Posted 23 August 2018
Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Double Trouble: Seven duos on making it work as a creative partnership

You’ve met someone in your circle of friends, or on your course, and as it turns out, you’re pretty good together. Working on projects is a dream. You’re the Sagmeister to their Walsh; the Gilbert to their George. You spend your spare time coming up with new projects to do together. You complement the other person’s flaws, you have each other’s backs. So what happens when you want to make it official and brave the professional world together? What are the risks, pros and cons? We spoke to some creative duos to ask how they got to work together, and how to get the best out of a creative partnership.

Abdou Cisse and Akwasi Tawia Poku

A creative team at Wieden+Kennedy London, Abdou Cisse and Akwasi Tawia Poku’s work has included creative direction for music as well as integrated campaigns for Nike and Google, attracting awards from D&AD, Creative Review and Eurobest.

How did you first start working together?

We’ve known each other since we were six years old, we go way back. Akwasi had a background in post-production and was working as a PR creative at an ad agency, and wanted to get into a proper creative team. Abdou was completing his architecture degree and wanted to know more about what it meant to be an art director in the creative industries. We looked at each other’s portfolios and we just thought, “We should team up.’ So we spent three months creating a book of work. After spending three and a half years at R/GA, we were headhunted by Wieden+Kennedy, where we’re at now.

We’re friends first. That means we can be real with each other. Plus, coming from untraditional advertising backgrounds adds another element to our calibre. There’s no right or wrong way to crack a brief, but there’s definitely a way that is taught; we didn’t follow the standard ad school path, which means we approach briefs in a different way.

What are some of the pros and cons of working in a pair?
You’re able to divide and conquer, and take advantage of two brains instead of one. It lets you explore different creative routes; one of us might come up with an idea and the other will build on it, or vice versa. And you can get to a solution a lot quicker. It also allows you to handle the workload better – you’d be surprised how busy being a creative is. And when it comes to selling ideas, you’re able to back each other up. Doing that by yourself might be a longer process.

In terms of cons, you have to share everything; there’s a lot of compromise. That’s not so much of a con, but just something to be aware of. A lot of creatives struggle with sharing their work with people, but in a pair you become used to getting your work out there more.

“Be on the same team. Being in a duo is like being in a marriage; if your goals are aligned, you can both work towards something.”

What advice would you give to someone wanting to form a creative partnership?
If you’re looking to pair up with someone, look who’s around you that you already know. Someone might love writing or be good with Photoshop. They could be the perfect creative partner. And if you already know them, you could be saving yourself the hassle because that connection is already there.

Be on the same team. Being in a duo is like being in a marriage: if your goals are aligned, you can both work towards something. But if your goals are in different places, you’re constantly going to butt heads. We’ve seen a lot of creative teams split up because they didn’t discuss what they were trying to achieve. At the beginning of every year, we sit down and chat about what we want to do, and see if our goals are aligned. And if they’re not, we talk about how we might support each other to achieve them. If you’re in it together, it’ll make things easier.

There are certain creatives that are really ego-driven, or where one person in the team wants to be the hero. That can lead to friction. Remember that you’re both going to get the credit, you will both grow and progress. If the team wins, everyone wins.

Isabel Gibson and Helen Chesner (Isabel + Helen)

Specialising in set design and interactive installations, Isabel Gibson and Helen Chesner’s creative partnership started up after meeting as students. As Isabel + Helen, the duo have worked for the likes of Selfridges, Nike, the V&A, Puma and RIBA.

How did you first start working together?
We realised we worked well together while studying graphic design communication at Chelsea. After leaving university, we both started working for different studios, both within the realms of set design, to gain experience. Alongside this, we had a few opportunities outside of our full-time jobs to make work, which meant working evening and weekends. We learnt a lot from working separately within different studio environments, before bringing our experiences together to start Isabel + Helen full time in 2015.

What are some of the pros and cons of working in a pair?
You always have someone to run your ideas past, whether they are good or bad. And there’s someone to get instant feedback from, and in turn, help the idea grow into something bigger and better. It also means we have the capacity to take on more work.

“We learnt a lot from working separately within different studio environments, before bringing our experiences together.”

Work for the V&A

We will often both work on the creative aspect of a project, talking through concepts and initial sketches. We also have a full-time member of staff, Hannah (a creative producer) who will take lead on managing the project. This involves communicating with the client and liasing with the set builders. We do, however, get easily distracted, working so closely on a variety of projects can mean we easily get sidetracked.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to form a creative partnership?
It should be an organic thing and not something you should seek out necessarily or force. We naturally found we worked well together, enjoyed coming up with ideas and problem-solving as a duo.

