January 2011

And the moon held the poet: subjective attachment in collaborative design

Solitary creation gives birth to ideas with an umbilical noose; once nourishing, it now slowly strangles. How can we learn to cut the cord and free the creations we so personally create?

Ideas are not of independent origination, but manifestations of shared understanding. A successful design will communicate its purpose effortlessly: a button on a form, a handle on a mug and a plug in a bathtub should all convey intent. The form and function reflects the solution not merely the designer. To express ourselves fully through design is not the same as perceiving our designs as a reflection of self.


As designers, we use experience and skill to create forms that aesthetically communicate and endue function. Our subjectivity, uniqueness and individuality are all contributing assets in our ability to generate ideas. But this can come at a price. Subjectivity is difficult to balance, experience becomes stubbornness, achievement can invite arrogance. Our pride and vanity can lead us to stagnate by simply clinging to what we know and what we see as ‘ours’. We ignore and starve others of contribution, failing to see that it is through others that our work will flourish.

We unconsciously weave our emotions, decisions and identity into everything we do, forgetting that our colleagues, clients and users are also vital contributors in the creation of our work. Tightly bound to our convictions and decisions, judgements become personal.

We should aim to release ourselves from the limitations of egotism, while acknowledging the importance of our individual experience; by contributing to a group effort we are not giving up our valu- able contributions as individuals.


We can also recognise our attachment to an idea as a form of control. Our desire to realise the best possible outcome often means a clumsy, brutish endeavour; grasped with both hands and narrow gaze. We take fewer risks, doubt ourselves more and our experimentation is diluted by our own fear of failure. When working in isolation, our decisions become personal and others sense that. An idea created in isolation rarely invites constructive change from others — even when asked for — for fear of hurt feelings.

Seeing our work through the participatory eyes of the collective dissolves fear and ego, opening the possibility to try things we wouldn’t have the confidence or insight to do in isolation.

Participants who actively share and learn together are able to communicate honestly and clearly. When something unexpected hap- pens, they react, adapt and move on together. Anything done in isolation should be offered back regularly with the freedom to change without fear, as continually sharing ownership amongst all participants promotes collective responsibility for failure and success. Freedom in experimentation is built through confidence in failure without fear. Failure should be seen as an exploration of real value instead of time lost. Rejection ceases to be so personal.

Personality, objectivity

Our individual style and personality are important factors when working with others. We win work, build trust and reputation by being who we are so we shouldn’t confuse ‘letting go of ego’ with renouncing style, conviction or the ability to stand up and say what is right or how we feel. A movement towards objectivity allows our ideas to develop organically with the help of others. Pure objectivity will never be fully realised, but we can create a space in which to deconstruct and rebuild our ideas together without fear or prejudice.

We have the opportunity to really see our clients, colleagues and users as equal design participants — realised through perception, interaction and even confusion. By understanding our subjectivity, and attempting to let go of our attachments, we are open to the possibility of a balanced vision — one that embraces collaboration with grace, elegance and maturity.


Jason Cale

Product Design Manager at Facebook. Ex Freerange. Mystic Artist kinda vibes. Who hast the KOMBUCHA??


This article was commissioned for our January 2011 magazine. Like it? View all articles, grab our RSS feed, and subscribe to our newsletter.