How a Musician and Designer Gave Me a New Vocabulary for Creative Collaboration
In a course that he teaches at Berklee College of Music, IDEO Global Design Director, Michael Hendrix, points to Miles Davis at 18, new to New York. Miles was accepted into Juilliard for that rare mix of talent and potential that conservatories adore, but from the start he neglected his studies, skipping classes to spend his days (and nights!) searching downtown clubs for Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
“I spent my first weeks in New York looking for Bird and Dizzy,” he said in Miles, the autobiography. “I went everywhere looking for two cats, spent all my money and didn’t find them… that’s the real reason I wanted to come to New York in the first place. Juilliard was only a smokescreen, a stopover, a pretense I used to put me close to being around Bird and Diz.”
Dizzy, in particular, seems to have captured Miles’ attention. His jagged style and audacious departures from written chord sequences were wildly different from how Miles played. A 1960 edition of London’s The Guardian newspaper wrote: “There could not be a greater contrast between Davis’ and Gillespie’s approach. Where Gillespie looked his audience over, laughed at it and defied it to understand what he was doing, Davis seems unaware that he has an audience. His effects are aimed at himself and at those who play with him.”
Miles had already honed his gifts to the point where he could play with any jazz band, but he felt a kinship with Bird and Dizzy’s pursuit of creativity, their desire to explore, express, and grow together. And his impulse proved right: not only did he find and play with them, they became a unique kind of team.
But wait a minute. Is “team” the right word? When I think of a team, I think of a group of individuals, each filling a specific role in order to coordinate and conquer as a practiced unit. The sports model, based on military tactics. Work together, defeat others, win. It’s a familiar approach in corporate and creative industries alike, and it can achieve amazing results.
For Miles, Bird, and Dizzy teamwork was different. It was designed for one person to step forward and solo, then step back and follow. On this kind of team, everyone accepts that they don’t know precisely where they’re going. They aren’t following a director’s singular vision and the end result isn’t predefined.
What will my collaborators do next? Where will they go? And how can I pick up their thread and take it to an entirely new place? I have to trust my collaborators’ talent, believing that what we create together will be better than what I could have made on my own.
This is how megastar Beyoncé approached Lemonade, her Grammy-winning sixth studio album. She invited more than 100 collaborators from the worlds of pop, rock, rap, and electronica to participate in creating what the Associated Press called “the Album of the Decade.”
One song, “Hold Up,” has 15 contributors – ranging from DJs like Diplo to producers like MNEK, to Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, to indie rockers Karen O and Father John Misty. The one thing they all have in common? Beyoncé likes their music. As she told collaborator Jack White: “I love how you play guitar. I want to be in a band with you.”
These collaborators weren’t invited into a conference room to write and revise; they weren’t flown to a studio to record a quick loop or chorus. Instead, Beyoncé sent them a snippet of an idea and asked them to build upon it, then took that artist’s contribution and forwarded it to another, for further evolution.
When Beyoncé’s team enlisted MNEK on “Hold Up,” the direction was loose: “The great thing about [Beyoncé’s] team was that they were just like: We asked you to be part of this because we like what you do, so just do your thing.”
Beyoncé didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. In fact, that was the whole point. She was curious, she knew it would be interesting, and that she could respond to and build upon other voices.
While Kendrick Lamar was writing To Pimp a Butterfly, he heard and loved the hip-hop sensibilities that Kamasi Washington brings to jazz, so he invited Kamasi to play on the album’s final song. But when he heard Kamasi’s contribution, it changed Kendrick’s vision of the entire album and he asked Kamasi to infuse jazz into every track.
Kamasi described the collaboration as unlike any he’d done before: “All of us had always done records with hip-hop artists [from] Eminem to Snoop to Puff Daddy. [But] they only want a little bitty piece of what you are. What Kendrick did was so unique, he wanted your whole thing, he wanted you to play yourself. So, for me, that was the trippier part. I was like: Wow, he’s really into letting these guys put their whole spirit into this music… You don’t expect someone to say: “Do whatever you want to do.”
“He’ll hire people to do the style that they really want to do, and then take all this genius poured into the pot, and use his whole genius to shape it,” Kamasi said. “It’s a real type of humility – not humble for any philosophical purpose, but a true humility.”
Like Miles, Kendrick was not just open to other influences, he was curious about where they would take him. His curiosity was key.
Now, a cautionary tale. When the Beatles met as teenagers, their passion for rock n’ roll brought them together. John and Paul would sneak out of school to spend afternoons working on their own songs, mimicking Elvis and Buddy Holly. When they formed the Fab Four, they agreed on a single rule: one man, one vote. Each Beatle had an equal voice.
But only 5 short years after their first album, things were falling apart. The band’s manager, who many said was the glue that kept them together, unexpectedly died and The Beatles began drifting apart. None of them really wanted to run the business side. To fill the gap, Paul tried to step in as a unifier, but he had become an autocrat.
The film Let It Be documents the band rehearsing and recording songs for their twelfth studio album. Paul seems aggressively out of touch with what his bandmates want. George stares at him with an expression that is both bored and irritated. John said he felt that the camera was set up to spotlight Paul, rather than anyone else.
Not long after The White Album was released, the band signed with a new agent, but Paul refused to add his signature to the contract. The other three Beatles stuck to the “one man, one vote” rule, but Paul knew that this personal principle wouldn’t hold up in court. When he sued the Beatles, the judge agreed that Paul wasn’t contractually bound to stay in the band.
