Throughout history, and across the realms of music, art, science, art, design, fashion, IT and business, countless couplings have shown the power of the pair. Whether siblings, like the Wright Brothers, married couples like Pierre and Marie Curie or Rae and Charles Eames, best friends like Bill Gates and Paul Allen, or simply opportunistic pairings like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, it seems there is a magic to the duality of a pair. In his novel “Powers of Two” essayist Joshua Wolf Shenk has researched and reviewed cultural history and social psychology to reveal that, despite the Despite the mythology around the idea of the lone genius, “The pair is the primary creative unity“. Shenk asserts that two is the magic number, and this dyad enables two people – perfectly capable and talented on their own – to explode into innovation, discovery, and brilliance when working together. Using series of paradoxes about creative pairs: that distance doesn’t impede intimacy, and is often a crucial ingredient of it; that competition and collaboration are often entwined. Only when we explore this terrain can we grasp how such pairs as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy all managed to do such creative work. The essence of their achievements, it turns out, was relational. If that seems far-fetched, it’s because our cultural obsession with the individual has obscured the power of the creative pair.
Core Qualities of a Successful Coupling Shenk identifies the core qualities through which creative intimacy unfolds, using scientific research and social proofs throughout history.
- Pairs seem, to outsiders, almost to be reading one another’s minds. They may finish each other’s sentences accurately. They “get” each other quickly.
- Rivalry forms an integral part of some successful creative pairs. A creative duo might even fight with each other and still keep working together successfully for many years, enjoying the sparring.
- As in any good long-term relationship, each member of the duo finds and fills a role, employing his or her own strengths for the benefit of both individuals. In a number of instances, one partner is barely if at all known to history, perhaps because his or her role was much quieter and behind the scenes.
- The bonds between creative partners isn’t always overt, as with Lennon and McCartney, where both are known for a common body of work. Such bonds may also be distinct, where two creators influence one another in a live exchange (such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien), or such a bond might be asymmetrical, with a boss and an assistant. As an example, Shenk describes how golf caddy Steve Williams’ contribution to Tiger Woods’ game over the years was much more nuanced than just handing over clubs.
- Creative pairs find a workable balance between connection and autonomy. To create well together, we need both alone time to access our subconscious (including during sleep) and social connection, which is one way of evaluating those brilliant ideas borne of flow to determine what will actually work.
Benefits of Creative Pairings In business and in creative industries of music, art, design and fashion, much of the mystique of successful partnerships comes from the seemingly spontaneous and serendipitous collision. Increasingly, however, design agencies and start-ups are looking to the disciplines of engineering and programming, to unlock the magic of a creative coupling. In software development, Design Pairs refers to two UX designers working together as one throughout the life of a project. Less about working in tandem or side-by-side, a Design Pair seeks to leverage complementary skills to produce more robust design solutions through collaboration. Working as a pair helps to establish mutual ownership over the design process and avoids competing designs that lead designers to defend their own ideas over their partner’s. Designing together can also avoid mixing and matching aspects of two separate workflows therefore leading to a more coherent design narrative and cohesive solution. It is a complementarian or “yin and yang” approach, where respective strengths and deficits are matched and balanced by the other party, to create a wholistic unit. Alternatively, a project might apply pair programming, where engineers work together in roles of ‘driver’ and ‘navigator’. This also has its merits where there is a symbiotic hierarchy that harnesses the best talents of each individual for the benefit of the unit. Tiger Woods and his Caddy Steve Williams is an example of this partnership. Using the learnings from Pair Programming and Design Pairs, can be applied to unlock and the potency of design duos.
- Unique perspectives
Each designer being able to offer unique perspectives that can lead to more solutions that may not have been considered when working solo. Together the pair can generate more ideas, overcome road blocks quicker and sketch out solutions in ad hoc collaborative design sessions that can keep momentum moving forward.
- Bringing together complementary skills
Every industry and skill is nuanced and encompasses a broad array of specialist skills. Those who are proficient in all areas of a practice are rare. And even if someone has the know-how, they will find themselves doing the busy work of their true love (be it research or design). Together a design pair has a stronger, deeper, combined skill set to draw on.
- Divide and conquer
Another benefit of working in pairs is the ability to divide and conquer the workload. Creatives and business operators are constantly in a state of flux, shifting between priorities of research, design and validation. A design pair is able to split tasks and ensure activities and effort is balanced. For example, while one designer is focused on aspects of the visual output, the priority for the other may be to arrange recruitment and testing activities. It’s not just that many hands don’t just make light work, when they work together they make better work.
- Shared understanding
When you have a design pair, the knowledge is retained in the team. Both designers are present from the beginning and each can keep the other in check when considering design solutions. It’s important that designers know, understand and consider their users, from the start to the very end of the design journey.
- Pushing each other to new heights
There is a sense of camaraderie that comes with working closely with another. An effective design pair will push each other to new heights with a healthy sense of solidarity and not wanting to let the project team down. The synergies between designers will also support diverse design thinking which in turn leads to better outcomes for the project. All these positives can also translate to an improved economic outcome for the customer. Things can get delivered more quickly, the project team can move more rapidly, and there is less wasteful handover. This deliberate matching of people and abilities works to achieve the most productive and successful project outcomes. The project approach used by as a method can push creativity, expedite learning, and improve workflow. And, a good dose of chemistry is always essential.