staying honest

I was reading Starting a Business: Advice from the Trenches: A List Apart and along with the usual– […]

I was reading Starting a Business: Advice from the Trenches: A List Apart

and along with the usual– get an accountant, do you really need an office, etc– came across this slightly unexpected bit of advice; get a partner. “A partner will keep you on your toes. When you want to buy that $2,000 scanner, he or she should question why. If you want to design a promotional piece, it should be a group effort to get the best results. If you start to slack off, he or she will be there to remind you of business priorities. No one can do everything, and two complementary skill sets create an asset that cannot be reproduced when flying solo.”

I’ve long thought about partnerships in design processes… xtreme programming advocates pair programming for speed, quality and to avoid the bus factor. Cooper adapts this in their design approach, pairing an interaction designer with a design communicator on all projects. AIfIA, in the beginning, tried to make sure all project leaders had co-leaders, as volunteering can be onerous (though it turns out sometimes a short burst from a determined individual can be just as valuable. Actually, when you’re a volunteer organization, anytime anyone does anything it’s valuable).

But lately I’ve been adding to this contemplation of the value of partners the consideration of creative conflict. Creative Conflict is what my former creative director at Egreetings used to call it when two folks were going at it like cats and dogs over a design choice. Unlike many folks who shun conflict, he welcomed it and encouraged it. He explained it to me like this: Creative Conflict is when two viewpoints on how to design –slightly to very out-of-sync– come together in a passionate but constructive argument and enhance product quality. (paraphrased, sorry rossi!)

Lately I have come across the concept of Creative Abrasion which sounds a lot like Creative Conflict to me.
“Each of us is hard-wired and highly proficient in some modes of thinking and relatively uncomfortable with others. Yet, if we are to spark innovation, we need the intellectual disagreement that raises options.” — Dorothy Leonard, When Sparks Fly.

Ms. Leonard champions designing teams with members from different backgrounds to create conflict for the purpose of enabling innovation.
In a talk in which he embraces this concept, John Seeley Brown says “Disciplines are not very good at interacting with each other. Just walk into any type of campus. So the catch to me is: how do you create a space of pluralism that somehow manages to foster and honor a kind of creative abrasion. So you can get ideas that really rub against each other productively as opposed to destructively.” and talks about it in terms of physical space that allows disciplines to interact and argue safely.

And now I’m wondering now if the real value of a partner is someone to argue with (which means your partner must be someone you *can* argue with).

So I think the question next to ask yourself is who are your design partners… who do you argue with, who cares about making good design as you do, who can hold the knowledge of the design along with you, and who makes your design better?

Off hand I’d think any designer would need a business partner to fight to balance business and design, a user advocate partner so the designer can fight for elegance over mass appeal (and vice-versa) a technology partner to fight to push the borders of what’s possible… and all these battles if done respectfully, eloquently, thoughtful and with the best interest of the product at heart should be better than mere design by committee.

So finding a partner requires finding someone

  • articulate
  • passionate about making good products
  • with a very different view into the product than yours
  • who can argue without getting personal
  • whom you respect.

    and a bigger question is, if you have only one partner (such as in the article that kicked off this thoughtwander), who can provide you the creative abrasion you need, while still being a good partner for creation of not only design but of a business?


    Add Yours
    1. 1
      dave p.

      When I worked for a Web design firm I called it “Good Cop, Bad Cop.” My take on it is slightly different. On one side we have a designer, who is going for the innovative, outrageous, pie in the sky design; on the other is the producer, the person who is keeping the client’s interests in mind. The producer will reign in the designer, while the designer will try to bring out the producer, and the result will be (or should be) a good design.

    2. 2

      The need for a partner cannot be underestimated. Somebody needs to be there to remind you that, in between moments of bliss over no longer having a boss to answer to, you had better start developing your business.

    3. 3

      Thinking back, I’ve seen a lot of situations where there was the potential for great things to come from this kind of conflict, but the only thing that came of it was a power struggle. I think that, unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult for such discussions to be productive if there’s a (real or perceived) inequality of power. The (rare) times I’ve experienced these kind of discussions without the power issue getting in the way have resulted in a much deeper and better understanding of underlying issues, and been amazingly productive.

    4. 4

      If you don’t have fighting, it means you don’t have people on your team willing to stand up for what they believe in. We purposefully hired and encouraged our team to disagree at my firm VFIVE. I would suggest that someone be in charge of moderating the argument though, to avoid it getting personal. In a two-person business, both parties need to remember that struggle fuels innovation.

    5. 5
      Livia Labate

      During the time I owned a business, its strongest characteristic were the dynamics between my partner and I. “Creative abrasion” or whatever one might call it, was the one reason why the business came to be in the first place – we both worked as independent consultants and identified we each had problems the other solved differently – so we joined forces.

      Since we started working together, we found both a) points where we complemented each other’s work and b) points where our ideas overlapped/diverged. The complementing points gave us speed and productivity, while the overlapping and diverging points allowed us to build on each other’s ideas, be creative and leverage the complementing points.

      I liked your list of qualities in a partner “articulate, passionate about making good products, with a very different view into the product than yours, who can argue without getting personal, whom you respect.” Some of this characteristics are personal traits, others are embedded in the relationship itself.

      The way I managed to find that in a person (sounds like dating, eh?), was in a friend. And I’m not talking about a colleague or a work mate, I’m talking about a real personal friend. (And in my case, I wasn’t even looking, my business partner and I had met in a chatroom and become friends across oceans long before we started talking business). Of course, this is just what I experienced – perhaps such partnership is possible without friendship? I really don’t know; haven’t tried it yet.

      As for your question about having just one partner, I think it’s possible to make both the business and the creative processes work with that same partner, as long as there is mutual respect. Even at times (the difficult ones) when the abrasion can extrapolate to insult. This is precisely where I think friendship makes all the difference – it is when both need to be able to laugh about it right after the problem is solved. That’s why I think it would be easier if your partner was a real personal friend. I think the concept of “business is business and friends are friends” (or whatever variation) is total BS.

      It’s like SIGIA-L… Wonderful ideas come up, a sort of social-brainstorming begins, and then some go over the boundaries of what is relevant or useful to the purpose of the conversation. In a partnership, you know you shouldn’t cross the line, but if you do, you also know how to make up for the mistake and get back on track – it’s called commitment. And you also make sure you do not do it again – and that’s commitment too.

      I really love the “creative abrasion” that comes up in groups (more so than is two-people partnerships), because the abrasion is thicker and (consequently) so is the creativity and richness of the result.

      P.S: It is important on a two-people partnership to establish the boundaries from the start. In my case, we split the business 51%/49%. This way, should there come a time of total stubbornness on both sides, one of the partners had the power to finish it off. Fortunately, it never came to that, the “creative abrasion” was very synergic. But I would advise folks to always make that clear beforehand.

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