Blurred lines: why collaboration between creatives and consumers is more exciting than ever

21 September 2018

All photos by Theo McInnes

Picture the scene. The year is 1988, and you’re a photographer, or illustrator, or writer, with brilliant ideas. You know exactly what it is you have to offer the world — a touching portrait of vegetable growing competitions in Todmorden, say, or the Great North Norfolk Novel, perhaps — but you’re not sure how best to get it out there. Letters to publishers go unsent, and the idea of picking up the phone to Martin Parr’s office and seeing if he’d be interested in flicking through a set of negatives over a cup of tea is understandably daunting. You don’t write the novel, and the photos remain forever sheathed in PVC and stuffed in a chest of drawers.

Thirty years on, and things are a bit different. With the advent of the internet came a sense that creativity could be democratised. The old divides, the old distinctions, the old points of demarcation began to soften, to blur. Eventually the likes of Flickr and Blogspot let people circumnavigate the officialdom of publication — we could all now create creative content, and we could share it with like-and-not-so-like-minded souls with relative ease.

There’s money to be made from this process of asking the traditional gatekeepers to step aside for a moment, too. Look at how a platform like Bandcamp allows musicians to upload -— and sell — their latest single, EP, or album while ensuring that it is the artist, rather than the service, which retains the lion’s share of the profits.

In publishing, you only have to look at the success of Unbound — a space which “gives people the tools, support and freedom to bring their ideas to life” — to see that the old ways are, when suitable, being walked-over and reworked. No longer do you have to wait for Penguin to come knocking.

Then there are initiatives like’s TalentLab, which show that the turn toward mutable delineation is something that retailers are both aware of, and massively interested in. Giving seasoned designers and novices alike equal chances to create the clocks, light fittings, and watering cans they’ve always dreamed of, it is an exercise in both curation, and — and this is the crucial concept when it comes to considering this post-millennial trend — crowdfunding.

There’s something wonderful about the idea that here in the now, a good concept, presented well, and shown to the right audience, can go from being a bundle of scribbled notes to a finished, buyable, consumable product thanks to the interest and investment of others.

Of course, no one is arguing that every Kickstarter instantly results in a masterpiece of product design, or a mind-bendingly brilliant book, but the knowledge that there are people out there beavering away on the kind of projects that you never knew you needed is heartening. It is proof, if proof needs be, that brilliant work can exist outside traditional constraints.

Each of the speakers we were delighted to have on our panel this week are proof, too, that this is an exciting, and energising, time to be involved in the creative sector. We’re seeing Visual Editions casually revolutionise how we understand the very idea of story telling. Guan Xiang is turning what furniture is and what furniture can be on its head. Over at Hato, Ken Kirton and his team at Hato are sophisticatedly exploring just how crowdsourcing contributions to work can broaden our understanding of the importance co-creation, connection, and play in the creative world.

This ties into bigger contemporary consumer models and trends, too. Most of us are more conscious than ever of what we eat and where it comes from. We buy our socks and sweaters from shops that champion sustainability – and charge accordingly. Holidays are booked with carbon footprints in mind.

That sustained interest in provenance — we eat locally baked bread and wear smocks made in specific seaside towns in Northern France — spreads naturally into the creative sphere, too. Now that we’re privy to every thought that runs through our favourite designer’s head, and can see exactly what the animator we’d chop an arm off to collaborate with ate on the last night of their recent trip to the Dordogne valley, we want to feel as close as possible to the talent we admire. Why wouldn’t we?

The thing that links every scheme, initiative, or platform I’ve mentioned above is simple: they all show us that we live in an increasingly connected world where good ideas can spring from anywhere, and can be supported by anyone. The more unofficial channels we open up, and the more transparent we become about how products come to exist, the more creative we can all be.

The relationship between the designer and the consumer has changed radically. Where this goes, only the Gods know, but for now, let’s enjoy one of the most exciting developments in design and beyond.

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