The Big Fat Quiz is the best collaboration ever.
I am sure it isn’t really, not even in my mind, but it serves as a model for my collaboration tool. It is a comedy entertainment show masquerading as a pop-culture quiz. There are six individuals, who are diverse if we count middle-age white men, young white men, awkward white men, weird white men as four separate groups,…ok, it is not diverse. However, there are individuals more or less with a comedic background, some of whom know each other well, some have been flown in with publicity reasons. And while the host nominally asks questions, its success (and you can disagree) is based on the independent actions, interactions and unscripted answers. Of course, it is a recording, so it might be a really well structured and scripted piece of burlesque theatre. But my point is that six individuals are given a theme and then left to independently riff off of each other. The success of the show is not reliant or dependent, or even related to the questions, its success relies on the individuals, and perhaps more importantly on the way they interact with each other, riff off each other. However, plop the same six individuals in a pub, cafe or restaurant and it would not work at all. There needs to be a framework, some rules (that are also there to be broken) for it to work.
This will not work perfectly the first time, nor, for that matter, the second time, it might never be flawless. The mere continued use of this tool would be a success for its first incarnation.
The tool is a dinner where the people are as curated as the food is. Or it is a guide to how to create this dinner.
It is a collaboration tool that is focused on cross-pollination, not or a shared singular goal or mission. It is not a charette. It is not a studio. It is not a collective. It is not a networking event. It is not Creative Mornings. It is not a committee. It is not a lecture series. It is not weekly Pecha Kuchas. It is not a foundation or a board of directors. It is not doughnuts and coffee at a critique.
And yet, it shares one or more traits from all of the aforementioned.
This is not a reinvention, this really is simply a dinner. However, simple is not always easy. And while there is a long tradition of humankind sitting in a shared space, at a table, or around a fire, there is an equally long tradition of families Great Uncle Xenophobe and Cousin Sexist ruining Christmas Dinner. For Veblen, food and dining were status symbols – something that strangely continues on (the allegedly social) Instagram. No one arrives to impress a potential partner by showing up hungry, but for daters, it is a classic and safe way to meet, (and probably some good old impressing and as well as judging going on.) So whether it be a Luau, a Backyard barbeque, a sad potluck in a breakroom, or 5,000 people eating fish sandwiches, humans gather around food, we are seemingly hardwired for it. In equal measure, single-serving frozen meals eaten over the sink or on one’s lap are a symbol of loneliness and isolation.
The goal of this dinner is to be a slow-burn collaboration tool that is both overtly and sub-consciously collaborative. It can be considered part therapy, part resource, but only in the sense that we form bonds and trust through shared venting, gossip and help. My struggle to design it, and why I spend so much time saying what it is not rather than what it is, is because It can be designed too much. How do you design something to be flexible. What does its DNA have to look like to evolve and mutate over time to become something valuable to all involved? How do you create a spine around which the body is built and how does graphic design play a role, and does it.
Ice-breakers and exercises like building the tallest structure with balloons and tape or the egg-drop project can feel forced, trite, and patronising. Too many rules can feel neurotic and controlling, too few and it becomes just a boozy dinner discussing the latest show we are binging.
The food has to be good enough to come for, but not so extravagant that it becomes the focus, it should also be inclusive – in terms of allergies and diets, as well as preparation, there can be some mingling and (whisper it) collaboration in the preparation. Bird’s Eye (other brands are available) Fish fingers are too little, souffle and oysters Rockefeller perhaps too much. More importantly, it should be divided in a way that creates natural breaks, courses for lack of a better word will allow people to move, change places, reflect, etc. It should not be a potluck, not everyone enjoys cooking, and to prepare something every time might also start to wear at one’s enjoyment. It should probably not be catered or takeout. It should be both comfort and come-for-it food
The duration has to be long enough for conversations to be meaningful, but not so long that attendees feel it is a chore.
There should be opportunities to get up change places and move around, but not become an enforced game of musical chairs.
There should be alcohol for those you would like some, it is still a social lubricant, but not so much that it becomes a weekly Bacchanalia.
The time and day are important insomuch as the invitees need to be available – an early dinner (linner) on a Sunday avoids typical Friday and Saturday night plans, hangovers, and errands. A relaxing end to the week.
