Is Designing Solo the Best Way?

Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva

Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva

In the Final Comprehensive of my Landscape Design Course, we had to work in teams of three. I was in a group with two other talented people (both professional designers), and our task was to redesign a small park on the campus of GW.

We brainstormed. We sketched. We had meetings — many, many meetings. We discussed. We argued. We tried to change one another’s minds and we attempted compromise.

In the end, I don’t think any of us were particularly pleased with what we’d designed, and neither were our professors.

It was a frustrating experience.

I recalled this experience as I read a fascinating book called Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. The book is about how our society — whether it’s politics, the workplace, school — has come to reward extroversion to an almost embarrassing degree, and suggests that we begin to value the unique contributions of introverts.

The author, Susan Cain, also presents loads of research to suggest that our current infatuation with “Collaboration” is overblown at best. Group brainstorming, for example, has been shown in myriad research studies to be completely ineffective, often hindering individual creativity. The best creative work, it seems, is accomplished by individuals working alone (think Steve Wozniak, Albert Einstein, WB Yeats).

Which is why, I believe, the design my group produced during my Comprehensive course was less than stellar. I believe that — had we each worked alone — we would have created three superior designs instead of one mediocre one. (I also believe that designing individually would not have taken any longer — that the time we saved by splitting up drawing tasks was less than the time we wasted meeting, arguing, and emailing over details.)

If you are a designer, I would be curious to know how often you work with teams during the design phase and how that works out for you. I realize that the large scope of some landscape design projects makes working in teams necessary, but I’m talking more about the conceptual phase, I guess. Do any of you actually work with others to come up with the initial concept of a design? How does that work? Do you ever feel your ideas are compromised?

I ask, too, because I am aware that my own profession — education — worships at the altar of Teamwork and Collaboration. God forbid you are the kind of teacher who stands in front of the class delivering a lecture, and then allows the students to sit quietly and work independently. No, everything now is “Cooperative Learning” and “Peer-to-Peer” “Group Projects” and “Collaborative Teams.” And I believe that educational bureaucrats justify this model because they feel they are preparing students for the “real world” of business, where apparently everybody works in teams all the time.

So I am curious to hear from designers — or from anybody else in a creative profession — about your thoughts on working in teams. When you work with others, is your imagination energized or stifled? Are your best ideas nurtured by your colleagues? Or hindered by them?

35 thoughts on “Is Designing Solo the Best Way?

  1. Team work is necessary when group efforts/projects are being done, but creative work requires solitude and work alone (I think). There are always exceptions, of course, but group activities are greatly over rated in our society. I think.

    • Yes. I’ve noticed it even on reality shows. For example, on Project Runway the designers invariably hate the team challenges and their designs suffer for it. Of course this is good for the show’s producers because the team challenges create plenty of conflict and snark among the designers, which is fun to watch.

      The book I mention points out that working in teams is good for many things — creating a sense of unity and common purpose and that sort of thing — but that if generating good ideas efficiently is the purpose then teamwork is almost certainly inferior.

  2. I always hated group projects in school and work. Even in software development, it is better for one or two persons to do most of the design, then parcel out the work to a team who can then refine the design. Can you imagine painting or sculpting by committee? Ugh.

  3. The kind of collaboration being forced upon you with a team assignment dynamic is something I cannot imagine being replicated in a professional environment. I work with peers all the time, but it’s in the context of a hierarchical firm. A whole team of designers may work on a project, but the direction of the design is ultimately decided by a director/principal. And every project is assigned a project manager and they also shape the project just by their sheer amount of work they put into it. There’s a high degree of creative freedom, but the context of the hierarchy makes decision making clear. You don’t have the awkward dynamic of a “team of equals.” That is a product of school assignments and designer reality shows.

    Every so often–particularly in the early stages of a project–we have a particularly productive collaboration with an architect, engineer, or other design related consultant coming up with a design. But even in those situations, there is a client, a prime, a sub–in other words a hierarchical context that makes collaboration work.

    I sympathize with the goal of team assignments; I just don’t think they prepare you for much of anything in the real world.

