Why Peer-to-peer design strategies?
"A camel is a horse designed by a committee".
When this sentence was first published in 1958 in Vogue magazine, it was meant to emphasize the inconsistency and lack of a unified vision in products created without one strong leader.
More then fifty years later, this still seems to be a common assumption in creative fields such as graphic design. Most professionals are still convinced that the only way of producing an effective result is to have a visionary leader who dictates design guidelines to his followers from his ivory tower. The great majority of graphic design studios are still based on this top-down approach.
The project "Peer-to-peer design strategies" investigates new practical approaches to graphic design based on peer-to peer collaboration. It began with a series of workshops in which professional graphic designers were asked to complete a design commission using new peer-to-peer collaboration methods. These are inspired by successful Open Source software development methods, such as pair programming, and are being continuously re-adapted on the basis of participant feedback. For the workshops, the project also consists of a set of self-written Internet applications that allow participants to easily share images and other materials.
The aim is to complete graphic design products that all participants find satisfying in order to find out whether peer-to-peer design methodologies can fully serve as an alternative to traditional, hierarchical design project work flows.
Graphic design is not about a personal interpretation of an issue, but about finding the most effective solution to communicate an idea.
Looking at the great majority of graphic design studios, one quickly notices that most of them tend to get stuck in a certain style. This is natural since individuals have their own personal tastes and background that their work will inevitably reflect. However, if their personal taste and background are the only input, the designers will always end up producing the same kind of results, and communicating themselves instead of the idea they meant to communicate. In other words, trying to communicate different ideas with always the same language will result in communicating the same idea again.
This issue can be avoided with a different model where all individuals involved obtain the same rights on every single phase of the process and find a solution that satisfies all of them. People working together will contribute with their own different backgrounds, skills, knowledge and tastes for a richer "group knowledge", providing a much wider range of alternatives to every project.
But is it really possible to achieve a solution that satisfies everyone? Most designers think that allowing everyone in a group to express their own opinion will only result in a mediocre compromise. For sure, this is the most likely risk in group work. People need to be able to build a new solution out of initial proposals instead of attempting for diverse input to coexist. Even in the successful examples of open source development that I took as points of departure - extreme programming and the Delphi Method - we often encounter stages in the process where a center of control emerges in order to circumvent downsides of group dynamics. A major part of my research addressed this aspect, with the ultimate goal of enabling graphic designers to work in a structure that takes full advantage of all the individualities involved, and of collectivity at once. In a nutshell, the model I have tested in the workshops proposes alternating individual and collective work phases in order to enable graphic designers to both build a common ground and develop their own single visions.
Pickpic, the software toolkit I have developed for this purpose, is based on this philosophy. It is not a replacement for standard graphic design software such as the Adobe suite or its open source equivalents, but a new layer applicable on top of these tools allowing graphic designers to share ideas, works and other resources with all members of their team. All materials collected on Pickpic remain anonymous. This way, none of the materials are traceable to their authors, but only belong to the group. Using Pickpic, people lose their own individual identity in order to become one of the many facets of a new multiple identity.
Peer-to-peer design strategies does not provide the ultimate alternative to a hierarchical system. It is a small yet significant step towards a more collaborative design work flow, a demonstration that a peer-to-peer design environment can work as an alternative, and that different models for design do exist. The most important role is still played by the professionals. The decision in favor of working with a different model than the hierarchical one should be up to them.