance that allows everyone to share ideas and build on other’s ideas inspires a collaborative process and product. This can only occur if everyone is aware of and inspired to by individuals’ skills and ideas. Being excited about others and open-minded about their contribution to the collaborative process makes for a truly collaborative product reflective of everyone’s strengths.
Critical collaboration encompasses the learning experience that collaboration has to offer, whether the process flows or stalls, feels positive or negative, and has a attains both/one/neither a successful process/product. By being mindful and open minded to what collaboration can become every time one experiences it, that person is automatically benefiting from the experience of collaboration and helping it develop fruitfully. We are challenged to collaborate, and thus communicate physically/visually/verbally, every moment of our lives from the moment we are born. Yet, we still struggle to want to collaborate, to collaborate fruitfully and to define collaboration. Collaboration is something dynamic that cannot be made into a recipe for success. By adapting and embracing the impermanent nature of collaboration and its members, one can one truly start to utilize and enjoy the power of collaboration.
I decided to enroll in the Design Lab class because of its focus on collaboration within design. I was just coming out of a cross-disciplined studio the quarter before so I had experienced the struggles and setbacks that come along with collaboration. However, I also knew that it had been a delight to work with colleagues from other backgrounds on a project so I was intrigued to delve deeper into what collaboration in design can do. Even more intriguing was the discussion of Aurora Avenue. I have always been puzzled about Aurora and its context with Seattle, but to think of it with a design perspective sounded challenging.
I didn’t have too many expectations for the class because it was brand new and still being flushed out as to what exactly we would be doing. I appreciated the fact that it was open to students outside of the College of Built Environments. I wanted to learn more about how collaboration can be an asset in design and how to successfully go about designing in a group. I understood that there would be an exhibit in the Henry Art Gallery and thought that it would be an exhibit that we all collaboratively worked on throughout the quarter.
As a class led by four former students of CBE, the Design Lab itself was an experiment in collaboration, and it seemed to come across the same challenges as the charette groups. There were definitely personalities that stood out and took charge and others who were reserved and did not speak up as much. There was also a clash between certain professionals and professors who came to the class and the leaders. Even though they were the leaders of the class, it still seemed that they gave in to the seniority of the professionals and professor and let them take over. I would have really liked to see them have a better handle on the class. With that said, I did enjoy all of the guest lecturers that came to class, especially the ones from outside of the design world. They brought a fresh perspective to the idea of collaboration and almost gave more of validity to the class by showing how collaboration in many ways is a challenge in all fields and the problems and successes in each can be connected.
The charettes were an interesting twist to the class. They definitely challenged my personality and helped me figure out my strengths and weaknesses in collaboration. Our first charette on transportation definitely made me re-evaluate myself and how I subconsciously let my ideas fall to the way side and rather I work on keeping the group focused. Looking back, I am a little disappointed that I let the professionals take such a leading role on the discussion and the end product. Seniority definitely played a large role and I hate say that the male dominant presence also shut me down a little bit. While the transportation charette definitely did not go as planned, it really helped me dissect the process of collaboration and the different roles I can take on.
The second charette on politics was much more enjoyable. This is due to the fact that we had already experienced one before, we were passionate about what were talking about, and the professionals were much more laid back. I think this charette focused much more on Aurora Avenue and we no longer worried about how we were collaborating, what were producing, etc. It was a great way to end the Design Lab experience because we were all proud of what we accomplished.
While appreciated the consistency of groups in the two charettes, it limited interaction of the class as a whole and it became exclusive to your charette group. I also think the leaders of the class missed out on the opportunity to join in on the charette. They could have easily each joined a group and been a part of the process. The charettes were a great way to give hands on approach to the design collaboration process.
The Design Lab provoked questions on the field of design and especially on how I fit into the process of design. I came across many moments where I questioned my own philosophy on design as well as how I interact with others. The open sketchbook on Aurora Avenue became more of a sketchbook on myself. The self-reflecting nature helped me leave the class much more knowledgeable on group dynamics as well as much more aware of how I interact with others in design collaboration.
