Open_collab DE Student Connection project posters

It’s been almost exactly a year since Patrick Thomas came up with the first version of Open Collab, a low-tech, physical approach to collaborative student workshops. He was at a residency in Rome at the time, creating printed graphics from a process that involved feeding found images and his own photographs into a laser-printer. The results were unpredictable, full of unexpected encounters—as he puts it, “beautiful dialogues that would be very hard to anticipate”—and Thomas decided it was a method worth teaching to design students in a series of workshops across Europe.  

A year has passed, and Open Collab has gone through three different iterations, getting progressively less physical and less location-dependent each time. At the Design Indaba conference in February, Thomas, alongside graphic designer Jonathan Auch and programmer Max Wohlleber, launched Open Collab 2.0, a web-based tool that digitizes his chance-based method and allows for designers to collaborate from wherever they are. With most people now self-isolating at home and physical workshops off the table, Open Collab has become immensely popular among certain designers and design students, offering a way to create and collaborate even at a distance. 

Back in Germany after his residency ended, Thomas, a professor of visual communication at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design since 2013, quickly realized that the approach he developed in Rome would be ideal for encouraging a physical, collaborative, and chance-led design process to students. Testing it out first at Chelsea College of Arts in London for around 150 students, he expanded his own method into a workshop format, dividing the students into pairs to create a print together. A few constants were put in place, such as using a supplied grid and rules around image and text alignment (at 0°,45°, 90°, or 180°). Each student created an image and, along with his or her partner, put their images through a laser printer to generate a third image that combined the two in unexpected ways. 

The students immediately took to it, but then disaster struck: the printer ran out of toner. Thomas left the workshop to scour London for some more. Two hours later, after having no luck, the art school called to say they found a supply. When he returned to class, he saw the were students still working, oblivious to the fact that he’d come back. “I realized that I didn’t actually have to be there,” he says. 

With that realization, Thomas decided to make Open Collab an “autonomous workshop,” so that any designer with access to basic image editing software and WIFI could participate. He initially put together a 15 page PDF (since replaced by a pared-back description on the Open Collab site) explaining the process, and quietly put it out into the world with a link on his Instagram account. Soon, people began to pick up on it: Self-run workshops started to sprout up, first in Germany, then in the UK, where Thomas is from, and on to Spain, Italy, the US, Egypt, Australia, and more. The kit has now been downloaded around 5,000 times. 

The new tool, dubbed Open Collab 2.0, takes the idea of autonomous collaboration even further, allowing for designers to digitally create from wherever they are. And while it was launched before COVID-19 had spread into the global pandemic it is today, the platform has taken on a new significance in a time when so many of us are isolating at home. The Open Collab Instagram account has further created a sense of community outside of the individual sessions, with designers even finding each other and pairing off for their own collaborations off-platform, according to Thomas.

By visiting the website, designers can join a workshop session and download the grid. Within the template file, each participant makes a black-and-white typographic or image layer in response to a theme. After exporting the layer as a .jpeg and uploading it to the platform, it is randomly mixed with another uploaded layer, generating a new work. By hitting “refresh to reshuffle,” users can see their work in different combinations with different layers.

The first session in mid-March was exclusively for designers and design students in Italy as the country was suffering greatly from the COVID outbreak. As the lockdown became more widespread, Thomas opened the platform to all of Europe. When Open Collab ran a 36-hour global session kicking off in Australia, the designers involved hailed from all six continents and every time zone. Though the sessions cap at 250 people, someone shared a screenshot of the required URL link and a number of rogue designers snuck in.

Now, anyone can sign up from anywhere in the world to participate in sessions that take place twice weekly, one midweek and one on the weekend. The enthusiasm around the project seems reflective of a wider trend at play as we collectively figure out how to create, work, and socialize in this new COVID reality. It’s a cliche for a reason that creativity can flourish in limitations, and that also can have a powerful therapeutic effect. As Thomas points out, “It’s a good way to stay sane, isn’t it?”