Fading the Tech/Creative Line

The common mentality with respect to creative and technology process integration involves a relatively solid line that separates the two disciplines and work streams.  Creatives do their concepting, draw up wireframes, create visual assets, and then toss them over the line.  Technologists pick these up, create the front-end HTML, create the back-end code, and wire them up to create the system.  That is an extremely over-simplified description of both sides of the line – but it represents the general perception of many clients and peers in our industry.

The agile movement has made great strides toward integrating project teams.  But the focus here has been on bringing business and end-user representatives into the process and advancing the project through small, iterative cycles.  (Again, a dramatic over-simplification.  I’m a huge Agile proponent.) The iterative cycle keeps all disciplines (plus business stakeholders and users!) engaged throughout the project.  Great progress!  But, within an iteration, the line often remains.  Both the creative and technical teams are tightly engaged with the business and user representatives.  But they’re only loosely engaged with each other.

There are many reasons for this.  On a given project the creative and technical teams are often from separate internal organizations – at best.  At worst, they’re from separate companies altogether.  Beyond that, they often think, talk, and act very differently – making it hard to relate.  Right brain, left brain stuff.  There is hope, however.

One of the most satisfying things about working with Avenue A | Razorfish is experiencing the blurring of the tech/creative line.  As a company with strong marketing, creative, and technology capabilities that are integrated on many projects, we’ve learned through experience how to work and communicate with each other.  That is one of our strongest value propositions to customers.  We’ve proven that the line can be blurred and there is significant value in doing so.  However, it is within the last year that I’ve seen the most substantial fading of the line.

This can be attributed to the popularity and demand for rich Internet applications.  RIAs require a much greater level of cross-discipline understanding and cooperation.  Windows Presentation Foundation and XAML have done the same thing for desktop applications (and the web, with Silverlight).  There is a great whitepaper on the WPF designer/developer workflow entitled The New Iteration.  Definitely worth a read.  It specifically addresses WPF, XAML, and the Expression tools, but many of the points apply more generally to RIAs, as well.  The value proposition is well stated:

“Ultimately, the new collaboration means that iteration of a project can now happen in a much more fluid way. There is no longer the “one-way street” where a change to a specification downstream means a radical reworking of the entire application. The result opens up new possibilities for collaboration between the designer and developer, where a kind of dialogue is possible with the potential to foster greater creativity.”

It is that last point – the potential to foster greater creativity – that excites me the most.  Technologists are often in a restricting role.  We have to set boundaries that the creative team must work within so that we’re able to deliver on their promises.  Rather than promote cooperation and collaboration, this can create an “us versus them” mentality.  However, with RIAs I have noticed a great change.  Technology and creative teams are pushing each other to expand the solution horizon, rather than constrain it.  Both teams are equally invested and sharing their unique perspectives, which results in far better solutions.

It may be intuitive that a shared sense of ownership, varying perspectives, and close collaboration will have positive results on a project.  As a consultant “back in the day”, when the Internet and HTML were new, I saw the same level of enthusiasm and collaboration between technical and creative teams.  But as technology and creative techniques matured, the tech/creative line solidified.  As a result, the solutions became somewhat cookie-cutter.  That’s not to say companies weren’t launching sites with great creative and technical work.  But truly remarkable solutions are conceived when both the technical and creative limits are stretched and combined to produce something truly unique.  I’m thrilled to be back in this sweet spot.  The industry as a whole seems to be following suit.  But unless a deliberate effort is made to avoid falling into comfortable patterns, truly remarkable solutions may once again join the endangered species.