Craig Redman and Karl Maier (Craig & Karl)

Better known as Craig & Karl, creative duo Craig Redman and Karl Maier are celebrated for their bright and bold work. With Craig in New York and Karl in London, the two collaborate daily and digitally on projects for the likes of LVMH, Google, Apple and The New York Times.

How did you first start working together?
We met in our first semester of art college in Australia, where we were both studying graphic design. A tutor put us together on one of our first projects, and we hit it off. We have continued to work on projects together ever since. In a creative sense, we sort of grew up together, and over time, that’s been our foundation – even though we now work on two different continents.

As a team of two, how does your working relationship play out?
We both do essentially the same thing, but our roles often shift from project to project, as one of us usually takes the lead on the day-to-day stuff. Running a small business, we wear numerous hats and are each responsible for the less glamorous administrative tasks alongside the creative aspects.

“Trust is ultimately the most important thing; have a strong foundation based on friendship.”

Our process always starts with a conversation where we throw around different ideas, approaches or references. But at a certain point, the only way forward is to just start making, so we’ll both go off and try different things. Then we’ll come back together, kick it around and see what’s worth pursuing.

From that point on it’s less straightforward. Sometimes we’ll bounce things back and forth – all of our work sits in a shared Dropbox – each of us adding to or editing it until we’re happy. Other times, one of us will take the lead, but there’s always a degree of back and forth.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to form a creative partnership?
Have a strong foundation based on friendship. We met doing the thing that we do now, so it’s always been at the core of our relationship. We also never really had a plan from the beginning about how we would work, it played out over time in an organic way. So perhaps there wasn’t a lot of pressure from the outset. Trust is ultimately the most important thing, which is perhaps true of any lasting relationship. Indeed, from a creative standpoint, we trust each other’s opinion implicitly.

Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen (Visual Editions)

Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen are the duo behind London-based studio Visual Editions. Their creative, strategic and innovative work includes new story platforms and book experiences for the likes of Penguin, Ace Hotel, WeTransfer and British Library.

How did you first start working together?
It’s a bit like asking two women when they first became sisters. We call ourselves a “Content Innovation Duo”, but really, we’re like pretend sisters. Our paths crossed years ago – before we even knew it – when Anna was flirting with Mother as a creative, and Britt had just started there as a strategist. But we properly met when our first kids started in the same nursery. The real working together was more organically opportunistic than planned. We shared a joint desire to make something super-innovative with cultural impact, which evolved into Visual Editions.

What are some of the pros and cons?
We are ridiculously symbiotic as a pair, in that pretty cheesy rom-com movie kind of way – finishing each other’s sentences or knowing what the other person is about to say. But that’s something that develops over years of working so closely together. It’s been about developing a deep respect and trust for each other, and working on projects that push us to the limits.

“Know when to step in and get involved; and when to cheerlead the other person quietly from the sidelines.”

Editions At Play: Breathe

We have different core disciplines: Anna is the more design-literate, Britt the more strategic. We also have very different groundings, with Anna having been brought up in hippy LA and Britt in earthy Denmark, but there’s a very close collaboration at all times, and our differences are what makes us work so well as a pair. It’s not unlike how we work with our project partners: knowing when to step in and get involved, and when to leave the other partner to rock their stuff brilliantly and cheerlead quietly from the sidelines.

We started out with some principles right from the start and we’ve stuck by by them: we started as friends and our friendship comes first; we only work on projects we’re both excited about; we react in different ways so allow time for delayed reactions and keep all lines of communications open; we make space for one-to-one catch ups and ideation every week; we share everything 50/50: ambition, risks, workload, shares, work credit and remuneration.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to form a creative partnership?
Be honest with each other about everything: how you’re feeling, what you’re in the mood for, what you need. Think about what the ambition is and work on it together until it’s a shared one. Create a set of principles with good, real, messy communication. Don’t be afraid to say, “You know what, this isn’t what I’m excited about.” But equally, don’t walk away from taking risks. And be sure to enjoy each other, enjoy the work and most definitely enjoy the ride.

Simon Sweeney and Ben West (BONG International)

Amsterdam-based Ben West and Dublin-based Simon Sweeney are co-founders of design and development agency, BONG International. Working intercontinentally, they create playful websites for clients including Bloomberg and design studio johnsonbanks.

How did you first start working together?
We didn’t really plan on working together. We both found ourselves freelancing at the same time, and doing a little bit of web work. A semi-serious development job came to one of us, and it would have been too hard to tackle alone, so we decided to share it. We were both learning web development, and made some exciting money from that. We’d worked together as designers in the past, so sharing more work came quite naturally and it felt easy and fun.

