Group projects can inspire a sense of dread in the hearts of even the toughest design students. The idea of compromising your design aesthetic, giving up a little bit of control, or working with someone who doesn’t pull their weight can be terrifying, but overall group projects have an unfair reputation. Some of the best projects come from group work, and it’s likely that you’ll have to work with others throughout your professional career, which means it’s time for an attitude overhaul. So, in the spirit of collaboration, we gathered some advice from both current and recent students on how to make your group projects more successful, and hopefully more enjoyable.
Caleb, Webster University, Lighting Design, Class of 2016
In my experience working on plays with other designers, your team will not be successful unless you all realize each player’s importance. Everyone is there to tell a story, and every person — from the lighting designer to the set designer — has an equal hand in that process. When people feel like their work is being undervalued by other group members, they won’t put forth their best effort. So, my piece of advice is to foster a respectful tone, that way everyone is motivated to excel, which will only strengthen the overall project.
Image from “The Nature of Flutmulde,” a group project winner of the Vectorworks Design Scholarship.
Drew, University of Maryland, Landscape Architecture, Class of 2017
Balance Exploration and Decision Making
Sometimes in group projects there is one member who voices the majority of the ideas and the group might blindly follow them, which can enable slackers to flourish and create resentment all around. My advice is to take some time in the beginning to explore everyone’s ideas and avoid groupthink. This gives everyone the chance to feel heard and can result in the exploration of more interesting ideas that are outside the box.
While brainstorming might be one of the most fun parts of a group project, you also have to make sure you don’t spend too long on this stage. You and your team need to get on the same page early on in your project and have an action plan. Otherwise, your team members will be too busy making up their minds and realize the week before your project’s deadline that they haven’t designed anything yet. So, avoid letting the exploration run too long.
Stay Clued In
It’s important to always regroup and ensure you’re all working toward the same goal, because when working with a group, it’s easy to lose track of who made certain design decisions and why they were made. After all, it’s most productive to divvy up the project and work independently to get the job done, but then it can start to feel like the group is working on separate projects, and when it comes time to present your work, people will notice that your design is disjointed. If you or your teammates forget to explain your work to each other, not only will your work feel scattered, but you’ll be on the chopping block when it comes time to present and defend your final project. Each of you will be expected to be aware of the “why” behind every component of the project.
To avoid drawing a blank when a professor asks you a question about a team member’s work, set daily meetings with your team to keep everyone in the loop. Having short, ongoing updates will not only help everyone understand the progression of each facet of the project, but it will also ensure that everyone is sticking to your team’s goals and expectations.
Students presenting a group project for review.
Joanna, Rice University, Architecture, Class of 2016
Honesty Is the Best Policy
It’s not enough to just know your strengths and weaknesses, you have to be able to actually communicate them to your team. When it comes time to divide up work, if you know that you are great at renderings, but struggle with line-weights or graphic styles, speak up! Typically, each member of your group will have different strengths, and the only way to play to them is by being honest.
But, the candid tone shouldn’t stop there. It can be just as hard, if not more challenging, to dish out criticism than it is to take it. My best group work came from a team that wasn’t afraid to speak their minds. By establishing a respectful tone early on, we could freely express our opinions without worrying about hurting each other. And, if any of us were offended by something, we were open and honest about it so we could get past it and move forward.
The Bottom Line: Your Group Project isn’t a Waste
When you work in a group where everyone is putting in the same effort and producing the same amount of work as they would for a personal project, you end up with an abundance of high-quality deliverables. Unfortunately, people tend to shy away from including this work in their personal portfolios, but you shouldn’t! In your summary and project description, include details about your team’s process and the specific roles you filled to show to employers that you are a good team player.
Image from “The Nest We Grow,” a group project winner of the Vectorworks Design Scholarship.
You can even use group work to apply to competitions and scholarships, like the annual Vectorworks Design Scholarship, where students from around the world can enter both their group and solo projects to score up to $10,000 USD. Interested? All you need to do is submit a PDF, .mov, or .mp4 of your project, answer a few short questions, and you’ll be on your way.