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In: Web Design, Website Development

Although collaboration isn’t inherently part of design, we’d say it’s pretty dang close. After all, our entire model is based on collaboration—and we built this model because we know that in design, collaboration works.

That doesn’t mean it always works smoothly. Or easily. But over the years, we’ve learned a thing or two about collaboration in design—and so have our designers. Here are a few of the most valuable strategies we’ve learned over the years.

Why is collaboration important?

Collaboration enables you to create better designs.

Illustration by OrangeCrush

As 99designs by Vista’s art director, Imogen Hoff, puts it, “It’s key for creative projects. Without it, ideas can become limited to your own experiences and thoughts, creating a bit of an echo chamber. Working with others enables different ways of thinking to combine and create something original, something that’s exciting.”

“Collaboration is key for creative projects. Without it, ideas can become limited to your own experiences and thoughts, creating a bit of an echo chamber.”

Essentially, the more eyes, brains and hands involved in a project, the more ideas are generated. That’s more eyes and perspectives to catch any oversights, mistakes or potentially insensitive design concepts before they leave the studio. This is also why diversity on creative teams is so important—when a team has varied backgrounds and experiences, their work reflects this diversity and by extension, it’s accessible to a wide range of audiences.

colorful puzzle piece logo
Logo design by Zea Lab

That’s not all. Collaboration also gives you access to resources you might not have in-house. For example, you might be tasked with animating a short video and determine that claymation, stop-motion animation created by making tiny movements to clay figures and scenes, frame-by-frame, is the best way to capture the vibe your client wants. Only problem is, your agency isn’t equipped to do claymation. You don’t want to turn down the project, and the client seems pretty committed to the claymation concept. So instead of giving up, you collaborate with an agency that can produce the claymation video the client wants.

Like they say, teamwork makes the dream work. And to help you collaborate better and by extension, do better creative work, we’ve broken down the most important factors to think about as you develop the optimal collaboration strategy for your company.

Identify your goals for collaboration

Next, identify Identify your goals for collaboration. Why are you collaborating, anyway? Is it because you need to or because you want to?

flat design of women working together in an office
Illustration by Fe Melo

Maybe you’re collaborating because it’s the most effective way to reach certain markets. For example, it might be easier to work remotely with teams in other markets than to attempt to localize your branding. Or maybe your goal is to overcome a challenge you’re facing, like hitting deliverable deadlines.

Identifying your goals will help you determine the best software and schedule strategies for your company.

A few examples of goals you might have include:

1. Taking on more work

When you’ve got more work than you can handle, that’s a good problem to have!

But it’s still a problem you need to resolve. And when you have it, outsourcing work to freelancers is often the solution. To take on more work by hiring freelancers, an important part of your strategy is determining a budget for their wages. In many cases, the freelancers can just be integrated into whatever project management tools and workflows you’re currently using.

2. Expanding your offerings

Maybe you want to go beyond your brick-and-mortar shops and offer ecommerce. You might choose to collaborate with ecommerce branding and marketing professionals as well as web designers to make this happen.

3. Breaking into new markets

If you’ve determined it’s time to launch overseas, working with designers in your new markets can be a way to ensure your product is appropriate and relevant to those markets. Abroad and at home, you might also want to start reaching a new demographic. Collaborators can help with this too, especially when reaching that new demographic means offering something new—like an app to connect with Gen Z. You might not have needed to work with web developers before, but suddenly find yourself needing someone who can bring your brand to augmented reality. Keep doing what you’re good at, and hire expert developers to do the things they’re good at.

4. Shortening your turnaround times

This goes along with the first goal, taking on more work. Essentially, shortening your turnaround times enables you to take on more work. Freelancers are often the answer here, and depending on your budget and available resources, hiring more staff can be too. When shortening your turnaround times is just one goal and your others include expanding your offerings or taking on bigger projects, partnering with another agency can be the right call.

