Patrick Thomas walks us through Open Collab, an interactive tool for creatives to endlessly collaborate

Following rapid development over the past few months, Patrick Thomas and Jonathan Auch have released the latest version of Open Collab, a collaborative tool for creatives to create new works – no matter where they are.

28 May 2020

Speaking at Design Indaba in Cape Town earlier this year, graphic artist Patrick Thomas described the importance of making people collaborate – not encouraging or inspiring, but making them. This act of throwing together two individuals to create something is one the artist believes, in its difficulty or awkwardness, always leads to interesting results.

This realisation has developed over years of Patrick running his studio and teaching his communication design class at Stuttgart State Academy of Art in Germany. Noticing a resistance to the idea of collaboration, particularly amongst students, “I am always trying to break that, to make them realise that when they finally graduate they will invariably have to embrace it, so they had better get used to it,” he told It’s Nice That, shortly after his talk.

Collaboration has always been an important part of Patrick’s practice, even if he’s conceiving projects alone. For instance, his book Protest Stencil Toolkit, invited the reader to combine stencils to put together visual messages. Later, in 2018, Patrick’s public installation Breaking News 1.0, commissioned by RRU news in Liverpool, saw him interact with live global events over a 24 hour time period. A few months later this piece was reimagined with public interaction for Design Manchester, where passersby could directly contribute their own invented headlines via their smartphone in real time. “At a critical moment in British history I was interested in giving the person in the street a platform to air their feelings,” explains Patrick, “which I then scrambled with breaking news headlines, broadcast, and let viewers draw their own conclusions.”

After Breaking News Patrick, alongside his regular collaborator graphic designer Jonathan Auch, began to think of ways to create a tool which could enable remote collaboration. What the pair have developed is Open Collab, an online tool which randomly combines creative submissions generating endless permutations of collaborative works. A user will upload their designs which will then be paired with another creative's submission, creating a hybrid graphic artwork through randomised collaboration.

There have been several growing iterations of Open Collab, which originated out of necessity while Patrick was on a residency in Rome in early 2019. Frustrated that he was unable to gain access to a traditional print studio and get his hands on even the most basic materials to create work – “Rome is an amazing city, but can also be amazingly dysfunctional”– he ended up buying a cheap A4 black and white laser printer in a creative “state of emergency.” Being his first time in Rome, he chose to map the city by collecting graphic material which he randomly combined into overprinted collages using the printer, a process he describes as “reverse archaeology”. Shortly after his time in Rome, Patrick was invited to host a workshop at Chelsea College of Art and decided to share this way of working as a framework for the sessions. Seeing how the group embraced it, he decided to share the process more widely by making a comprehensive info pack freely available online.

Presenting a further development of Open Collab as an online tool at Design Indaba, and trialing it throughout a two-week tour of South Africa’s design schools, it was when Patrick and Jonathan were travelling back to their home of Berlin that they realised it was time to speed up the release of Open Collab 2.0.

At this point, the Covid-19 situation in northern Italy was rapidly deteriorating, “and we knew that we had to give people access to it by bringing the release date forward,” Patrick explained over email last week. Although still in test mode, the pair decided to launch an edition for creatives specifically in Italy to get involved with – a way to collaborate despite being isolated. “We have been very lucky; everything has been running surprisingly smoothly and the feedback we’ve received has been really useful in helping us to fix, tweak and develop things,” explains Patrick. Now, the pair are continuously running sessions, ever more vital as lockdown slowly engulfed the rest of the world.

Those who take part in Open Collab should do so with an open mind, with Patrick pointing out how even “sceptics seem to be quickly converted when they start to interact with the project.” Part of the joy of submitting your work is forgoing any element of control of what it may turn into, a rare opportunity for many creatives taking part. Yet, the actual work (although really interesting) becomes secondary over the association Open Collab creates: “It’s all about connecting with people so I would encourage users to keep an eye on the ‘chat’ function for enhanced interaction,” recommends Patrick. “The resulting random graphic combinations are spectacular, but for me, the process is the key aspect of the project. Most of all, I would encourage participants to enjoy the experience of interacting with creatives, with whom it’s highly unlikely they will ever physically meet.”

Originally meeting Patrick in Cape Town a few weeks before this development, during our conversation he almost set himself this goal, without knowing the lockdown environment we would soon be adopting. When asked what he’d like it to grow into, Patrick answered: “Ultimately, it would be nice when it’s no longer just ours, when it develops into its own thing and is just something that’s out there alive and morphing,” something they have now achieved. Since returning to Berlin, Jonathan and Patrick have run several global sessions, experimenting with time frames to work out the best format. “One of the most spectacular sessions – which produced 500,000 permutations – took place on 2 May across India,” in just eight hours by working closely with organisers in Mumbai to remotely gather 250 creatives working in lockdown.

Discussing the benefits of this unique type of collaboration now, Patrick concludes: “Obviously one of the big – if not the biggest – lesson we have learned during the pandemic is that we are stronger together and that by working together, and helping each other, we will overcome this and any adversity. Therefore any kind of collaborative project would appear to make sense right now. The experimental nature of Open Collab encourages dialogue and requires a certain amount of adaptability which I feel can only be a good thing.”

GalleryOpen Collab 2.0

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

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