Leader of the Xynthetic collective Gavin Strange explains why forming a collective can turn individual designers into a team of art superheroes.
Strength in numbers. Power to the people. You've heard the phrases all before, but that's because they're true. Surround yourself with like-minded people and you'll feel empowered, not just because of the stirrings of inspiration they bring, but that fighting spirit too - a yearning to better yourself and impress your peers.
Being part of a collective brings many benefits: exciting and challenging projects, different heads to bounce ideas off, a shared vision of a creative future, and lets not forget that age-old adage: 'it's not what you know, it's who you know'.
I started Xynthetic back in 2002, and it has gone from being a one man band to an 18-strong family of creative types. 'Xynthetic' was originally the name I went under to create hand-painted skateboard decks - I was determined to have my own skateboard company, and would create skateboard decks using hand-cut stencils and spray paint in my friend's garage in Leicester. There were four skateboarders who 'rode' for us, although in reality we were just four close friends skating together using the Xynthetic name. This didn't deter us: we used low-tech video cameras to film a skate video, and then our Apple Macs to capture, edit and output a DVD of our antics. The 12-minute film epic served as our first real collaborative effort, joining myself and good friend Makinov - a film maker - on editing duties for the first time.
This marked the beginning of a new era for the Xyn. Having started as a solo 'brand', I now felt that working with other people as a collective could become something very exciting.
The family consists of designers, artists, photographers, filmmakers, skaters and riders, so there's no shortage of projects to collaborate on. Most frequently we work together for art shows and exhibitions, producing work with a common theme and combining art, design, film and photography to showcase a broad range of mediums. Armed with a wealth of video and stills cameras, we capture all the stages of a project, from start to finish, with the end goal of producing mini-films for each event.
Using these diverse skills has given us strength to explore new areas, such as producing our own screen prints or producing video podcasts. Through exploring different techniques and combining them, we all learn as individuals, and this helps us push the Xynthetic collective further.
"If anything, the art of self-promotion is just as important as the artwork itself," says James Klinge - aka Klingatron - one of Xynthetic's members. "Making a career out of being creative starts with taking care of yourself. You need dedication, and a focused attitude towards your creations and getting your work out there to be seen by as many people, in as many different ways, as you can. A little success can feel like a big achievement when you make things happen yourself, and that only comes with self-promotion."
Using the internet has been key to getting people involved and interested in what we're doing, both as a collective and individually. The Xynthetic website is updated regularly with pictures, quotes and videos of members' latest work and activities. We've been offered live drawing events, exhibitions around Europe, and commercial work just because our endeavours are online for all to see.
Alex Fowkes, alias Pone, explains. "In Xyn's case, we get to travel to new places, exhibiting our work, showing people what we are about and hopefully inspiring them. Doing things together as a collective is really exciting too; you never quite know what everyone is going to come up with next. The Xyn is forever growing as well, which means more work, more friends, more fun!"
In 2008 we put together a 'mini arts tour' where we produced a exhibition that visited three galleries in Middlesbrough, Nottingham and Bristol. The work we produced consisted of screen prints, painted skateboards, hundreds of lomo photographs, and even a handmade film. To let people take away a little piece of the tour, we made up 90 'goodie bags', which contained stickers, postcards, badges and posters that we gave away at the opening of each show. These little touches are a way of saying 'thank you' to the people who take the time to embrace what you're doing, and in turn will help them remember you and your work.
Jonny Clooney, who works as Makinov, agrees. "Collaborating on joint projects provides a great environment in which to push and develop each others' talents. The encouragement that comes with this is an amazing boost to your own state of mind and work." For Clooney, the main benefit of his involvement in Xynthetic is the range of work we cover together. "We all influence each other in some way, and with so many of us throwing ideas into the pot, it ensures what we create will remain fresh and exciting."
In the future we hope to push our collective work more and experiment with different mediums further. We would like to approach exhibitions with more of a 'concept' in mind, such as an entire show using ultraviolet light, or an animated film featuring character design from all the family members. We're constantly learning in our own fields, so you never know what opportunities will present themselves in the future.
As with any artist, designer or creative, inspiration comes in many different forms - and there's nothing more inspiring than seeing what can be made possible by others with a DIY ethic. And that's where Doomtree come into the story.
Doomtree are a hip-hop collective from Minneapolis, USA, who believe strongly in the relationship between music and design. They have been putting out their own records combined with high-energy live shows for many years, and continue to go from strength to strength. Their tiresome work ethic and consistent level of production ensures their reputation grows with everything they produce.
They're a huge inspiration for Xynthetic, and I often refer to wanting us to be "the Doomtree of design". Paper Tiger is producer and beat-maker for the crew, and working as a collective is something he feels strongly about. "I know I'd never have reached the level that I have without everyone in the crew. I have learned and gained so much from everyone. We are constantly inspiring each other, and that is a major part of it."
With music being increasingly downloaded via the internet, the days of album artwork are beginning to look numbered. But Doomtree still feel the discipline has a lot of life left in it. "I truly believe that we have a good couple more years of making actual, physical albums. The market is not built for it anymore, and it has become more and more clear that a digital format will eventually completely take over," Tiger explains. "So as far as I am concerned, this is sort of the last gasp to try and make some really cool looking products, and use them as a vehicle to push the brand."
It isn't just album and EP artwork that requires attention to detail; everything from music videos to the stage design of their yearly blowouts is scrutinised and perfected. "Everything demands creative direction. It is very important to keep up brand recognition and, very simply, quality control. Anything that has your name on it gives an impression to someone, and often it's the first impression. You have to take every opportunity to deliver something memorable."
The internet is now regarded as key for instant self-promotion, using tools like Facebook, Flickr and Twitter. It doesn't matter whether you're a graphic designer or an MC, reaching people is a lot easier online. As Tiger reveals, "It boils down to a very simple solution - be where your audience is. We are becoming more aware of the age and lifestyle of our fans, which is very important. This is where people spend their day. I can guarantee you will never see a Doomtree commercial on TV, because it does not have our intended market in mind. However we have been making web videos for years. Being a DIY organisation, the internet plays a huge role in our marketing. When we started, we had nothing more than a few dollars in each of our pockets. The internet provides a platform for us to show exactly who we are to our fans."
Paper Tiger's advice on starting a collective of your own is to start simply. "Do whatever you can to communicate with others who are like-minded and involved in the same type of creativity. You can learn so much just by seeing what others have done. Then take all that knowledge and figure out a way to explain to your intended audience why you are who you are, and what makes you different."
I agree; nothing will get you further in this creative life than honest hard work and a passion for what you do. It really is as simple as that. Surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals will only make the experience more fun and more rewarding.
With the internet making the world a smaller place, you'll find yourself making friends in no time. Getting involved online is absolutely essential. Comment on beautiful photographs on Flickr; reply to an interesting tweet on Twitter. There's an endless supply of amazing and inspiring work out there in all different forms - go and find it, leave your thoughts, and pretty soon you'll find yourself immersed in a constant flurry of inspiration.
It will all come back around, too; the recipients of your kind words will start reciprocating your feedback, checking our your work, and initiating the cycle of appreciation. To sum up: create with your heart, give it your all, surround yourself with like-minded individuals, and you won't go far wrong.