Ideas grow with other ideas: Building-on vs Re-building

(This an observation about how designers collaborate, it doesn’t necessarily hold true for how designers collaborate with non-designers, but I suspect it does. )

When designers take an idea from another designer I’ve noticed two routes—building and rebuilding. The very best designers I’ve worked with build on the idea, the rest often re-build the idea.

Ideas that are built on and built on grow further than ideas that are rebuilt again and again.

The different approaches also have diverging team externalities. Rebuilding creates unproductive discussions about who’s vision of the thing is the best. This adds friction and frustration. The building-on approach accepts both designer’s vision as the best, creating better conversations.

In practice, this is a very fine distinction, but worth exploring I think. And it’s not binary; build-on and re-build are ends of a spectrum with sliding scale.

Some thoughts on why this happens

Working with other designers can be a delicate balance of collaboration and individual achievement. Designers should be opinionated and have ownership of the work they do, this is important for a well functioning team with happy designers.

Ownership. It feels easier to have ownership of an idea that you’ve rebuilt; a higher percentage of it comes from your own creativity. Emotionally, rebuilding and ownership can feel like the same thing. But rebuilt ideas always exist in tension with the original that makes the ownership brittle and fragile.

Unintuitively building-on creates a greater sense of ownership – the ideas that grow from it are bigger and better so there’s more to own. An extra bonus prize is that the designers now own the outcome as a team as well as individually; ownership multiplied.

Trust. And the lack of it. Both designers need to trust each other to build-on each other’s ideas and contributions. If you don’t trust that the ideas coming from the other designer are good it’s easier to rebuild. (Of course the ideas do actually have to be good!). Establishing this trust may take a few goes.