Next, brainstorm strategies for reaching the goals you’ve identified. If your goal is to take on more client work, the strategy might be to contract freelancers to take on the overflow or support your team. If it’s to expand your offerings, the strategy might be to research similarly sized organizations that offer the services you want to offer, then partnering with them and leveraging the relationship to benefit you both. In this latter scenario, your collaboration strategy might be to simply start using the tools they’re already using and becoming part of their ecosystem.

Card design by Natalia Maca

In other scenarios, it isn’t this easy—you’ll need to put your own systems in place, and depending on your needs and goals, you might have to budget for those systems.

What does your collaboration strategy need for success?

Every creative collaboration is unique. Before you can develop an effective collaboration strategy, you need to determine exactly which goals to reach in order to be successful.

Answer the following questions:

1. Where are the members of my team located?

Think about things like time zones and countries—the more time zones you have to consider, the harder it will be to schedule calls. Asynchronous communication—communication that doesn’t happen in real time—might be the better choice in this situation.

2. Who is on my team?

Does your team have a diverse skill set, or are you heading a team of people doing the same task, within the framework of a larger organization? If it’s the former, you might need to adjust your turnaround expectations because different tasks take different amounts of time.

From here, determine which tasks can be completed in-house and which need to be outsourced. If certain tasks need to be outsourced, determine if they’re at a large enough scale to require partnering with an agency or if it would be most cost- and time-effective to hire freelancers.

3. How many steps does each project go through from conception to launch?

This might be an average, rather than exact, number of steps. Beyond the number of steps each project typically involves, think about the length of time—do you tend to turn things around in a few weeks? A few months? If you tend to complete projects with multiple milestones, you might need a comprehensive project management system like Monday.com.

4. How involved is the client in the design process?

Determine if you need to include them in regular calls or if it’s sufficient to offer them “view only” looks at projects in progress. Involving the client can slow a project down, but in some cases, it’s necessary—not only for satisfying their curiosity but for ensuring the project is meeting their expectations.

5. Are my projects fairly similar to each other, or are they all unique?

This ties in with the first question. A wider range of projects can mean you need software with more functions, whereas working on very similar projects over and over often means you only need specific software functions. As you determine your budget, keep this in mind—more varied projects often means more varied programs, which generally means spending more money to ensure you’re properly equipped. .

6. When I collaborate, is it with the same people and teams every time?

Or do I tend to work with a revolving door of creatives? If you frequently contract new creatives for short-term and one-off projects, you need to budget time and money for onboarding all of them.

semi-flat design of scientists working together to collect and analyze space data
Illustration by Natalia Maca

As you answer these questions, your team’s priorities will emerge. For example, your team might be spread across the globe and because of this, you might need to communicate asynchronously, rather than during regularly scheduled meetings. “Asynchronously” means a system where each person leaves notes at their own pace, rather than speaking in real-time. Think of a message board versus a chat room—that’s asynchronous vs. synchronous. Or your workflow might have the client giving input at every stage of development, so you might need to make weekly video calls part of your schedule, but not necessarily need to have multiple teams checking in with each other.

Once you’ve identified which tools you need to collaborate successfully—and it can be helpful to break them down into a list of must-haves and a list of would-be-nice-to-haves—think about the factors at play with your team. These are the things that can potentially make collaborating easier or more difficult, like team members’ different communication styles and your organization’s hierarchy (or lack thereof).

For example, if certain team members prefer to tackle projects on their own, then ask questions when they get stuck while others ask all their questions up front, then bang out their tasks without another word, it can be challenging to balance these communication styles. The solution might be a meeting at every project’s launch, then periodic check-ins with the individuals on the team.

Software is your friend

Organization is key to successful collaboration. Cloud-based software, software like Google Drive that doesn’t need to be downloaded but instead, “lives” on a server and may require a subscription to access, makes projects, notes and other content instantly accessible to anybody who has permission to access them—which makes these kinds of tools invaluable to any collaboration. In fact, remote working is almost impossible without them.

screenshot of Figma.com
Image via Figma

1. Project management tools

Project management software is where you track projects’ progress. At a glance, you can see the stage every project is currently in, and every collaborator can neatly see what’s on their plate and what’s due next. Keep in mind that this is a very basic description of what project management tools do—each one offers unique functionality, so when you’re looking for the ideal software, make sure you research which ones offer the functions you need and to test a few out before committing to one.