The frequency has to be often enough that there is a sense of momentum, but not too often that it becomes an annoyance. Weekly feels like it could flame out too quickly, quarterly seems too in-frequent. Monthly feels like a good interval. Ultimately, it is not the actual frequency that matters, but how the individuals feel about it. Every seven weeks is perfect if everyone agrees upon it being perfect. It will – like almost everything depend on the individuals.
There should some form of documentation or record, but not have a scribe or stenographer in the corner like an archive-goblin, no constant interruptions from note-taking, and certainly not a video camera, which makes almost everyone act differently. Voice recorders are also similar – though less so – to video cameras in their effect on people, but more troubling, don’t or can’t capture multiple conversations. Perhaps the host should spend some time after the event writing a diary of sorts, compiling any sketches or notes that were made. Note-taking does seem like something the host might want to do during courses. A record is important, however, I believe, not as important as the momentum of the individual dinner and the concept as a whole.
There should be the ability and tools available to sketch and write, but not encourage doodling or drawing male genitalia, nor feel like note-taking for an upcoming exam in undergraduate. Placemats, the table runner, tablecloths could be paper and could have writing on them already as a gentle encouragement but not a mandate for notes. Maybe the host could lead by example and make notes that she wants to share while someone is talking…
No motions, no seconds, no votes, no minutes, etc, no Robert’s Rules of Order.
(in some ways, this whole project is J’s Rules of disorder.) Henry M.Robert’s rules were intended for a group of – if not strangers – not friends. maybe rules like these are what made Alex Issigoniss so camel-phobic? They are not intended for fluid creativity. This endeavour assumes a closeness that needs fewer rules, in fact, demands fewer rules. Robert’s Rules are like the Los Angeles River, mine are more like the Amazon – the river, not the James Bond Villain.
No ‘homework‘ or tasks for the following dinner. No official recapping the previous one. Though, the host might want to nudge towards previous themes. If some weeks you just want to show up, eat and just listen and leave, that is fine. Except, that won’t happen, you will say something, answer a question, pose a question. The expectation that you could do nothing will lead to the opposite of it.
No rules on mobile phones, it certainly wouldn’t be encouraged and aggressive texters might not be invited again, but if your dinner is so boring that individuals would prefer to text someone who is not there, then there are bigger issues. As bad as phones are, sometimes they also allow us to be away from where we (think we) should be. Partners. Babysitters, children, employers, clients all need attention or have questions. We live in the 21st century, King Canute can do a brief presentation about that.
Photography during dinner is not encouraged for similar reasons to the video camera prohibition, but also the effect that the fear of being caught mid-mastication can cause. In addition, taking a picture of an experience is equal to not actually experiencing it. But again, nothing is verboten.
I also feel that images taken at dinner are a bad omen for those of us with the initials J.C.
The cost is covered by the host. There is a threshold for food, Cooking for seven is not 7x more expensive than cooking for one, it is a bit more expensive, but fees or dues are unnecessary and damaging minutiae. To avoid any compound guilt, attendees can bring a bottle of something if it makes them feel better. The free meal is the lure, the bait. you don’t charge a fish for the worm once you’ve caught it.
The place and location should be accessible and maybe a bit interesting, but not distracting like offers of ‘dining in an architectural gem’ or watching wildebeests migrating. Ideally, it would not be in my apartment, which feels too domestic, too familiar – having said that, in the beginning, it no doubt would have to be, and that also has some advantages…
When you are running from a burning building, you don’t marvel at the typeface used on the Exit signs, you don’t enjoy the subtle ambiguities and allusions in how to tie your life-vest; frequently (sometimes/often/always – depending on your beliefs and philosophy) design should be invisible. If you have a plan, it defeats the purpose if you tell everyone that it is a cunning plan.
