While creativity draws inspiration from many sources, the physical act of creating is often a solitary one. There’s a purity in wrestling a concept into words, or paint, or a photograph by oneself, without the competing influences of others.
But sometimes working alone is overrated. The best collaborations fuse two complementary skill sets and points of view to create something greater than the sum of its parts. When effective, a creative partnership can sustain and push you far beyond the point you would have reached on your own.
Isabel Lea, a UK-based designer, and Aaron Bernstein, a US-based photographer, have found this magic in each other. Both Adobe Creative Residents, the two met through the program last May. They hit it off immediately, and decided to collaborate on a project that combined their expertise and interests: language, in Lea’s case, and food in Bernstein’s. First conceived as a one-off series visualizing food idioms from around the world, the scope has since expanded to become an exploration of the relationship between language and food across a variety of visual mediums. (An initial series of images was published in December, with a second iteration, an editorial commission that explores a subset of English culture, to be released in late winter.)
For Lea and Bernstein, it’s been a validating, challenging, exhilarating process. Recently, the two sat down to interview one another about what goes into making a successful creative partnership. Below, insights from their conversation, including finding the right collaborator, working together across time zones, and why two can be better than one when it comes to breaking boundaries and taking risks.
Ask yourself, 'Do I like, trust, and respect this person?'
Perhaps this goes without saying, but it’s important to like the person you are launching a creative endeavor with for the sole reason that you’ll be interacting with them a lot. “I talk to you more than I talk to anyone -- like my mom,” Bernstein told Lea.
Trust and respect are just as important. Isabel and Bernstein are both intensively creative, but they come from different fields. “We respect the other one’s expertise,” Lea said. “I think sometimes it’s helpful to work with somebody who knows a little bit about what you do but can advise with a little bit of distance as well.”
“I am not confident in graphic design at all. There’s a lot of trust there where I know I can mock up something really crappy in Illustrator and show it to you without feeling judged,” Bernstein agreed. “Then you can send me an iPhone photo to suggest a composition or something and I won’t judge you for that. But it gives us the space to grow our skills.”
This dynamic -- a respect of one another’s expertise and opinions, coupled with an implicit trust that any effort to advance the project, no matter how clumsy, will be taken seriously -- creates forward momentum.
“I think you know a collaborative process is working when you feel accountable, but not judged, and you feel like they trust you to do their job,” Lea said. “Maybe the other person doesn’t always understand, but I think we’ve got that point now where if the other person goes, ‘No, no, trust me, this will work,’ that we go, ‘Okay.’ That’s really important for pushing the boundaries of what we want to do.”
Adobe Creative Residents Isabel Lea and Aaron Bernstein are collaborating on a photography project about food idioms.
Make accountability a focus.
As most people who have embarked on a long-term creative project can tell you, at some point you will burn out on the very thing that sparked you into action. “It’s quite easy to give up on a project when you’ve only got yourself accountable,” Lea said. Having a partner makes throwing in the towel that much harder.
The best partnerships offer far more than this, of course. In the beginning, ambitious projects tend to be amorphous. It’s not clear where they are going or how they’ll evolve, which is both exhilarating and overwhelming.
For Lea and Bernstein, what started as a one-off series visualizing food idioms from around the world has morphed into an exploration of the interplay between food, language, and culture, an admittedly broad topic.
“Because [this project] is so limitless, it’s not something that I could ever do alone,” Bernstein said. “I don’t think that I would be as willing to keep the end goals so open if it was just me because that scares me. I can’t concept that sort of thing.”
The key is finding someone who doesn’t just support you, but challenges you to push past the point you would have reached on your own. “It’s one of those things you don’t know until you try, and it starts working,” Lea said. “We did this one project, but then it’s spun off so many other opportunities that it seems silly not to run with it.”
Be each other's sounding boards.
Collaborating with a partner can help with overarching challenges, such as imposter syndrome. “We can outwardly admit to each other that we don’t know what we’re doing and where this is going,” Bernstein said. “But it’s fine because the other one will prop it up and keep it going instead of giving up and putting it in our graveyard of 'almost' projects.”
But having someone who understands the bizarre, ultra-specific obstacles you are dealing with can be just as important. When shooting a photo for their second series, which involved mince pies, the package Lea shipped with the ingredients didn’t arrive in time. Bernstein struggled to find everything at American grocery stores.
“I had to be guided by your grandma, basically,” he told Lea. “I think it’s those little moments, too, where it’s like, ‘Okay, Isabel can understand why I’m stressed out about this,’ instead of just internalizing all of these little stressors and problems that drive me crazy in my own individual projects.”
Recognize that a difference in time zones can play to your advantage.
Living and working in different continents presents some obvious challenges. “It’s difficult because we have to be very organized,” Lea said. Anything that requires physical, in-person collaboration must be mapped out far in advance. What’s more, the time difference often made it impossible to share moments of confusion or excitement in real-time.
But the two have found that the distance makes certain forms of communication easier. Being five hours ahead “means that I can leave you with something in the morning,” Lea told Bernstein. He’ll often do work after she’s gone to bed, which means when she wakes up, “progress has been made.”
“Sometimes when you’re forced to have a conversation with yourself on Slack or iMessage, you solve the problem,” Bernstein said. “By the time that I wake up, it’s all sorted.”
“Or the other one where one of us will go, ‘Okay, here are three edits or versions or choices, I think, two, four, and six,’” Lea agreed. “Then we wake up to, ‘Yes, I agree, two, four, and six.’ We kind of already knew it anyway. But it’s nice to get that clarification.”
Laura Entis is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Fortune, The Guardian, and GQ, among other publications.