Running a Remote Studio – notes on co-collaboration

I run my own remote studios. I have been working with colleagues online for over a decade, building remote communities for years, running remote practice studios for post-graduate students and training teachers in remote practice for studios over the past couple of years (I just won a national teaching award for these!), and will begin running open remote artist studios soon.

Actually, it is difficult to even find a person who HASN’T done remote work these days. But for a few years I have been teaching others how to do remote practice. The key benefit I have found about running remote artist studios is that if you can make it work there, you can make it work in a local studio. Indeed, the inverse is not true: what works locally doesn’t automatically work online. Why? Because you can’t lean on proximity bias. You have to overtly design the environment and actions to reach your aims. It is the test of making it work for a non-norm context that makes it better for all contexts.

Since I’m always keen to share things I discover (it helps me understand it more too), I planned on releasing more info. I presented at GDC last year (on a different topic), and did intend to pitch a talk on running remote studios for this year’s GDC. But I was busy while the call went out, and since I had just moved interstate I wasn’t sure if I could get the funding or funds to go.

What prompted this quick post were the recent discussions on Twitter about group work and students (in games), and coming up with alternative methods. So I’ll share notes about an approach I’ve developed to in my remote studios: co-collaboration.


THE NEED FOR CO-COLLABORATION

The need for a co-collaborative approach came out of my international lab Forward Slash Story (which is about developing the artist, not the project), my undergraduate and post-graduate studio teaching (addressing negative experiences in student collaboration), my running of department curriculum development days (facilitating awareness, integration and feedback quickly), and my training of faculty in remote practice (addressing the constraints of the institutional infrastructure and facilitating a cultural shift). Out of these experiences grew the following needs:

Need 1: Put the focus on the process and people, not the project

All the labs I have mentored at are project-based. Teams bring in a project and they’re given guidance with assigned and rotating mentors to help progress the project. These labs are great. But I wanted something that also focused on the person, so the lab could affect all their projects more. All projects are intimately connected with the people that make them, but the focus has historically been on the object, not the artist. This can create a warped view of what creative practice is. So the F/S lab was introduced to be about creatives coming together, irrespective of what project they’re working on. The lab enabled me to develop activities that facilitate a quick connection between creatives in ways that will then influence their own projects (and lives).

Need 2: Giving students a positive experience of collaboration, which includes seeing the benefits in their project

In studios designed for project-based learning, instructors can choose the student teams for them, give the students information to help them choose, and some also teach the interpersonal skills needed to bond, inspire, and produce. In my remote context, I have very limited live (synchronous) and email (asynchronous) time with the students. I have a 1 hr meeting with everyone each week. That is it. Everything else happens between our sessions.

These are also interdisciplinary studios were I’m overseeing albums, games, documentaries, installations, films, animations, product design, for post-graduate creatives. So I need to have systems that keep the projects going. Even though the students are creative post-graduates, and many have done collaborations before, there are still ones that do not have experience with teams.

So the issue becomes: is it more important they work with each on the same projects, or that they understand what collaboration is and how it can benefit their project? We often think the only way to get students to understanding collaboration is to force them into working with each other. And no matter how much design you put in to assist this process (especially emphasising how to collaborate above asset deliveries), with limited time it is inevitable that not all students will be able to participate equally. After seeing some students not enjoying the process because of bullying or other overt or subtle blocking behaviours, I decided it was more important to give students a sense of control over the creative process. That the experience and benefits of collaboration are more important than going straight into a full collaboration scenario.

Need 3: Scaffolding the experience of collaboration, and making it adaptable to suit a variety of disciplines, experiences, and project stages

Along with wanting to scaffold learning collaboration, I also had other external issues related to training faculty in remote studio practice. The training is part of an early push towards an institutional-level remote-friendly work culture. But the infrastructure and proficiency isn’t there yet. So rather than mandate faculty to immediately implement interdisciplinary cross-campus projects in all the studios, I wanted to find a way for the learning and infrastructure to catch-up and grow with the teachers.

This is where co-collaboration came in. It is a way for students, faculty, and individual creatives to engage in interdisciplinary, distributed collaborations without forcing shared projects.


WHAT IS CO-COLLABORATION?

Co-collaboration is when people collaborate together at strategic points during the development of their own projects.

The key difference with other approaches I have found so far is this: participatory design and co-creation is predominately (or exclusively) about collaborations on a shared project. Usually the difference between co-creation and participatory design and creative teams in general, is that they are about including people who aren’t usually involved, such as the “users” or “stakeholders”.