This doesn’t mean that I can now sit back and relax and watch pizza dough rise, There still has to be a lot of design, it just can’t be obvious. Much like supermarkets use design and positioning that are not always obvious, be it loss-leaders like milk in the back, or the chalkboard looking signs, or the fact that we enter through the fruit and vegetable area, this is nominally and actually a dinner, that through specific elements seeks to create a conversation that leads to eventual collaboration, cross-pollination, or cooperation in some form. The diners need not know, think, believe that they are at anything else but a dinner; nor do they ever have to have a eureka moment when the realise that they have collaborated. It is the primordial soup that gives birth to life, and most resulting life forms have no idea about their evolution.
I am not saying that the attendees should be kept in the dark either, though, I think it would be an interesting experiment which could lead to interesting projects and/or fewer friends. It is not meant to be a trick, or a murder-mystery manor-house reveal. They can know that these are all designers, but it should not feel or look like another line-item on a weekly to-do list. It has to be something to which one (generally) looks forward.
Which segues to the most important part, the people. The biggest drawback to this tool is that – in its current incarnation – the participants have to be within a distance to the location that they are willing to travel on a weekly/bi-weekly basis, i.e. local to the Los Angeles area. they should be diverse in both background, gender, age, and art/design discipline process or approach, but share enough commonalities that they have as many (or more) things to agree on as they do to disagree upon. This is the trickiest part, it can’t be the monthly meeting of the Uptight Baskerville Appreciation Society’ nor the ‘Helvetica > Arial Brigade’. But it can’t be a strange assemblage of arbitrary creatives. Nor just my friends. Ideally, many of them already know each other in some way. They have to like each other or feel comfortable around each other.
Like musicians during a Jazz improvisation; there is a rhythm and there is a composition, but the individual can add flourishes to the part and a good group of musicians doesn’t compete with each other but instead play in a way that allows dialogue, a playing off of each other, resulting in unique and new renditions and performances. It should also be noted that any band or orchestra works best when there are varying instruments, to keep pushing that analogy. It should also be noted that I do not play any type of instrument. Most should be pursuing design or art outside of a for-profit job, they should be interested in projects that are self-initiated, but it is not a requirement of all. Some can be incredibly valuable without ever creating anything,…or without ever thinking they would
The number of participants should be between six and eight, small enough for there to be one large conversation, large enough for multiple conversations to be happening at the same time. It doesn’t always have to be the exact the same group of people, this isn’t a club; there is no way that every person can make every meal, things happen, people, children, parents get sick. But there should be a core. There can also be individuals who only ever make it every fourth or fifth meeting, or are a one-time visitor. New diners will hopefully join organically when others can no longer attend
I do have specific persons in mind, but for this to be a tool, it should somewhat work with more than just the people that I know. However, I don’t think it is possible to compute the exact recipe. It is not:
Mix one part joker with two parts intellectual, add a dash of mania, and a healthy dollop of humility, season with two large portions of experience and season with idealism and naivety to taste. Place in oven at 375 or gas mark 4…
There are roles and personas that probably need to be included. Recently, a NASA study, researching trips to Mars, has stated that the reason Captain Scott was the second to get to the South Pole was that Rauld Amundsen had a specific person, a joker, in his expedition – a quasi-synapse or serotonin between the individual neurons of the team. As Professor Jeff Johnson says ‘A Mars mission will need a Lindstrom-like figure, somebody who can break the tension, can bring people together.’ That is a lovely thought, and I don’t need convincing about the value of humour, but it probably helps if the team also consists of members who enjoy whatever this class clown gets up to. Stealing boots might be one person’s tension-breaker and another person’s frostbite. Two things are interesting here, one: The joker in question, Adolf Lindstrom, was the cook, so food may have played a role, and two: I am attempting something that NASA is?
There is also the Israeli intelligence concept of Ipcha Mistabra, an Aramaic phrase that means ‘on the contrary, it appears that ‘ meaning that if 9 individuals agree, the tenth’s job is to disagree and give an opposing opinion, essentially a devil’s advocate (like teh devil doesn’t have enough lawyers already.) And again, I completely agree, having a bubble burster, a sparring partner is a good thing. It will make your position stronger if you can argue against it, it will help you define your positioning and reasoning, expose weaknesses that you cand fix, or open your mind to other options, until it is just the person who shoots down everything down for the sake of it.