    • You’re the third person to bring up the idea of hierarchy in team projects. That makes way more sense than sticking together (in your words) a ” team of equals” to just hash it out. I will say that my experience in every other GW class — aside from the Comprehensive — was really positive. Working individually, and then bringing in my design for the instructor and other class members to critique was extremely helpful.

      Trying to replicate a genuine hierarchical dynamic would be hard to replicate in a school assignment, I think.

      • It’s true that in education, teams are not set up with a hierarchy, but education is also partly about learning leadership. In a team of peers, a leader almost always emerges, and it’s not necessarily the person with the best ideas — it may be the person that works hardest or the one that can form a consensus… or sometimes it’s just the loudest person.

        In my work field, software development, I do my best work alone but integrating external input is a key skill (even when I don’t want to!). Lessons learned in many painful teams helped me learn those skills, including the most important one of all: when to shut up and listen.

        • True about learning leadership, although when we set up teams in school, we don’t usually tell the kids that leadership and group dynamics is the point of the exercise. And we don’t assess leadership, we assess the product that the team makes.

  4. I think as long as their is one central leader that has final say then collaboration can be a great thing. I work on smallish residential designs and get input from the contractor I work with and obviously the clients have various degrees of involvement. It can be great to bounce ideas off someone or get input but it can be frustrating as well. It can be hard to keep your ego in check and to know what ideas are worth fighting for and when it is worth giving in.

    • Yes, you are echoing what many others are saying. I am finding everybody’s comments really fascinating — especially because this idea of hierarchy is NOT the model that schools are following when they assign groupwork. Like Cain points out in her book, often we have people work together for other reasons (like buiding morale, unity, etc.) but teachers don’t grade how well the students worked together, they grade the quality of the final product. It’s a bit a conundrum.

  5. Yes, I agree that designing by committee is usually the worst of all worlds. However, in my experience, collaboration can work well when one person ‘owns’ the design, but receives input from another designer, as creative critcism. I can get too close to a design when I am working in complete isolation, and a fresh opinion from someone less involved can really help the design process. If one doesn’t have the opportunity to get this kind of input, I think one can learn to stand back from one’s own work, maybe put it aside for a period, and that can really help the design, but I do very much appreciate input from colleagues when it is available.
    I will look out for the book you mention. I certainly agree that for the most creative work, quiet space where one can go deep into one’s own inner resources, is necessary, and that is not the modus operandi that is valued or promoted in general in this society. Pity kids growing up who rarely get that chance to be still, quiet, reflective, thoughtful. It must be hard to teach in that context.

    • Rose, I agree about getting feedback from others that you trust. That can be very valuable, but that is totally different from being forced to collaborate on the ideas in the first place. One prerequisite, though, even for getting input from others on what you’ve already created, is that the critiquers be skilled, and at least somewhat interested and invested in what you’re trying to achieve. I think that “workshopping” is overused, too, and that when people are forced to critique others’ work it often falls flat because the critiquers often don’t have the knowledge to provide helpful feedback, and often don’t have the interest. (Classic example: putting kids in Peer Revision groups to check each other’s papers when none of them really know how to write themselves.)

      But I agree that having another pair of eyes look at your work, when you are ready for that, can be enormously helpful.

  6. As a recovering corporate (transactional, not litigation) lawyer, I have a lot of experience with this subject. Most “deals” have lots of lawyers thrown at them. But the team dynamic on such projects reflects the hierarchical law firm structure, with partners monitoring senior associates, who monitor junior associates, who monitor paralegals. You don’t see a lot of lawyers working at the same level on the same product. This approach works pretty well, actually — it allows the junior person a chance to create and then learn from the edits of the senior people. The team dynamic you described for your landscape project would be a disaster at a law firm — clients won’t pay twice for the same work, lawyers (who are notoriously picky) would spend countless hours revising and second guessing their colleagues work, and the time and bills would climb sky high. Nope, I may be surprised to say it, but I think most law firms have it right on this subject. Much better to let the junior person work independently and then submit work for review and comment by a more experienced designer.

    • I think people like the IDEA of everyone being equal and having equal input, but it looks like in the real world that ain’t how stuff gets done. As confirmed by your experience in a law office.

