When I was growing up, at the foot of my bed was a chest full of toys. Afternoons typically consisted of tipping over the chest, letting all the toys spill out, getting down on my knees, and spreading them evenly across the carpet like a coat of paint. Then, standing, putting my chin in a thoughtfully clasped hand, and making a decision about which toys to play with that day. Today: my trusty dinosaur figure and He-Man. Holding each one in each hand, I would scheme about what great ordeal was going to be created today, then overcome after some sort of epic adventure. Who would be kidnapped, who would be rescued, which rivers would be crossed, who would fly, and who would gallop across the savannah fighting hyenas and bad-dream hypno-lions?
Those were my two favorite toys. Looking back at them, I played more with that shabby dinosaur toy than I did with He-Man. Because He-Man, well, had to be He-Man. That’s all he could be, and he could only do the things I saw on the television show. He couldn’t shoot lasers out of his eyes, he couldn’t bend time, he couldn’t eat bombs. But dinosaur could. Dino could do anything. Good guy one day, showing his teeth and being the bad guy the next, able to fly one day, and eat force-fields the next. Next week, he could be brought over to a friend’s for the make-believe zoo. Dino was unlimited, because I wasn’t playing in someone else’s story, letting someone else do my pretending for me.
In personal work, we’re given the tools to communicate, but we’re sometimes left without meaning. It’s the impulse to create, but without a message; a megaphone without breath being pushed through it. We’re usually provided messaging from clients (or at least the limitations that lead us to a message), but designers typically flail when they sit down to do personal work and are left without that injection of content. So, we cling to the things we like and love. We sit down, and we make an image, and hey, you know, I like this album quite a bit, so let’s make some minimalist version of the cover. Or I quite enjoy that one film, so why don’t we make portraits of all the major protagonists of the Hitchcock films out of burnt matches?
It’s exercise. It’s flexing muscles and it’s a valid creative endeavor. I’ve been calling it meta-content, where a person uses preexisting creative work as a foundation for new work. It uses other art as a reference, and its the stuff that forms the foundation of the internet. But, it also makes things frustratingly meta.
One could say meta-content and fanart are a collaboration between designer and the culture-at-large, where relevant pieces are used as the source content for the designer. A bunch of us are dependent on that outside source, whether client or culture: many designers are bad at producing content of their own or establishing their own message. So, we use what’s there and what we like. And, if the results are good, people like us that enjoy what we enjoy will like what we make. There is little risk.
But, maybe we should be risky. Many designers waste an opportunity to make new, meaningful things by instead letting someone else pretend for them and making work that is overly referential. Instead of that, designers can use their skills to collaborate with others to create new things. We can pick up that dinosaur toy and play with it a bit instead of the He-Man toy.
Rather than spin our wheels because we’re left without content, we should partner with others who have a message but not the savvy to properly communicate it. It’s combustion through collaboration.
A great prototype for meaningful collaboration is Danger Mouse (Brian Burton). He’s a professional collaborator. He’s not known for his songwriting and doesn’t really produce any of his artistic output solo. (Although, his first album was original material, but no one heard it.) Danger Mouse is a bit like a designer: he partners with established songwriters with things to say in a cooperative environment and steers their decisions, offers input, and creates a collaborative output that is a more than combination of two separate things: it is something entirely new, more than just a sum of parts.
A rap album made with MF DOOM isn’t a DOOM album, it’s DangerDoom, a wholly new, cartoon-infused piece of work. An alternative album made with James Mercer of the Shins is instead Broken Bells. A soul/hip-hop album with Cee-Lo is Gnarls Barkley.
Danger Mouse started by remixing existing material with the Gray Album. But now, through collaboration, he has transcended rehashing existing material and created new, meaningful art. (And let’s face it. Remix album after remix album would have gotten old.)
Designers are excellent producers. We do well to steer and hone other people’s creative impulses, we can fine-polish ideas, and craft successful ways to communicate and tell stories. So, I’d say the next time you’ve got the impulse to make something but don’t have a message or story of your own, consider collaboration. Instead of piggy-backing off of something that is already out there, why not take a look around and see if there is anyone doing something interesting and ask them to collaborate?
Look for the writers, the thinkers, the storytellers, the video artists, the filmmakers, the anthropologists, the linguists, the woodworkers, or the programmers. Strike out as far as you can to find something interesting and barely corollary to design. Because, ultimately, design is a vessel for content, and the better, more interesting, more original that content, the better, more interesting, more original the design work will be. If design can’t rise above its content, designers should be sniffing out interesting things like a pack of rabid bloodhounds on the hunt.
Most nights when it came time to clean up the mess I’d made, I’d flop down on my chest on the floor, throw my arms out, and bulldoze the toys back into the box. Quick clean up. I’d tip the toy chest back right-side up, close the lid, then leapfrog off the chest into bed. With Dino. His spot was on the bedside table. Good night, Dino. See you tomorrow.