Here we are, at the last and final charrette of the quarter. After some rearranging of dates, the Ecology team ended the quarter with a fun and energetic collaboration of ideas. There were not a lot of audience members for our last charrette, and a couple of the professionals were running late, but that didn’t affect things negatively. Everyone quickly showed up and got the event off to a great start.
There was a lot of sketching that took place from the very beginning of the discussion, which hasn’t happened so rapidly in other charrettes. As it was a plus to get things going quickly, the conversation of what “ecology” meant to the team took priority in the conversation…and dominated the conversation for nearly an hour and a half.
There was a lot of discussion back and forth about what ecologies means, but little discussion about how this translates to Aurora, or what this means specifically for this assignment. Everyone got along and there were little discrepancies on the direction and vision of the final product. The group connected their vision to all of the past charrettes (literally by masking tape), so it was visually a nice way to see the networks and how they overlap.
The final product was a combination of sketches and 3D animations that visually portrayed the concept of the discussion. Everyone participated and was engaged throughout the entirety of the night. No one’s voice was overshadowed or got lost.
Overall the team did well. It didn’t seem like they were over prepared or had a specific end goal in mind, which is perfectly fine, but a little more creativity when it came to the layout of the charrette would have been a way to change up the pace for the finally.
Cami Culbertson and Tyson Hiffman
If the subject of the charette is not the design proposal that emerges, but the practice of teamwork, what is the appropriate method of analysis?
The end of charette this week disappeared- from the observer’s chair, forward movement had stalled repeatedly, and the final wrap came and went without the charette team making any sort of presentation to the audience.
Members of the charette team reported that the process was comfortable, and that they were comfortable with the finished work, and it is hard to judge from the outside.
This leads to an interesting question, about the experience of the charette as a conversation, and the judgment of charette as a goal-oriented activity.
There were only two observers this week, and we had a conversation that explored the progress of the charette through the lens of an incident that occurred after the break, and also explored the dynamic of the charette through the use of the pronoun “I”.
After the break, an incomplete charette team returned to the table, and this team gradually resumed work. However, the group appeared to have trouble reaching consensus without the full team at the table. When one of the professional members returned to the table, she challenged the team to expand the scope of their thinking: prior to the break, there had been a tenuous move to bring the group together around a poster-campaign centered on Aurora Commons.
This challenge did not activate the group, and Angela and Mark have differing opinions about this intervention.
Mark felt that the challenge was valid, and that the scope ought to have been broader, whereas Angela thought that the timing of the challenge dissipated the group’s energy, especially given the already fragile progress of the charette.
When we considered this fragile progress, we tried to identify what was happening. This focuses back on the question of teamwork, and in particular different possibilities for making statements, taking positions, asking questions, or generating consensus by inviting input.
One big stumbling block we noticed was the use of “I” phrases. We nicknamed “I” the toxic pronoun, as it seemed to effect conversation/discussion like a bucket of cold water. It seems like there are a couple of possibilities for this- first, taking an “I” position stakes out ownership of an idea; in rapidly forming groups like these charettes, it seems difficult for others to challenge such personal positions. We also noticed that “I” phrases are very difficult to pose as open ended questions, those which cannot be answered with a simple yes/no, but invite others to add, alter, or otherwise contribute.
We took a look deeper into the question “who are the daily users of this space and how can we include them into the planning process.” The charette last Thursday built off of the previous group’s work with Aurora Commons, a community living room. We were inspired by the community aspect of the Aurora Commons and really wanted to bring as much attention to this space as possible to empower the part of the community that doesn’t have much of a voice.
We weren’t sure where this focus would take us with the topic of Politics, but our final design and deliverables focused on pride of space as the first step of outreach to this demographic. We focused our attention on inexpensive and creative design solutions that brought the “living room” feeling outside and to the street. We proposed an enclosed space using recycled, locally sourced pallets for planters and seating, incorporated a vertical green wall (suggested by an audience member), added outdoor power outlets and have The Aurora Commons logo projected at night to draw attention to the space.
In addition to the design elements, we drafted a rough copy of a grant that Aurora Commons can use to obtain a washer and dryer and created a video that gives a voice to the users of Aurora, as well as video documentation on the perspectives of Aurora from those who don’t use the space on a daily basis.