  7. Was it the little veterans’ memorial park across from the GWU business school? When I did that class, we had to design it as a monument to fly fishing and incorporate an antique English telephone booth.

    I only had one partner, and I think we turned in pretty good work, but it was often frustrating, and I have a feeling we might have each created something better on our own (although having a partner to give you non-binding feedback throughout the design process would be useful). It was helpful to have someone with whom to share the work, since a number of drawings and a model were required. Also, it would be difficult time-wise for the professor to do a full critique on twice or three times as many final designs — and I think that is the real reason for breaking the class into teams.

    • Yes, Cindy, it was that same park. My team came up with Urban Wetland as a concept, which we all liked, but none of us could agree on how to execute it.

      We had the added obstacle of having to come up with a 5 year plan and a 10 year plan for the site, which meant twice as many drawings. Bah! Even now, I don’t even like thinking about it.

      You might be right about creating teams so that the teachers wouldn’t have to critique so much work. Convenience of the teacher should never be a reason for shaping an assignment, but as a teacher myself I do know that’s sometimes how things play out.

  8. I found it difficult at university to get anything done in a group situation. I remember one project I created the whole thing so it was complete and on time and didn’t worry that my buddies got credit for my work – at least it was good!
    Yet now I’m working I find that we are collaborating constantly. Hardly anything is solo.
    So it depends…
    My friend Nicky creates beautiful garden art sculptures and she works solo. So it totally depends on the situation.

    • I remember doing a “group paper” in my geology class in college. Two of us wrote the entire paper and the third girl did nothing, but got as much credit. Of course by the time you’re in college it feels silly to complain to a professor about things being “unfair.” But I just remember thinking how ludicrous it seemed to write a paper as a group.

  9. Short answer – yes, from 23+ years in practice & too many volunteer efforts (mistakes).
    Long answer – must be totally like-minded in philosophies and competence to make it work. One such “xeriscape demonstration garden” in town designed by committee is a failure, especially 20+ years after it’s inception. So…beyond that class where you do have a choice – believe in yourself, unless you really are 100% on-track with others, based on past and repeated successes – and the project leader with final say is clearly-defined, and each person’s boundaries are clearly-defined. Otherwise, say the 1st work kids seem to learn (no), and run like &#@@.

    • Yeah, projects designed by committee always seem watered down. Compare the Vietnam Memorial (totally the vision of one artist) with the awful new World War 2 memorial, which I can only imagine was designed by a committee. The design concept of the WW2 memorial must have been something like, “Bland and Unoffensive Tribute to Vague Patriotic Ideals.”

  10. At my place of work, my manager has learnt that high fives and calling everybody “guys” does NOT motivate or bring out the best in me. It gives me a face like a bulldog chewing a lemon.

    Seriously though, is the point of “team-building exercises” the deliberate destruction of personal space and dignity?

    • High fives are nothing. A middle school I worked at had everybody do the Macarena at our first meeting in the fall, as a faculty “ice breaker.” I was in my 20s at the time so was easily intimidated into participating, but I remember a few of the older teachers exercised passive resistance and just sat there.

      It was a low point of my teaching career.

  11. Mary, as an introvert and (somewhat) creative person and a teacher (you know), I prefer to work by myself. The few occasions where I have to work with a group, I cringe and feel that what results is never as good as something produced by a brilliant individual (not me, for sure). Working alone or with a trusted and competent colleague is the best and most productive method for me, at least.

    • I agree. This is why I kind of liked teaching Creative Writing at Robinson, cuz there was only one of me. It might have been nice to swap ideas with somebody else occasionally, but on the whole it was great to be completely in charge of a course and design it totally according to my whims. Plus no team meetings!!

  12. Since I didn’t attend school during the “Smells like TEAM Spirit era,” I have only my children’s experience to go on. In the vast majority of cases I’ve witnessed one person generally ends up doing most of the work–extrovert or introvert. In my day that was called cheating.

