I imagine being in long-distance design partnership is a lot like being in a long-distance relationship; you’re suddenly intensely aware of what time it is in a difference hemisphere, you’ve replaced intimacy with waving at the Skype camera, and you communicate feelings of anger, frustration, and happiness via Whatsapp emoticons.
Yet more and more, design studios and creative teams are jumping across borders and oceans—and deep into long-distance business partnerships. Like any overseas relationship, this affects the ebb and flow of communication, and yet it doesn’t seem to affect the quality of their work. So how do design studios collaborate on projects and commissions when such a crucial part of the creative process becomes digitalized? Or, because of instant messaging services and video chat, does location even matter anymore?
Craig & Karl is blatantly transparent about the fact that its two founders work remotely. On its website, two ticking clocks that show the time in New York and London are accompanied by illustrations of what Craig Redman and Karl Maier are up to in their respective cities. Right now it’s 12:30pm in London, so Maier is having lunch (the doodle suggest he’s eating a burrito) and at 7:30am in New York City, Redman is still dreaming of sheep jumping over a fence.
The color-happy designers first found themselves in a long-distance partnership “eons ago” when they were living and working together in their hometown of Sydney, Australia. “Craig drunkenly applied online for the Green Card Lottery and actually won one, so he moved to New York in 2007,” they tell me over email. “Karl moved to London in 2012 following a series of drunken declarations that he would whilst on holiday there the summer before.” Moving cities was more of a question of “why not?” for Redman and Maier. “That and booze, it appears.”
Now that they’re settled in their new cities, communication is quite simple. “We’re pretty much in contact all the time. Well, for the hours that we’re both sitting at our computers at least.” When they get a new commission, Redman and Maier talk over Skype to figure out their general direction. Then they work solo to develop ideas, swapping them back and forth throughout the day via desktop messaging. “Often a project ends by us sending files back and forth before one of us finishes it up. We trust each other’s opinion implicitly, which helps.”
The five-hour time difference is surprisingly beneficial to their work process. “Overall we manage a longer cumulative work day. Back when it was the New York/Sydney split, we used to joke that we ran a 24-hour sweat shop.” The time difference means that when one of them gets stuck on something for the day, they can then pass it over to the other to untangle. In the morning, they wake up and what felt stuck yesterday now feels fresh, reworked, and enjoyably new.
“We see each other around four times a year,” Redman and Maier continue. “Sometimes we also get to go to places to talk awkwardly to people or stand next to things we’ve made, which is a bonus. It’s always nice to just hang out again in these situations and remind each other that we’re more than just a grey speech bubble!”
For Bunch design studio, who work between London and Zagreb, Coratia, setting up a studio across two countries was purely circumstantial. Ivan Husar lived in Zagreb and Denis Kovaclived in London, and they wanted to collaborate together without relocating. Unlike Redman and Maier, who swap and share every aspect of their work, Kovac and Husar make their long-distance partnership work because they separate the workload very clearly. “Husar manages the operational side of the studio: organization, planning, and budgets. I take care of the team and work on the research, ideas, and design implementation,” Kovac explains to me over Skype.
Using a combination of FaceTime, Skype, Fuze, Google Docs, Dropbox, and Whatsapp, it’s easy enough to speak together often, though sometimes “it can be hard to engage in conversations online as it’s easy to misunderstand people and lose focus.” Careful planning, setting up a timetable, and keeping everyone continually updated is key.
There are obvious negatives that come from distance, though, which no amount of organization can combat. For Bunch it’s “not being able to end up in a pub together after a long day.” For Craig & Karl, “the only downside may be the loss of a certain spontaneity that we have whenever we’re in the same room.”
Yet there are also countless and surprising positives about working remotely. “Sometimes commissions come about because of geographic location, so we’ve doubled our chances there,” says Maier. Husar notes that Croatia is the hub of their print production because of the cheaper printing costs, and having a London studio is always impressive to clients. From this perspective, operating out of two locations actually makes a lot of practical sense. Why spend more in one city when you can spend half the price somewhere else?
Makeshift magazine has a particularly unique editorial approach as a result of their team’s disperse geographical locations. Staffers are spread from Mexico City and NYC to Athens, London, and Medellin, and their editorial and design collaborations even stretch to Spain, Myanmar, Thailand, and Nigeria. They predominantly use Podio, a collaborative management platform, and then use Whatsapp for the more urgent stuff.
It’s a working style that suits the 21st century well, especially now that freelancing has become more pervasive than ever. As Fast Co. noted last year, from May 2014—May 2015 there was an increase of roughly 1 million new self-employed people in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Everyone works on his or her own timeframe. There’s a degree of independence that’s invaluable,” says Makeshift’s managing editor Alexia Liakounakou in regards to working as a part of a global network of freelancers. “Sure, you can gain a lot working a close-knit environment, but working from afar means greater independence, more freedom, more satisfaction, and a bigger need for punctuality and communication.”
How important is the role of location today when it comes to design studios or larger teams like Makeshift? Might it actually be better to be spread across the globe, with more fingers in more pies, so to speak, and access to more resources and more potential clients?
Bunch say that location isn’t important, and it perceives the world “as a global village.” For Makeshift, place means a lot less than it used to. Craig & Karl say its possible to work pretty much anywhere “so long as there’s an internet connection of some repute.” Though they’re quick to note that they “love living in great cities and won’t be moving to a Tuscan villa any time soon.”
Seeing how much design is influenced by a sense of place, space, and the immediate community, it makes sense that intense cross-country collaboration can only add something exciting to the visual vocabulary of design. A new working method will inevitably lead to a new style, and perhaps an increase in long-distance partnerships will lead to more design that’s infused with a sharp awareness of time, place, and the day-to-day reality of global connectivity.