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Questioning the myth of individual authorship

Authorship is the result of being an individual creator. Authors, athletes, fashion designers, singers, film directors, entrepreneurs and other creatives are often credited with total authorship of their success.

What do we mean by 'authorship'?

Oxford Languages defines ‘authorship’ as “the state or fact of being the writer of a book, article, or document, or the creator of a work of art.”

A term that can be used to describe an individual in any discipline, this definition shows that we often identify just one ‘author’ or creator and rarely acknowledge the level of collaboration that enables their success.

For athletes like Serena Williams, their success can be partly attributed to the level of collaboration with trainers and nutritionists, as well as their talent and hard work. For singers like David Bowie, it is collaboration with other musicians, producers and writers. For authors like J K Rowling, it is the collaboration with a publisher and editor, among others. For presenters like David Attenborough, it is collaboration with scientists, rappers and film crews. For editors like Anna Wintour, it might be writers, fashion designers and other industry professionals.

Each example above is an intelligent, talented and hardworking individual, but their ability to work with others to create something unique is a huge reason for their success.

Innovative cross-discipline collaboration

A notable design industry example is husband and wife team Charles & Ray Eames. Furniture designers who chose to work with the latest manufacturing techniques, they combined their designs with technical furniture production companies, working together to create products using innovative techniques and materials such as steam bent plywood and glass reinforced plastics.

Eames chair
An Eames chair. Photo by Analia Baggiano on Unsplash

Their chairs became famous for their unique aesthetic but they were also innovative for combining technology, manufacturing and design. Collaborating with other industries and forming a new approach allowed Charles & Ray Eames to create something unique.

Their steam bent plywood chairs originated from their creation of leg splints for World War II. They perfected a plywood-molding technique with access to military manufacturing facilities so that they could create lightweight, inexpensive leg splints for injured soldiers.

Creating a collaborative environment

Closer to home is the architectural practice, Foster & Partners. Sir Norman Foster created an environment that facilitates the creative spark and consistently enables architectural and design brilliance, even when he doesn’t directly deal with each project that the practice takes on.

After working closely with Foster and observing this first hand, our founder Bruce Bell was conscious about creating a similar environment at Facit Homes. One where design guidelines are set but creative flair and architectural, design and production excellence can emerge.

A Facit Homes design

Foster set out design specifications, parameters and a broadly technological approach in order to create a rigorous process that ensured consistent quality of architectural design for any Foster & Partners project. It ensures that the thousands of projects designed by this practice not only have his name and creative stamp but are consistently good buildings.

Regularly celebrated in the press, architectural projects are often attributed to one person - the architect. With practices like Foster & Partners, the collaborative ethos of each project makes it almost impossible to pin the credit on one person.

The genius here lies in creating a streamlined team effort that is consistently powerful and not tied to an individual’s work. It meant that the architectural practice Foster & Partners could expand in its work and take on ambitious projects without being entirely reliant on Sir Norman Foster himself.

Should the individuals involved receive credit?

In 2000, an architect at Fosters & Partners designed the world-famous 30 St. Mary Axe in London, more commonly known as The Gherkin. At the time, a Senior Partner at Fosters, Ken Shuttleworth, left to set up his own practice and was credited in the media as the author. On such a prominent project, the media grasped at a single name to attribute the design to.

Foster and his architectural practice were understandably not pleased. Shuttleworth worked on the project within the creative environment and according to the design constraints of Foster & Partners, so how could he be solely credited?

The Gherkin. Photo by Clever Visuals on Unsplash

The opportunity to design this building came from working at the practice. The design was a result of the process that Foster created. It was designed according to specifications, parameters and a technological approach that the practice implemented to ensure a consistent quality of architectural work.

The press wrote about an individual’s authorship, rather than attributing it exclusively to the practice. Writing to entice their readership, this approach perhaps reflects our preference as a society to identify individuals as creative and successful rather than a framework, environment or company.

Creative constraints

Fashion houses, architectural practices and other creative environments produce work regularly, successfully and collaboratively. These often have a set of constraints like the ones imposed by Sir Norman Foster in order to create consistently.

A set of constraints is essential to creativity. The freedom to create anything presents unlimited options and can descend into chaos. Guidelines and frameworks, even if they’re inherently flexible, allow an individual to delve deeper into their process and produce something extraordinary.

Oliafur Eliasson created a studio with creative constraints around natural phenomena and their associated geometric patterns. Eliasson, working closely with his team, creates artwork that is architectural and geometric in often natural installations. Consistent constraints create a thread that ties his work together, something we see in an architectural practice’s known style - or a brand of any type’s familiar output.

Working with others is the key to success

We feel that the traditional perception that there is one creative author or creative pair (e.g. Sir Norman Foster, Charles & Ray Eames) is outdated. The reality is that an individual is successful because they were responsible for a creative, collaborative environment or selectively worked with other talented individuals who provided their own invaluable contribution.

Their personal talent is not in question, but without collaboration and the ability to draw on others’ expertise it may never see its full potential realised.


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