Pair Design and the Power of Thought Partnership

From Lennon & McCartney to Holmes & Watson, popular culture is teeming with examples of creative pairs. When we think about famous creative partnerships like Eames & Eames, or creative problem solvers like Mulder & Scully, what’s special about them?

In addition to their individual genius, what makes these pairs so effective (and what we’re talking about when we advocate Pair Design) is that these are true thought partnerships, in which each person has…​

  • shared ownership of what they’re creating
  • shared responsibility for making it great
  • shared risks and rewards if they succeed or fail

We want to be really clear about this concept of a thought partnership, because it is central to the success and value of Pair Design, and it is quite different from several common ways in which creative people work together.

First, thought partnership is not feedback. You know how this goes: you’ve been working solo for a while, and you’re stuck or in need of reassurance or just want to get another set of eyes on your design, so you pop by a colleague’s desk and ask, “Whaddaya think?” Certainly, getting feedback on your solo endeavor from a peer or mentor can be really valuable, but this Tim Gunn approach, where only one of you is creating and has skin in the game, and the other is providing a much-needed but decidedly outside perspective, is specifically NOT what we’re talking about when we talk about pair design.

The second distinction we want to make is that thought partnership is not that other staple of the design world, collaboration. Collaboration typically begins with a group of designers getting in a room and sketching furiously, and then sharing their work. One of two things happens next: either everyone leaves the meeting feeling inspired by the brainstorming session without making any conclusive decisions about the direction of the design, or they compete, Hunger-Games style, until only one design (and one designer) emerges victorious.

In contrast to feedback or collaboration, in Pair Design we have shared ownership, equal say, and equal skin in the game, forming a thought partnership where the goal is co-creation, not competition or critique.

In coming articles, we’ll dive deeper into the complementary skill sets that make for fruitful pairings, and share our philosophies, strategies, and methodologies for adopting Pair Design.

Suzy Thompson

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