Group dynamics play an important role, if not the most important role, but there is no recipe. Part of this endeavour will be calibrating and fine-tuning the individuals. Some will show up every week, some will come just once, or irregularly. The real goal is just to maintain it. As long as it keeps going it will get better and collaboration will happen. Ideally, some of the participants will spin off into true collaboration and no longer have time to collaborate, by which time others will filter in a replenish and refresh.
Frankly, I don’t think this should just be a collaborative tool for my endeavour. Education could, maybe should, work this way. Teaching students how to use software? That’s a job for Lynda. Most of my important teaching happens between classes. The simple act of telling a person – who is voluntarily there, in fact, is paying money to be there, who nominally, wants to be there – that it is mandatory for them to be there for three or six hours, changes their attitude towards learning. I once taught a Saturday morning ‘class’ to help a cohort with the presentation of their work in another class – it was completely voluntary, I wasn’t even their instructor at that time. Every student showed up every week for 15 weeks, They took it turns to bring coffee and breakfast. It was the best (non) class that I have ever taught.
Just like we are hardwired to enjoy eating together, we are hardwired to enjoy learning, to solve crossword puzzles, sudoku, riddles. Institutional education seems to be at its most efficient when ruining that. (Except for Alec, and Susanna, oh, and Tom and Kris, and Joe, and Stuart, Brian…ok all Falmouth instructors)
I have yet to come to a final design because I am not sure if I want to make this a pocket guide or instruction manual for a collaboration-inducing dinner …or if I want to nail it to
a church door in Wittenberg the entrance of educational institutions. Though I am leaning towards the former. Nails and vandalism are frequently frowned upon.
But maybe – and I am not looking for this short cut – it should be a blog post. It should not be set in stone tablets, or 95 theses, or a pamphlet to follow rigorously, the whole point is that it should be fluid, a guide – not a map. An encouragement. It will work differently for each group. It should work differently. It has to work differently for different individuals. This is not dogma, it is ‘add two cloves of garlic and pepper to taste,’ I never said how big that garlic cloves should be, and if you don’t like pepper, don’t add it.
We ain’t baking here, we’re cooking.
So, for the sake of it, some guidelines or suggestions
- Invite 6-8 designers, artists, creatives whom you are sure either partly know each other or will like each other, or a mix of both. Or at the very least, that you really like and respect. Don’t invite just your best friend, the dentist.
- Create a menu/meal that can be served in stages
- Lay the table with paper place settings, runners, or table cloths, casually have pens and pencils on or around the table.
- Make sure the preparation of that meal can be shared by early arrivers
- The Exquisite Corpse Cocktail
Have guests choose a spirit, a modifier, citrus and another ingredient.
Have a different set of guests mix those ingredients at appropriate parts.
Have a final set taste and name it.
Everyone drinks and suggests other names or ingredients
This is when introductions are made, when all – or most – have arrived,
- Serve the first course of the meal
Allow normal conversation, then steer the conversation towards design through specific questions to individuals ‘How is your the progress on your exhibition?’‘ or general questions ‘If the loss of patronage of aristocracy and church led to abstract expressionism, how will automation of graphic materials free up graphic design, will their be a Kandinsky graphic designer, or is there already?’
Take some notes about what people are saying, but just as an encouragement for others, don’t become a scribe
- Clear the first part of the meal and bring the second course, allow people to move around, get up, help in the kitchen and let the conversation either continue or steer back to design and art through the above method – but don’t force it.
- Clear the second course and serve third part of it, desert, drinks, even cheese, if you have no compassion for cows.
- Allow it to break up at a natural time, there is no time limit, but also no ‘C’mon, shust one moor dshrink’ Don’t kick them out, don’t make them stay. Leave them wanting more (next month)
- After they have left, write up all you can remember in bullet points, collect any notes or sketches taken by yourself or guests.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Most importantly, make sure it is fun enough for all or most of them to want to return, let it evolve organically. If the Cocktail (Ice-cube-breaker) was a flop, don’t do it again. If no one spoke that much about design the first time, that is fine. Keep bringing artists and designers together they will eventually talk about design and art.
Ultimately, this could all be summed with:
1. Invite friends of yours for dinner whose work you enjoy/respect/find interesting/challenges you.
2. Act like a human.