    I agree that way too much emphasis is placed on team work in schools (also too much emphasis on STEM–another rant) and also that a team of equals isn’t really a team at all. Everyone on a team should have a defined role, right? It can be hierarchical or not. The point is not that everyone is equal but that diverse opinions are valued on a team because the reason for teaming is to harness expertise and perspectives across disciplines. In your situation, one in which everyone has the same training and role, I really don’t see the point of teaming as a learning tool.

    In the real world of design and construction, however, the problem is the siloed nature of the A/E/C industry. As design-build comes to the fore and designers and construction practitioners are aligned from project inception to completion they actually have to learn teaming behaviors. It doesn’t come naturally and it isn’t taught in most schools of design or construction. Frankly, the traditional structure, which pits designer against constructor and places the owner in the middle truly discourages collaboration.

    I interviewed the Chicago landscape architect Douglas Hoerr’s firm before he partnered with Peter Lindsay Schaudt back in ’08 or ’09. Hoerr’s firm put their internal teams together based on the staff’s aptitudes, placing, for example, slow starters with people who geared up quickly, and always making sure there was a “closer” on the team. He and his managing principal were firm believers in this approach.

    Not sure about introvert/extrovert part of analysis. While schools probably do favor extroverted behaviors–as long as he/she stays “on task”–if no one has a defined a role what does it matter whether you have a team of extroverts or a team of introverts?.

    • Susan,

      Thanks for sharing your insights on this topic as it relates to the actual design-build process. I have very limited experience with landscape design in practice, having really only worked on very small projects and of course having studied it in school. I can see how the building process could easily turn into a weird three-way dynamic between designer, contractor, and client, instead of a harmonious collaboration.

      My brother is a structural engineer and he often complains about architects and how they don’t know what they’re doing, but the architect’s role is different from the engineer’s…I guess our specialties have the potential to cause conflict on a project but then again, as one of my classroom motivational posters says, “If everybody is thinking alike then somebody isn’t thinking.” A little deep philosophy for us on a Tuesday afternoon, courtesy of George Patton.

  13. You should have taken a page from the Top Chef playbook: Deconstructed Urban Wetland, Presented Three Ways. For years, I participated in a Citizen’s Oversight Committee for a public agency. It was like death from a thousand cuts made by Robert’s Rules of Order. Next time you must collaborate, try this: Listen intently and actively, asking direct questions of your fellow committee members. As the meeting winds down, attempt to summarize the proceedings while specifically referencing the best input and the individual (by name) who provided it. Then, incorporating those ideas in some small way, present your own idea. People LOVE to be listened to, and they love to hear their own name. They won’t remember that you didn’t collaborate, and because you recognized their particular contribution, they will think you are super smart. It’s how you Win at Being On a Committee. AND: remember what ‘Team’ stands for: Tell Everyone About Me.

    • You laugh, but I think my group did use the term “Deconstructed” in our concept, now that I think about it. aaah!! Top Chef has invaded all aspects of our culture!!

      It’s funny because just yesterday my husband and I were joking about that term…how chefs should really take deconstructionism to its logical conclusion and just present diners with a bag of ingredients.

  14. Great discussion! I’m not a professional designer but as an introvert, my creativity comes when I’m alone. In fact I function much better with any task when I can do it alone. Except for cases where more brawn is required, I can do it better by myself. … I’d like to read that book. It sounds fascinating.

  15. Mary, the answer in this particular case seems to be “yes”, it’s better to go solo. When I was doing that professionally, I had a definite distaste for church jobs, and other situations where I was dealing with a committee. Some were OK, but a “Landscape-By-Committee” look would fairly characterize the end result , much of the time. Slightly different situation, but the feeling of design decision entitlement , of each person, seems to increase in direct proportion to the number of people involved. 🙂
    I don’t do that anymore, but there are design projects, such as display gardens, where I am involved . In this case, it’s usually with my immediate supervisor, and occasionally one other person. This partnership works really well, and we don’t end up with a design-by-committee look. The usual method is that we talk about it generally, usually at her instigation, decide on some specifics, then I do it, adjusting as I go. Even when we do the whole thing together, ( or especially?)we still get Ooooo!-Ahhh! reactions, and we are happy with it too.. I guess the overall answer to your question is ” It all depends.” , mainly on the end result.

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