Rules of Thumb for Creative Collaboration

OpenEndedGroup is a trio of digital artists hailing from Chicago and New York comprised of Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar, and Paul Kaiser. Their creative output frequently incorporates dance, music, installation and film to produce pioneering art within the digital realm. But it’s not the group’s creative works that I write about here. What truly got me excited was a small document they produced in partnership with Sitra, The Finnish Innovation Fund. This document called Creative Collaboration Rules of Thumb provides guidelines for, as you might guess, effective creative collaboration. And though many of these rules may not come as a complete surprise, the almost poetic manner by which they are explained is a delight.

Rules of thumb


First they tell us the importance of how to define the roles of participants:

  • Collaborators understand your intentions fully, and following your prompts, excel in contributing their expertise to your project. They have the potential to make contributions that surprise you, exceeding what you initially specified.
  • Contractors identify and solve domain-specific problems within the exact bounds you set. They are thus only as good as the exact specifications they get and the expertise they already possess. They will not surprise you, for their responsibility is to be competent, not creative.
  • Curators may have initiated or sponsored the project, but then turn over its execution to the collaborators (whom they may have helped to assemble and fund). They have no role within the creative collaboration itself, but influence its relation to (and reception in) the outside world.
  • Constituents are the audience or end-users of the product of the collaboration, whose perceived needs, expectations and desires may well shape the project’s means and goals. They are not always present during the collaboration–but their presence (real or imagined) presses upon its outcome.

Then we’re told that successful creative collaborations tend to:

  • Involve the fewest number of collaborators possible (but no fewer).
  • Enlist collaborators with little overlap in their respective fields of expertise. A diversity of viewpoints, backgrounds, and abilities helps prevent competitive friction between collaborators; it also ensures that unarticulated “shared wisdom” (too much common ground) never dominates.
  • Establish complete trust and respect among all the main collaborators. A minimal but diverse team can only function when the exchange between its members is based on complete honesty and mutual reliance.

Then we get into the “9” rules themselves. I won’t unpack each individual rule here but the list that follows should give you an indication about the thoughtful pairing of the rules which aim to provide a balance between them.

  1. Communicate clearly
  2. Two heads are better than one  |  Too many cooks make committees
  3. Set yourself free  |  Past predicts future
  4. Bad ideas can lead to good  |  Beware the good idea
  5. Run a relay race  |  Set the bar higher
  6. Fight the useful enemy  |  Embrace the opposite
  7. Don’t split the difference  |  Right the wrong turn
  8. Foster diversity inside  |  Present a united front
  9. Pay attention to tension  |  File your future

I encourage you to download the PDF or iPad version (both free). See if these rules help you to get more from your collaborative ventures. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.


By the way, the image above is an artifact from a project by OpenEndedGroup in which they used artificial intelligence to create a virtual “collaborator” to a dance performance. This collaborator reacted to the movements of dancers on a stage and projected a visual counterpoint of varying triangles and paths to the dancer’s choreographed moves.

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