Two Fridays ago, I was sitting at my desk in our open office here at Digital Surgeons, listening to the sounds of Rex Orange County blasting through my headphones, when I heard my name being called from behind me.
As I swung around in my chair, I saw senior art director Matt Pringle and designer Alex Hornak smiling as if it’d taken them five minutes to get my attention. They asked me if our director of story, James Dowd, was around to help think of some ad concepts and copy for a design study they were working on.
A design study is the final piece of any branding project we do. After every core branding element has been written and designed–from mission & vision statements and manifestos, to logos and typography–we put together an extensive, in-depth collection of mockups that showcase not only the different ways the brand will look & feel online and in ads, but also in interactive creative executions.
Having written the brand articulation and everything else for that project, it made sense that Matt and Alex asked for James. Except for the fact that James hadn’t been in the office all week. So, it actually made no sense at all. I looked at them as if they were kidding–they weren’t–and I said, “No, he’s on vacation. He’s been gone all week. You guys haven’t noticed?” We laughed and made fun of James for going on his third cruise in the past two years, and they asked me if I had time to pop over and throw down some ideas for a bit.
Normally, I’d be happy do this for any product or brand, regardless of what I was doing or had to do at the time. Hanging out and coming up with ideas is the main reason I got into this sort of business, so when those opportunities come around I jump at them. But because this product and the branding work they’d done so far was so killer, I was beyond thrilled to help out. I launched myself from my chair like I was Connor McDavid zipping through the neutral zone and settled in next to the duo of designers.
Within the first few minutes, the three of us found some chemistry and got into a nice little rhythm, just like a good jazz band or friends freestyling to old DJ Premier beats would. We were throwing idea after idea out there, naturally building on whichever ones resonated with us in the moment. We were talking out headlines, taglines, and visual concepts. We were yelling “Yes!” repeatedly because that’s what you do when you’re excited about something.
As our chemistry developed, our energy was rising, and with it our voices yelling “Yes!” were rising, too. We were making a bit of a scene, me being the ringleader of this tomfoolery and by far the loudest of the bunch.
I was having so much fun I didn’t even realize that our group of three had grown to four, as senior art director Andre Picard had joined the fold, seamlessly picking up his instrument, finding the key, and playing along. I couldn’t tell you how long Andre had been there for. All I knew was the four of us were straight up jamming, and for the next half hour, all we did was play, play, and play.
We entertained every idea, especially the crazy, wild, and weird ones. But what we entertained most was anything we thought would come close to making the client uncomfortable. We pushed those ideas further and further, unconcerned about their feasibility or likelihood of gaining approval. And, quite honestly, we didn’t care about feasibility or approval. Worries like those could wait until later. In that moment, the only thing that mattered was generating effective ideas and fun brand executions.
You know, the type of things that would stick, get attention, and make an impact.
By the end of our impromptu collaboration, Alex had more concepts than he knew what to do with. He could’ve created two design studies with the amount of viable, on-brand ideas we had thought of. It was impossible for all of those ideas to make it to the final deliverable, but the ones that did were a direct result of all the funny and silly ones that ended up dead or on the shelf. And, because of those latter ideas, we had ourselves a wide-ranging design study chock full of good ad concepts and genuinely unique executions.
The best part of it all? The client absolutely loved the work, so much so that they had zero revision requests on the first version of the design study. I don’t own a crystal ball, but I’m fairly confident that wouldn’t’ve been the case if the four of us hadn’t spent a half hour together one Friday afternoon, just messing around and having fun.
But all of it was possible only because we collaborated. Like, actually collaborated. Matt and Alex asked me a simple question, and just like that we were off to the races.
In fact, that day reminded me what successful creative collaboration is really like.
It isn’t an open-floor plan. It isn’t drawing diagrams on a whiteboard. And it certainly isn’t looking over someone’s shoulder and telling them what to do. Successful creative collaboration is play. It’s improv. It’s conversation and connection. It’s inviting passersby into the garage to jam with you. There are no rules or limitations in creative collaboration. There is no senior or junior, no account or creative. There is only a group of people, getting in touch with their inner child, willing and able to let it roam free, to explore and experiment, to have fun, and to do it all together.
So go ahead, let the kids play. You won’t regret it.