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Recap: DesignMeets...The Future of Collaboration

March 27, 2023 10 minute read's not about where, but how

Living in the Age of the Pandemic gave designers a lot to think about. When COVID-19 arrived, we experienced the arrival of “WFH,” working from home. At a stroke, there was a transformational change in our work environment, our creative process and the way we design products and services.

WFH and “going remote” meant setting up your own creative workspace at home and figuring out how to think creatively without the luxury of sharing ideas with colleagues and getting their feedback in real-time, in person. Perhaps, for the first time, design practice actually felt different, raising questions about the true nature of creativity and collaboration, and whether it really is a fundamental part of the process. Is creativity a solitary pursuit or is it best done as a collaborative effort?

Recent experience points to designers learning to be creative – and productive – remotely by finding solutions for sharing ideas virtually with the aid of different emerging technologies. Over time, new software, improved computer literacy skills and expertise have combined to make knowledge transfer more efficient. But can they fuel creativity as much as before, and is this new “hi-tech” collaboration as productive?

With the lockdown behind us, WFH is no longer the only option. Our industry has entered the hybrid phase that gives us different work options, from full-time WFH to returning to the studio or somewhere in between. Given the choices, what’s the best course for optimizing creativity and taking full advantage of collaboration in our industry? What are the implications for the training and recruitment of the next generation of designers? And are we ready and able to accommodate their preferences?

The Panel

As we watch these developments play out, our design industry is best described as a work in progress. In today’s virtual presentation, “The Future of Collaboration,” our panel of experts — Ranee Lee (RL), Raphael Joseph (RJ), and Paddy Harrington (PH) — talk about collaboration and what it means to them.

Ranee Lee

Associate professor, Industrial Design at OCAD University & Founder, DESIGNwith, a design incubator at CF Toronto Eaton Centre

Ranee Lee 郭恩琳 is an industrial designer and associate professor of industrial design at OCAD University in Toronto. She is the founder of DESIGNwith, a design incubator for democratizing the learnings and creation of design through a corporation-academia-community partnership in environmental and social sustainability. Her professional practice in product design has transitioned into not-for-profit design work as the co-founder of Thinking Forward, a registered charitable organization that has since been acquired by YSM in Toronto. Ranee is currently on sabbatical and working on a SSHRC-funded project on alternative economies in marginalized Canadian communities.

DESIGNwith is a storefront lab situated in the CF Toronto Eaton Centre in the heart of the city, which Ranee believes is the future of collaboration. Design, if it is to be done collaboratively, must be accessible, so the lab’s design space is modular and functional to accommodate all the different ways for it to be used. It must first be accessible for people to promote collaboration with others.

Living in this post-pandemic world, people also crave community as it is the first step towards collaboration. This makes the lab’s location important, as it’s situated mid-way between OCAD University to the west and Regent Park to the east, a former social housing neighbourhood that has since been revitalized into a mixed-use, diverse community that’s home to many immigrants. Among them, groups of women who have worked as co-designer collaborators with OCAD for a number of years. This is what DESIGNwith is really all about. More than collaboration, it is really participatory design where people bring their whole selves to the process and not just their skills.

DESIGNwith sits at the centre of a partnership between academia, corporations and the community. Academia is represented by OCAD University, Cadillac Fairview is a real estate corporation and owner of the Toronto Eaton Centre that is committed to investing in vibrant spaces and transforming communities. The community in question is the Regent Park Sewing Studio. The triad of academia, corporation and community is a framework built around design for social innovation is universal but also a local one that can be replicated in other cities. The common thread is shared values which is the starting point for collaboration and allowing it to succeed.

Raphael Joseph

UX Designer at DFFRNT

Just out of Algonquin College with a degree in human-centred design, Raphael Joseph landed his dream job at DFFRNT (a strategy and design consultancy based in Ottawa) as a UX Designer. In the heat of the pandemic and after it, Raphael has played a part in contributing to the success of a vast number of projects working remotely from home but he felt an emptiness inside, Something was missing. His experience led him to believe that a healthy collaborative environment on the project team at the agency was the answer, and essential for any client account success.

“One thing I learned about collaboration,” he says, “is that it is about building teams. And if you are working for a small agency, you must be able to collaborate properly.” His objective today is to help designers and team members ensure they can facilitate a culture of trust, honesty and intentional collaboration. In post-pandemic working environments, three words – trust, honesty and intention – are really important for collaboration. Without them, there can be no true collaboration with no clear outcomes.

When working remotely, designers can spend too much time trying to come up with the perfect solution. It’s a common mistake that new designers make when they try to figure things out on their own. This is the “isolation cave” that most designers fall into, especially when working from home and they are not able to make any progress. The better approach is to be intentionally collaborative as a member of a team, collaborating with other people around you albeit virtually, so that you can move faster on your product development. Progress wins over perfection and intentionally collaborative teams move faster with better products.

The next challenge facing teams is maintaining the same energy from in-person collaboration in hybrid environments. When getting together online, people are not as engaged collaboratively. They lack direction, purpose and trust. It is important to understand when creating a collaborative environment, you need to communicate the purpose of the collaborative activity in order to build trust. This means clarifying your expectations and defining the roles and responsibilities of your participants, knowing your audience and giving credit when it is due.

Last, it is very important to build a culture of honesty and trust in teams. Trying to work in a collaborative environment and engaging in collaborative activities. In the future, the challenge for designers is to build a culture where people trust one another and there is an openness to collaborate with honesty, so whether you’re WFH or going hybrid, you can collaborate successfully.

Paddy Harrington

Founding Director, Frontier

Paddy Harrington is the founder of Frontier, a Design Office. Frontier designs brave, imaginative, and guiding stories in the form of client collaborations, media, and products that help businesses, people, and the planet thrive. With almost 20 years of experience in design, he has degrees in literature and architecture and has worked in research, architecture, advertising, and design.

He's also an award-winning writer and filmmaker and has spoken at several design conferences as well as at Brown, Harvard, and the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Paddy is formerly SVP, Design Innovation and Digital Creative Director at Indigo Books and worked as Executive Creative Director at Bruce Mau Design.

In the past few months, Chat GPT has become something of an obsession. And, if you happen to work in a creative field, there is the question of what it really means for practitioners. It raises some pretty existential questions for sure.

On the subject of collaboration, Chat GPT, affectionately known as “Charlie,” can be considered a tool in that process. Fundamentally, what it is trying to do is finish a sentence. Looking at a word and sizing up the probabilities of what should follow it, choosing it and continuing on with the process. Charlie finishes its own sentences based on probabilities based on what billions of web pages and digitized books have already said on the subject in question.

In other words, Chat GPT is a form of fundamental collaboration at the level of all humanity, pulling the best of everything together and creating one result.

In the present context, the question is, “is creativity best done in isolation or as a shared experience collaborating with others?” Our intuitive answer is yes, it’s both, the combination of getting certain things done in isolation, and other things done in collaboration with others.

Answering the same question, Charlie came back with, “Both isolation and collaboration can be effective for fostering creativity, as isolation allows for deep focus and uninterrupted exploration while collaboration brings together different perspectives. … .” A measured and balanced response that Paddy feels is a good and comprehensive answer.

In effect, Chat GPT – or “Charlie” – is a very clear and comprehensive choice for getting solid, well-researched and thoughtful answers to questions. In this process, Charlie can be an incredibly powerful research tool to help you with your inquiries.

Looking for more?

Head over to to see more goodies from this event, including a video recording and summarized Q&A.

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