Creative Collaboration, and the Future of Work

A job interview I sat for a while back, for the role of frontend engineer. We’ve had about fifteen minutes of chat over the hottest frontend tools and processes any self-respecting frontend developer ought to know, and I decided to move on to the collaborative process between designers and developers:

Me: So may I know how the developers and designers work together at your company?

(The interviewer is a polite and serious looking man who is nonetheless dressed casually in a hoodie, which to me is always a good sign indicative of the open nature of the company. Let’s call him Mr. Hoodie.)

Mr. Hoodie: The designers come up with the mockups on Photoshop and then pass the PSD to the developers to work on.

(Photoshop for mockups is a tad old school, but to each his own. I personally prefer Sketch and its vector counterparts, but a PS pro will obviously prefer the swift maneuvers of the good old Photoshop. Oldies are goodies – I’m not deterred in any way.)

Me: I see. So then the frontend developers will convert the designs into HTML and CSS?

Mr. Hoodie: It depends. Sometimes the designers will produce the HTML and CSS.

Me (arching my eyebrow): That’s interesting.

(And it sure is. So they are not so much graphic designers as actual web designers? Not quite the norm, but totally understandable considering the nature of web design. What then does the frontend developer do? Pure JavaScript?)

Me: So in any case, if the frontend developers have any questions, they will check with the designers right?

Mr. Hoodie: That’s right.

Me: How big is the design team? Do they sit near the development team?

Mr. Hoodie: We have about 6 to 7 designers. No, they are in a completely different department, near the marketing team. The engineering team is on another level.

(That sounds completely like red alert to me. How can the designers not sit close to the frontend developers? How then can they discuss and collaborate? If we’re actually shooting this script, the sound of sirens will start blaring in the background already.)

Me (cautiously): I see. So how would you describe the working relationship between the designers and the developers? Frequent discussions, or minimal and only as needed?

Mr. Hoodie (cool as a cucumber as always): Minimal and only when needed.

Cut to black. In my mind, the interview is as good as over.

Specialization: Clinging on to the Industrial Revolution?

Doesn’t the act of splitting the production process into different stages, each the responsibility of a professional, remind you of a factory? Think Charlie Chaplin and his Modern Times—you can easily change the factory setting to an office setting and the workers to web designer and developers, and everything will pretty much be the same. The web designer finishes a piece of her work (in this case a PSD), and passes it to her co-worker the web developer. With a factory, chit chat and discussions are largely frowned upon, because it slows down the production. In the case of companies like the one above, it’s pretty much the same. “Everything is in the PSD—the dimensions, the grids, the colors. So just proceed and don’t ask redundant questions” is what I get out of the way they arrange the teams. How sad that we’re still—in this Internet Age—stuck in the past.

Working Products are Passe, Emotional Products are In

(I’m sure I read this somewhere, but I can’t remember where from. If anyone who reads this knows, please remind me so I can give proper accreditation. )

In a day and age when production speed is spectacular and global competition a constant, coming up with products that work just as well, faster than your competitors ain’t gonna cut it anymore. Think smart watches—does the fact that Samsung released the smart watches earlier than Apple did means it became the best selling products in the category? No—modern consumers want more. We don’t want subpar products—even totally functional products—released sooner. We want cool, amazing products that speak to us, and we’re willing to wait and pay more for them.

The way I look at it, as global competition intensifies, the only way for any company to become successful is to spend resources on creating brilliant products that speak to the emotions, not release average products sooner than their competitors.

Creative Collaboration: A New Process?

Businesses may need to redefine and re-measure their processes in the future. Instead of thinking about feature delivery all the time, they may want to factor in time for creative collaboration and exploration among their employees – the chit chat and discussion that was so frowned upon in the past. Just like Google’s ‘20% time’, some of these experimentation may turn out to become extremely valuable offerings for the company.

Together Time for Developers and Designers

The interface of the application is often the single factor that hooks the user to it. Given two time management tools that perform similar functions, one of which looks more gorgeous than the other, the gorgeous one clearly stands out. The company can (and likely will) charge more for it too. So why wouldn’t the company encourage the designers and developers to work together closely to come up with appealing interfaces? The designer may be able to come up with aligned beautiful forms, but the frontend developer knows and can challenge the limitations of the browser. When they work closely together to brainstorm and experiment with ideas, who knows what sparks may fly?

The Future of Work?

It won’t be easy for sure, since businesses can’t measure creativity. A team of designers and developers brainstorming in a room may or may not come up with something good, just as the occasional good idea can come out of that five minute discussion with a co-worker. The point, however, is this: let us get used to the idea of being creative and wild with ideas. While scheduled brainstorming sessions may not always turn up something, it helps exercise our creative and collaborative muscles. As with anything in life, the willingness to commit to something will eventually lead to results. And the organization that is willing to start building their creative arm now will, I believe, lead the future.