We didn’t make a big intentional commitment, like quitting our jobs to work together, and couldn’t even consider finding a studio to work in because we’re based in different countries. So we swerved the biggest and most frightening steps in starting a partnership. It’s been four years now.

What are some of the pros and cons of working in a pair?
It’s easy to lack confidence when you’re working alone, so having someone else involved – whether they’re a collaborator or a second opinion – makes you feel better, and makes the work better too.

Early on, we split everything down the middle, coding in the same document at the same time on the same project. We’re quite rationally minded and try to design things which ‘make sense’ and are ‘correct’, so our process is logical. That’s a good fit for a long rambling discussion on Skype, working out the puzzle of it. On the other hand, many decisions do come down to aesthetic preference, and if we disagree we can get stuck, because neither of us is in charge.

"Having one client-facing email address means we answer emails for each other, and are pretty interchangeable in most conversations.”

Work for Bloomberg

We’ve also had to learn things on the job: how to talk to clients, quoting for work, time management, money stuff. That’s all been easier with two brains – we’re always checking each other to make sure we’re being fair and not making daft decisions. We also found that only having one client-facing email address means we answer emails for each other, and are pretty interchangeable in most conversations. Much less confusing than it sounds.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to form a creative partnership?
It’s difficult for us to give advice about the formation of a partnership because we didn’t really notice as it happened to us. A huge part of the reason our partnership exists has come down to luck and coincidence.

One thing we do know is: it’s quite rare to find someone you’re comfortable and productive working with, and it’s even rarer that you are both in a position to make something happen. But if you are, do it.

We also benefit hugely from having very small overheads, we literally just need a computer and an internet connection to operate our business. This made us extremely flexible and has recently allowed us to be much more selective in the work that we take on. It also means we can work from anywhere. So I would say start (and stay) small if you want to enjoy your life.

Emily and Alice Stein

Sisters Emily and Alice Stein are a photography and filmmaking duo creating iconic campaign visuals for lifestyle brands. Their clients include Vice, Dazed, BBC, The Guardian, MTV, Cadburys and Channel 4.

How did you first start working together?
A few years ago, we were talking about projects and ideas, and have a very similar aesthetic, so it felt natural to try and make something together.

What are some of the pros and cons of working in a pair?
We need to have quite separate roles on each project. We split everything up so we both have our own things to get on with, which also gives us time apart. We are really aware of each other’s feelings, and give each other space if we need it. And money-wise, we split everything 50–50, unless one of us has worked a lot more on a particular project.

“We split everything up so we both have our own things to get on with, which also gives us time apart.”

What advice would you give to someone wanting to form a creative partnership?
Working together is amazing because things become less personal; it’s not just you on your own. You feel much more confident together, which is a great help when it comes to presenting your ideas. When choosing a partner, you need to find someone who has a similar aesthetic, work ethic and values, otherwise it could get tricky! The best way to start is to try working collaboratively on one project and see how it goes.

Iria López and Daniela Negrín Ochoa (Wednesday Studio)

Co-founded by Iria López and Daniela Negrín Ochoa, Wednesday Studio specialise in design and storytelling-driven animation, producing short-form 2D content for brands, commercials, charities and films.

How did you first start working together?
We met whilst doing our masters at the National Film and Television school back in 2009. Even though we both really admired each other’s work at the time, it wasn’t until we’d been working in the industry for a while that we decided to join forces.

Coincidentally, we both ended up working as animators at a children’s app company, and although we learnt a lot there, we both knew we wanted to be directors. We did a bit of work for each other and loved it, so taking the leap into directing together seemed like a natural next step (and also less terrifying!).

“Knowing when to let go of your idea and trust the other’s vision is key.”

Work for Airbnb

What are some of the pros and cons of working in a pair?
Lots of pros! It can definitely be a lot more fun, and knowing that the other person has your back and is counting on you is a huge source of motivation. The best part for us is pushing each other creatively. Having another person there really helps to see things from a different perspective, and come up with interesting solutions.

Since we both really love all aspects of the projects, we split everything down the middle, from roles down to finances. This way we both get to be as involved as each other, but it has its challenges as well. You need to build trust and communicate openly. Letting go of our egos was something we learnt early on, and knowing when to let go of your idea and trust the other’s vision is key.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to form a creative partnership?
It’s great to find someone that you share a lot of creative passions with, but having complementary skills will also make the partnership stronger. We have similar design and animation skills, but we also have very different personalities, so when it comes to ideas, we bring different approaches to the table.

It was easier for us to stick with safer ideas when we were working independently, but having another approach pushes us both to take risks and be more creatively ambitious.

Interview by Marianne Hanoun
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