The Future of the Creative Process Is Increased Collaboration

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) frequently issues public reports on the state of climate change that make international headlines for their synthesis of science. The process behind these reports is also one of the world’s largest cooperative efforts to solve a global problem. 

There is an impressive level of consensus-based collaboration that goes into the development of IPCC reports. But this level of collaboration doesn’t need to be reserved for just intergovernmental organizations. Intentional collaboration can help global problem solving across a variety of complex social and environmental topics. As the world experiences increasing needs for cross-border coordination, it is vital to recognize how expanding collaboration can benefit the creative process. We can use the collaboration in the development of IPCC figures and infographics as a blueprint for expanding collaboration within day-to-day data vis design and creative practice. 

Creativity within global mega-collaborations

IPCC reports essentially get a lot of people from all over the world to agree, or in IPCC jargon ‘achieve consensus,’ on the state of climate science. Authored by hundreds of climate scientists, assessing tens of thousands of scientific studies, with input from 195 governments and numerous experts — the development of IPCC reports is inherently a creative process that benefits from collaboration. 

A photo of a huge conference room where collaborators sit at long tables and in front of laptop computers.
View of the contributors and governments involved in approving the IPCC Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers, March 2023. (Photo by IISD/ENB | Anastasia Rodopoulou)

The data-driven graphics that emerge from IPCC collaborations are not made to win design awards. Rather, they are the result of global agreement on language to share data and highlight key messages.

See the following image gallery to see various examples of the types of graphics that appear throughout the report.

International collaborations foster environments where the already complex creative process gets even more complicated as it adjusts to accommodate multiple rounds of iteration, collaboration, diverse perspectives, and the mandated timelines of governmental procedures.

Creativity thrives when diverse perspectives are considered, ideas are shared, and assumptions are challenged. Increased collaboration: 

  • Amplifies a variety of voices, improving the cultural and geographic inclusivity through design. This is particularly important for work that has a global audience. For example, ensuring that stylized icons of dwellings can be equally interpreted as coming from urban North America and as well as rural Southeast Asia.
  • Generates a shared sense of ownership and responsibility. Collaborative processes ‘get people on board’ because they have some ownership from having been part of the process. This is critical in global negotiations. 
  • Helps subject matter experts get out of their own jargon as they realize — through collaboration — that they need to adapt language that partners outside of their core field can understand.
A group photo.
Authors (climate scientists) and contributors involved in the development of the 2023 IPCC Synthesis Report. (Photo by IISD/ENB | Anastasia Rodopoulou, photo edits by Arlene Birt)

Creatives know the power of our work to move audiences on an emotional level, and to bridge the gap between complexity and public understanding. With growing focus on pairing creativity with technical fields — like science, technology, and policy — and because the future of problem-solving is multinational collaboration, creative disciplines must evolve collaboration strategies to sync with this method of work. 

In order to create figures for the Synthesis Report, (the final report of the latest seven-year cycle of IPCC, and a summary of six other reports in the cycle: check out a video walk-thru), 60 climate scientists had to design collaboratively. Based on that experience, here are three key strategies for making such a large creative collaboration successful: 

1. Make input part of the process

Scientific fields use peer review to achieve quality in published materials. Data visualizers and creative professionals can integrate this practice into design by intentionally seeking feedback from subject matter experts, clients, audiences, and other creatives. When we created graphics in  the latest cycle of the IPCC (AR6), we used a high degree of collaboration between designers and subject matter experts throughout the process — coined ‘co-design’ in other IPCC report processes which are further outlined in another Nightingale article. We also used cognitive science practices, which design for how the mind understands infographics. In addition to informal testing of figures with policymaker audiences, the graphics underwent two formal reviews, incorporating feedback from governments and experts — more than 30 thousand comments during the first draft alone — and was then subject to a week-long approval process to negotiate language revisions. 

2. Design-by-collaboration is not design-by-committee

When collecting a substantial amount of input on a project, it’s important to thoughtfully consider each opinion, but this doesn’t mean that every idea must be implemented. Instead, analyze the input and implement recurring themes — if the input is based on sound information. IPCC report authors are required to respond to all government and expert comments, but implementation of those comments is at the discretion of the author team. Clear and implementable patterns tend to emerge after analyzing the first several hundred comments on each figure.

3. Be prepared to iterate

With many brains involved, the first idea is never the final one. Repeated evolution (and being willing to let go of ideas) is key to designing within consensus. Going through the process of establishing and refining each graphic’s intent allows the authors to integrate a wide variety of ideas, make the message as clear and accurate as possible, Documenting the agreed-upon decisions helps keep forward momentum, as new collaborators invariably circle back to ideas that have already been explored (and dropped). Figures for the IPCC Synthesis report passed through an average of 15 to 30 (and as many as 43) different versions throughout the 18-month process. 

The future of the creative process and data vis lies in increased collaboration. Data visualizers who adopt collaborative practices inspired by large, international collaborations will unlock new levels of innovation, inclusivity, and effectiveness in their work. We can shape a future where creativity becomes a driving force for positive change. As IPCC reports note: “International cooperation is a critical enabler for achieving ambitious climate change mitigation, adaptation, and climate-resilient development.”

Headshot Arlene Birt
Arlene Birt

Arlene Birt is an information designer, founder, and creative director of Background Stories and a professor of Creative Entrepreneurship at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She collaborated with 60+ IPCC climate scientists to design the figures of the 2023 Synthesis Report.