While co-collaboration can definitely utilise the insights of participatory design and co-creation, the emphasis is on the reciprocally beneficial activities between people who are working on different projects.

This can include students working on their own projects, artists working on their own projects in a fixed-term studio, and individuals or teams in production studios with parallel projects operating.

I haven’t been able to find writings about this approach specifically as yet. And I have oscillated between calling it co-collaboration and parallel collaboration. But the former seems to work more, and a colleague recently volunteered it as a term. If you’re familiar with writings on this — shoot them through!


HOW DO I ENACT CO-COLLABORATION?

In the meantime, I’ll share how I co-collaboration. You already know WHY I introduced it. I find it an elegant solution to multiple problems. I have implemented it in different ways:

  • Begin with co-collaboration and then people choose their teams based on their interactions during co-collaborative activities;
  • Co-collaboration continues throughout the studio duration, with some also collaborating with others on their project outside the studio (with creatives they already know and/or new ones).

If your aim to is scaffold (stagger) learning collaboration, then begin with co-collaboration and build to full collaborative projects. I find it works to help people get a feel for it, see the benefits, rehearse/practice how it is done, and get to know potential collaborators. One of the issues with forced collaborations is how people are brought together. Education institutions aren’t necessarily curators of creatives, and temporary studios are curated but this is executed by others. Co-collaboration allows the artist to keep doing what they’re doing and benefit from what collaboration can bring in a controlled manner.

Co-collaboration is facilitated is during many stages of a studio process: ideation, research, externalisations, feedback, reflections. Here is an example of a pivotal point:

Ideation:

I find co-collaborative ideation to be an immensely helpful process. This is because it enables best practices in ideation, and gives the artists immediate and reciprocal benefits to their project. Since it is at the beginning of a project as well, it introduces the benefits of collaboration first up (a positive first experience) and they get to know each other.

On this point, you could also do a bonding activity that pairs or groups people with an activity that benefits their projects (not just meeting each other). But for me, with an online studio it would be counter productive. I need everyone to get to know each other asynchronously and then synchronously as a group for various reasons.

So back to ideation. Let’s quickly qualify the supposed best practices I threw out there. I’m referring to factors such as ideation is about divergent, not convergent thinking; this includes a quantity of ideas to get beyond the probable; as well as having helpful constraints; that you want inputs that are both specific (related to your project) and general (related to world & general inspiration); that biosociation helps enact these; contributions from diverse (interdisciplinary and non-creative) people; that you need time to incubate; and importantly here you want a combination of individual and group contributions for brainstorming (because going straight to group brainstorming enables the stifling of voices and consensus).

With these principles in mind, I give the artists a range of activities (and they can share their own) to choose from. They then go into pairs (or any small group size you deem works for your context), and conduct the activity in any of the following manner:

  • Same ideation activity, on own projects, done in parallel and then share what you got and give feedback to each other.
  • Same ideation activity, on each others’ projects. You can both do project X and discuss, and then both do project Y and discuss. Or you can do each others’ projects at the same time. So I do your project and you do mine, then we discuss.
  • Different ideation activities, using the variables above.

In all of these, even though they’re working on different projects, they’re being inspired by what the other is doing. The different projects are another form of biosociation.

QUESTIONS, THOUGHTS?

I have just plonked down some quick thoughts on how I use co-collaboration and why. I didn’t go into detail here about how I make this work remotely, or give citations for everything, as that isn’t the emphasis. But let me know if you’d like me to elaborate, and let me know if you do this or will do this! I’d love to share notes!

SOME CONTEXTUAL READING

Christensen, B. T. (2005). Creative Cognition: Analogy and Incubation, PhD, University of Aarhus.

Koestler, A. (1964). The Act of Creation, London: Hutchinson & Co.

Sanders, E. B. N., & Stappers, P. J. (2008). Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. CoDesign, 4(1), 5-18.

Schuler, D., & Namioka, A. (1993). Participatory design: Principles and practices. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sleeswijk Visser, F., Stappers, P. J., Van der Lugt, R., & Sanders, E. B. N. (2005). Contextmapping: Experiences from practice. CoDesign, 1(2), 119-149.

Steen, M., Manschot, M., & De Koning, N. 2011 Aug 14. Benefits of Co-design in Service Design Projects. International Journal of Design [Online] 5:2. Available: http://www.ijdesign.org/index.php/IJDesign/article/view/890/346