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Big Ideas

cypher13: Friendly Collaboration

We speak with Todd Berger, one-fifth of cypher13, about the benefits of collaboration between friends, staying within budget, and combatting burnout.

cypher13 is a Boulder, Colorado-based creative alliance built of young visionary designers, illustrators, website developers, artists, brand strategists, and information architects. As a group of early adopting, extremely brand sensitive individuals, they are able offer discriminative and focused output to their clients (who include Starbucks, Sprint, Herman Miller and Intel) in all aspects of branding, from concept to market. Behance caught up with Todd Berger, one-fifth of the team, to hear about the benefits of collaboration between friends, staying within budget and combating creative burnout.

Where some would find countless issues with organization and time management when working alongside four other very involved designers, the team at cypher13 have implemented strategies which work for everyone involved. Connectivity and communication is at the core of their regime. “We have systems in place that ensure that we meet client demands on time and on budget; we all share a networked calendar/workflow manager.  When anyone makes an update to the calendar/workflow we’re all immediately updated on our phones, our laptops and our desktops.  We’ve also implemented a server side directory structure for all our client files that enables anyone to jump in and out of a project virtually seamlessly.”

They are constantly pushing the degree of their workload upwards, and projects are assigned and developed as a team, rather than individually. “Being small and maintaining a large workload means that you often have to work efficiently.  To work efficiently is always challenging and requires a great degree of confidence in both your skills and your ideas.  All of our projects are reviewed collectively amongst the entire team before anyone makes a move.  A strategy is determined, the most appropriate member or members of the team are deployed and we get after it.  All of our work is created collaboratively with everyone weighing in along the way.  Once everyone on the team approves something, we call it done. We all put a great deal of pressure upon one another to both grow and perform creatively as well to remain 100% accountable.  Everyone on the team trusts one another implicitly.  Trust is very important in creating collaboratively designed work…you need to be totally confident in your coworkers capabilities if you’re to hand them work you’ve taken 50% of the way and rely on them to complete the project.”

When dealing with clients, budgets don’t dictate the level of creative resolve. “Our greatest frustration remains harnessing our creativity respective to client budgets.  Communication is everything in working creatively for others.  There’s almost always an education component to any project.  A client needs to convey their goals to their consultant and the consultant must convey their ideas to their client. It is our responsibility to succinctly and efficiently convey our ideas to our clients.  With larger budget projects we’re afforded a great deal more time to both concept and communicate our ideas and their evolution to our clients.  When budgets are tight there’s a great deal of pressure to ensure that our client shares our vision and vice versa before work begins.  I think a lot of designers newer to the game don’t realize how important being a good communicator is to doing good client work.”

The level of personal investment in projects pushes them just that little bit further. “We aim to over-deliver and exceed client expectations.  While we consider ourselves all quite hilarious and have plenty of fun, we take our client projects very seriously.  A good bit of ourselves is left within our work.  We feel we have a responsibility to both ourselves and to our clients to make sure that everything that leaves the shop earns our seal of approval.”

No one on the team wants to be just an account manager, or just a designer, or just an art director.  Responsibilities are shared so that everyone can grow equally and enjoy their job.

Taking chances seems to be paying off considerably for them — both professionally and otherwise. “We’ve leveraged a great deal to get into a position to design and build our own studio, and open JoyEngine, our boutique/gallery.  It was certainly risky, and still arguably is, but we believed in our thinking, and put our own hard earned money behind our ideas.  People come in and out of our shop/studio all day long.  We run an online extension of JoyEngine in the form of an art and design portal featuring local artists in an ever-expanding effort to grow community and further develop art and culture in our locale.  We have monthly art openings in our studio featuring the work of local artists and friends.

We thrive on taking risks, but hedge ourselves as best possible. A great deal of our time is spent on personal and self-promotional projects that could certainly be spent relaxing.  The largest piece of industry specific conventional wisdom that we’ve defied is that growth, at least in terms of numbers of employees/team members is good.  We like our jobs.  We like our clients.  We like talking to them and sharing ideas with them and designing for them.  But, most importantly, we like working with one another.  Keeping our team small and tight enables us all to remain flexible.  No one on the team wants to be just an account manager, or just a designer, or just an art director.  Responsibilities are shared so that everyone can grow equally and enjoy their job.”

In the end, tenacity, focus and flexibility blend together to create a winning combination. “The fact that we bore easily plays into our favor;  no one wants a project dragging on and on.  We work hard to get excited about each and every project and translate that excitement into the appropriate amount of motivation to see the project through.  We thoroughly enjoy solving the problems our clients pose on behalf of their brands.  The tricky thing about design and brand strategy work is that you can always do better — the day after a project is complete, there’s new ideas.  That’s just the reality of being a professional creative.  To stay on track you need to have a thoroughly detailed plan and follow that plan, but there always needs to be a degree of flexibility… even in the most well-crafted of plans.”

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