By Lauren Busser, NYU Tandon School of Engineering, Class of 2022
My name is Lauren Busser and I am a graduate student earning my masters in the Tandon School of Engineering’s Integrated Design and Media program. I am writing today to tell you a bit about my experience collaborating with coworkers and classmates.
A bit about me and my background, I am returning to school after spending some time working as a freelance writer and designer. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that while the former is often thought of as a solitary endeavor, the later is much more reliant on collaboration and an open dialogue. Not every place I have worked has been good at fostering that collaborative environment, but finding ways to advocate for it has helped me both learn and produce better work.
Here are some of the biggest collaboration lessons that I’ve learned.
1. Take Constructive Criticism
When you’re working collaboratively, everyone has a stake in the project. As a result, that means that no single opinion is the right one. For this reason, when you engage in this type of work, you need to be comfortable with criticism. That isn’t saying you shouldn’t fight for your choices, because there are some cases where you will feel strongly about something and you should make that known. (Remember, you have a stake in this too and your name will be attached.) Criticism is a two-way street. Parties in a project and give and take criticism but there will be someone making a final decision. In my line of work that’s typically a client, or a supervisor, but being able to listen and take notes improves your performance and helps you foster better working relationships.
2. Be A Teacher
When you enter into a collaborative environment you will either have people with similar backgrounds, or interdisciplinary backgrounds. Regardless of who you are working with it is important to know that not everyone has the same background, and it will take some time to develop a shorthand. This is especially true when you enter the workforce and you are moving away from the people who have been nurtured in similar frameworks. You’ll need to learn how to advocate for yourself and your work in these environments and your decisions. For example, in my work as a designer, I tend to go through an extensive planning process. In my experience, it helps to find where a client and myself may have a difference of opinion, and having a conversation about to understand each other’s perspective before we get too far down a work track. This means working in a way that goes from a low-fidelity wireframe (essentially a design outline) to more complex and concrete mockups. Some clients express frustration with that way of working, especially if they can’t visualize how something will look. However, this process helps lead to a better result and typically helps us meet in a middle ground. This is also where good communication skills come into play. The resulting product is much better and we actually save time.
3. Ask For What You Need
If you take one thing away from this, let it be this: no one can do “all the things.” When you have an idea, it’s tempting to think that you can do it all yourself. It’s also tempting to feel like because it’s your idea a supervisor expects you to do it all yourself. This is an easy pattern to fall into, especially if you have spent most of your academic career working on papers and independent projects. This advice applies to both independent projects you may want to take on, and the workplace. If you’re working on something for yourself, consider where you are spending your time. There is no need for you to go out and learn Python, or spend hours fighting with Adobe if you aren’t going to enjoy it. Instead of spending hours on a task you’ll find frustrating focus on cultivating relationships in your network that already have the skills. If you approach them to collaborate on a project and they’re excited about lending their expertise, your finished product will be better for it. You’ll also enjoy the process, and hopefully have a better experience overall. If you’re working in an environment where you need someone with a certain skill, it’s essential that you advocate for yourself. Push for some help to get what you need to deliver the best possible product.
4. Bring In Other Teams, Early
My background is in writing and literature and as such I’ve always prided myself on my ability to communicate well through words, but language is much more complicated than that, and there are elements of communication that go unspoken. As I moved from writing into design, I learned that there are different elements of projects that require different skill sets. If you are in a position where you know you will need help or approval from another department, go to them early and ask for potential pitfalls. I know in one case, I was working on a design team where no one asked the developer how to navigate a framework they hadn’t used before. We ended up designing all the creatives in the wrong program, and had to go through a labor intensive process to convert them. With a few questions and early collaboration, we would have saved that labor and moved the project along much faster.