The band had lost their curiosity about and openness to each other. They had no shared agenda, and with a member who refused to play nicely, who wanted to be in charge, one of the greatest collaborations in rock music ended.
Two years later, Ringo – always the most level-headed Beatle – wrote a song called “Back Off, Boogaloo,” about how Paul had lost his touch:
Wake up, meathead…
You think you’re a groove
Standing there in your
And your socks
That matches your eyes…
Get yourself together now
And give me something tasty
Everything you try to do
You know it sure sounds wasted.
It’s funny, and a bit mean. But note the message: I want you to do your best, to see you give the world something great again. Ringo was still curious to see what Paul would create.
As 2019 turned to 2020, I got a phone call from Michael at IDEO. He was working on a book about musical mindsets and business innovation with Panos Panay, who has since become Co-President at the Recording Academy (the organization behind the Grammys). The book was based on the creative mindsets course that he and Panos had developed through Berklee College of Music’s Institute of Creative Entrepreneurship.
They had written a draft of the book with a ghostwriter who did traditional business books – but struggled to find a shared voice that made it an engaging read, in part because the two authors didn’t think that the traditional business book format fit either their personalities or their desired audience. The ideas were incredible, and Panos’ connections opened doors for interviews with artists ranging from Justin Timberlake to Pharrell. But the writing itself had somehow sapped the ideas of their power, leaving only a dry and boring manuscript in which they were both struggling to maintain interest.
Michael initially asked me to help edit the 50,000+ words and to develop a voice that preserved each author’s personality without making it clunky. We talked about books he found inspiring and formats that were more aligned to their intentions. I cautioned that I’m not a ghostwriter, I’m a brand messaging guy. But Michael’s response was much like Beyoncé’s direction to her collaborators: “Just do your thing” or Kendrick/Kamasi’s “Do whatever you want to do.”
Together, we revisited the existing interviews, adding conversations with Imogen Heap, Madame Gandhi, T Bone Burnett, Hank Shocklee, Jimmy Iovine, and many others – even creative directors from Facebook and Google Product Design. We did additional secondary research to fill out stories. And, fulfilling the initial brief, I helped shape a unified voice that made reading the book not only less confusing and dry, but fresh and engaging, aligned to their personalities and their audience. All confirming what Michael believed from the beginning: creating an authentic voice for multiple authors is not so very different than creating one for a brand.
In the end, we rewrote every word and added several new chapters. By the time the book was published by Hachette/Penguin in April of 2020, Michael and Panos’ ideas had sparked in me a new vocabulary in my own career as a collaborator.
At Chameleon Collective, I sit at the intersection of creative strategy, copywriting, naming, and generative brand guidelines. And I’m lucky to collaborate on these projects with incredible colleagues.
Around the same time that I started work on Two Beats Ahead, Chameleon Sean MacBeth was Interim Head of Digital for Bradshaw Home, a company with its hands in brands across the home cleaning and kitchen wares spectrum.
Sean asked me to write emails for Casabella’s new product Infuse, an environmentally- friendly competitor to Swiffer, for an upcoming launch at Target. Designer Pamela Alegria and CRM Strategist Jonathan Nail took my Google Doc of words and gave it beauty and power.
The project went so well that I was soon writing long form blog posts with SEO guidance from Brittney Kleinfelter. Bradshaw liked some of the copy so much that it made its way onto in-store packaging. They asked us to take over infuseclean.com from another agency, turning a rather meh website into one that drives engagement and conversions; Art Director Stacey Groth took my lyrics and made them sing.
At each step, we also turned to teams at Bradshaw Home to bring their own voices to the projects. Listening and learning, curious about where they would go. And in the months since, we’ve worked on brand guidelines, websites, TV commercials, and campaigns for multiple brands within the company, collaborating with teams across Bradshaw on projects from GoodCook to Koffee to Casabella.
We even came up with potential names of products to be sold in stores from Amazon to Lowes to Walmart, for their in-house creative group.
Perhaps my favorite part of this story is that when the former Director of Brand Marketing at Bradshaw moved to a new company that provides software-enabled revenue cycle management for outpatient rehab clinics, she called Brittney. And Brittney called me, asking if I could help with a series of emails. Hopefully starting the cycle all over again.
The gaps in my own talent are huge, and they’re good. I can’t design worth a damn, and I’m useless when it comes to CRM. In other words, I could never have done a fraction of this alone. Even my strategy and copywriting benefited from my partners’ great thinking and desire to explore together.
But Sean, Pamela, Jonathan, Brittney, Stacey, and I took turns stepping forward to lead, then stepping back to follow. We stayed curious about what each other would bring to the table. And lucky me: this happens every day at Chameleon.
For those of you who love a TL;DR: the challenge for us as creative collaborators is to:
1. Be confident in your own talent so others can call on you to bring the good(s)
2. Be humble enough to know your own gaps and invite others to fill them in without
3. Stay curious about each other.
Caleb Ludwick is Brand Voice and Messaging Director at Chameleon Collective, working closely with C-Suites, in-house marketing teams, and designers to help clients connect with their customers through meaningful,
resonant messaging. His work has been honored by AIGA, New York Type Directors Club, San Francisco
Design Week, and with permanent inclusion in the Smithsonian National Design Museum.