Some of the most popular project management tools include:

  • Airtable. A spreadsheet-based collaboration platform that utilizes database capabilities.
  • Asana. An organizational tool that makes it easy to note each project’s current stage and share files.
  • Trello. An organization platform that uses a tile-based visual style for each project.
  • Basecamp. A project management software that makes it easy to share files and communicate about these files.

2. Communication tools

Your team has gotta communicate. When you identified the best way for your team to collaborate with each other and those outside your organization, you probably identified what the team needs to communicate about, how frequently they need to communicate and who needs to be in each conversation.

For video meetings, these are a few of the most popular tools:

  • Google Meet. A free video call platform that allows up to 250 participants per call.
  • Zoom. A free-to-use video call platform that allows up to 1,000 participants per call.
  • Microsoft Teams. A conferencing platform that allows video and audio calls.
  • GoToMeeting. A web conferencing platform that allows video calls and desktop sharing.

For chat-style communication, try:

  • Slack. A chat platform that allows one-on-one and group messaging.
  • Discord. A chatroom-style platform that allows voice and text communication.
  • Google Chat. A free instant messaging platform.

You can also post message board-style communication in Google Groups and in most of the project management tools used above. Think of these more like leaving notes, rather than instant messaging.

3. Collaborative design tools

And then there’s the whole reason you’re collaborating: design!

When you’re working with multiple creatives, it’s important that every person is able to see the latest version of each design. Tools like these make that possible:

  • Figma. A collaborative tool that makes it easy to share design files with others.
  • Bit.ai. A document collaboration tool used for creating wikis and sharing documents.
  • Filestage. A review and approval platform that integrates with other creative tools to make revisions a breeze.
  • Mockplus iDoc. An online collaboration tool that enables users to work on designs together.

4. Text tools

When you need to produce written content like blogs, social media posts and evergreen website content, Google Drive has you covered—for free!

In fact, Google Drive offers a lot of valuable collaboration tools. One of them is Google Jamboard, a tool similar to Microsoft Paint that allows multiple collaborators to hash out ideas visually.

Other tools that can be great for teams that work on blogs, ads, website content and other text documents include:

  • Bit.ai
  • ProofHub
  • Confluence
  • Dropbox and Dropbox Paper (for visual design work)

You’ll likely find your team using multiple programs to collaborate effectively. Projects might be completed using Google Drive, discussed in Slack and tracked in Asana. Remember, each piece of software is a tool, not a be-all, end-all solution to your collaboration needs.

Test, review, and try other options

Every time you introduce a new piece of collaboration software, ask your freelancers and remote or in-house colleagues for their feedback on it.

A lot of the tools listed above offer free trial periods, so testing them out doesn’t need to break the bank. Make sure you take full advantage of these testing periods and any support the companies provide—this kind of software is an investment in your company that will pay off in future profits and growth.

Apply this same outlook to strategies you implement, too, like weekly Zoom calls and your organizational hierarchy. You won’t always find a strategy that “clicks” on the first try… and you might not know what works best for your team—or what suits your project’s goals—best until you try a few different approaches.

Once you’ve got a system, be consistent…but willing to adapt

When people know what to do, they’ll have an easier time communicating with each other. Until and unless there’s a reason to change your systems (and there likely will be at some point!) stay consistent.

That means that if all questions get posted to the group Discord, a chat room-like program where conversations can be divided into separate channels so they stay focused, keep them in the Discord. If new designs are unveiled at the Monday meeting, save any new designs for the following Monday meeting. Routines answer questions and keep everybody organized, which is key to successful collaboration.

Collaborate on your next amazing design

Your designs are great. But collaborating with other creatives would make them even more amazing. Whether you’re brand new to collaborating with others or you’re an old pro, it’s important to stay up to date on the latest in collaboration software—and to regularly get feedback from your team and partners! Something that worked for you five years ago, back when you were a smaller team, might not work as well now…or it just might not be able to scale with you.

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