13 November 2006
John Emerson
John Emerson

Some of our most venerable institutions started out as collectives. Before they were Push Pin Studios, they were a network of freelancers in a shared studio space. Before they were Pentagram, they were a partnership of three. In its twenty years, the French studio Grapus grew to encompass three collectives under the same roof.

Collectives, also known as "co-operatives", "cooperatives" or "co-ops" are groups of individuals who join together to undertake an activity for their mutual benefit. Co-ops may be for-profit or not-for-profit, unionized or not, and legally incorporated or not what s different about a co-op is that it s owned and operated by its members.

You may be familiar with a neighborhood food co-op or credit union. These are consumer co-ops which pool resources to offer discounted services to their members.

Graphic design collectives are "producer co-ops", owned and operated by their employees. This is quite different from a firm with an employee stock ownership program. Co-op workers share in decision making and responsibility, as well as profits and losses.

Why form a cooperative? One argument is that organizations owned by the communities they serve are more accountable, and can emphasize service over profit. When employees govern their own workplace, they can design a happier, stable and more equitable work environment.

But there s also the value of organizing according to one's ideals. Though we are supposedly living in a democracy, most of us spend our days working for private tyrannies. Living and participating in a democracy should consist of more than just voting once a year. We should be able to participate in the decisions that affect our lives.

One member of a cooking collective sums it up: We ve tried not only to feed people well, but also to treat people well. Over the last 30 years our company has come to represent something bigger than we ever anticipated, and something better than the usual business.

Calling all co-ops
Co-ops have existed for centuries and seem to be experiencing a resurgence today.

Co-ops flourish around the world: agricultural co-ops in Africa, Israeli kibbutzim, factories in Argentina, construction firms in France...even the London Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonic are run as cooperatives.

Communal living collectives are as old as human society itself. Economic cooperatives in Europe go back to the seventeenth century, when Quakers established consensus-based intentional communities. (Our own Milton Glaser grew up in a living cooperative in the Bronx, though a little later.)

The oldest continuing consumer co-op in the U.S. was started in 1752 by one Benjamin Franklin. He helped found the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire, for member households "to be and continue to be Contributors unto and equal Sharers in the losses as well as the gains." That is, households and businesses subscribing to the program pooled their resources to pay for fire damage affecting the members (and to reward volunteer firefighters for speedy work).

Industrial cooperatives have been around since the industrial revolution itself. The longest running co-ops in the U.K. and in Italy are well over a century old. Since 1956, the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation has grown to become one of the twelve largest companies in Spain.

The 1970s saw an explosion of cooperatives in the United States as youth involved in countercultural movements sought alternative organizations and organizational structures. In just over a decade, they formed more than 1,000 producer cooperatives, at least 1,300 alternative schools, between 5,000 and 10,000 food co-ops, and several thousand rural and urban communes.

The Moosewood Collective was one of those groups that came together in the '70s. Since its founding in Ithaca, New York, the group has expanded from owning and operating a small natural foods restaurant to become a larger, more diversified company. In addition to running a busy restaurant and authoring ten celebrated cookbooks, the group now produces a line of organic food products for retail stores. The Moosewood Restaurant was named one of the thirteen most influential restaurants of the twentieth century by Bon Appetit magazine.

The late '90s saw another surge of interest in co-ops. Inspired in part by the autonomous councils of the Zapatistas, within five years the Independent Media Center movement has grown to become a global network of nearly 200 local collectives in 36 countries.

Further evidence of their popularity co-ops even have their own Internet domain name. Co-op Web sites can use .coop instead of .com or .org (as in,

Decisions, decisions
One challenge for any organization with many owners is the decision-making process. When major organizational decisions require consideration by all the employee-owners, this process can take time.

Some consumer co-ops, such as rural electric cooperatives, are run day-to-day by a professional staff in a familiar hierarchical structure. These operations are governed by boards elected by co-op members to make decisions on their behalf.

In many producer cooperatives, however, the workers are their own board members and set the direction of the organization together.

These co-ops often use the "consensus process" to reach decisions. This is a form of decision making that emphasizes participation, inclusion and the creative interplay of ideas through discussion and the resolution of differences.

This sounds burdensome, but many of us use consensus in our daily lives and relationships. When we listen to each other and collaborate to make satisfying decisions for all, we have reached consensus.

Consensus is about coming to harmony. The goal is to achieve a decision that is the best for the whole group, not just a majority or powerful elite. The process empowers individuals who might otherwise be overridden in a majority vote.

Decisions are adopted by unanimous agreement though larger groups may use a "modified consensus" which takes more than one person to block a decision.

A recurring criticism of the process is that it is less efficient meetings and discussions may take longer than voting or executive decree. This is particularly challenging under a designer s impending deadlines. However, defenders of consensus point to its goals: Is this goal to make a quick decision? Or one that everyone has a voice in and agrees with?

And yet, while the consensus process may be slow or difficult, it may also result in better decisions. The resolution of differences may lead to unexpected and creative solutions. And, because they are more circumspect, consensus decisions may be longer lasting.

For more about the consensus process, read On Conflict and Consensus: A Handbook on Formal Consensus Decisionmaking at

Co-ops in action
While the advantage of consumer co-ops is its strength in numbers, a main advantage of producer co-ops is responsiveness to its members. In a producer co-op, worker-owners have the ability to shape their own workplace and direction.

This can create a level of resilience in the cycle of economic ups and downs. Rather than laying off the most vulnerable employees, cooperative owners can collectively agree to a mutually acceptable solution.

In small collectives, members may also be able to learn all aspects of running a business. In larger organizations, day-to-day decisions are made by departments, while big-picture decisions are determined in big meetings where everyone has a say.

There may also be a tax advantage. Co-ops in the U.S. are taxed like partnerships income to the co-op is distributed and taxed as personal income, rather than taxed first as income to the corporation and then again when paid to employees.

But enough of the theory. Below are five profiles of practicing design cooperatives, differing in size, medium and legal incorporation.

Design Action Collective
Innosanto Nagara describes himself as "a big worker co-op geek." He joined Inkworks Press as PrePress in 1995. Another co-op founded in the 70s, Inkworks (, is a worker-owned collective and union printshop with an emphasis on green printing.

In 2003, the design department became a separate entity and the two members formed the Design Action Collective, a worker-owned, union-organized, for-profit corporation (

Inkworks and Design Action continue to collaborate and share a commitment to producing professional graphics and resources for social movements. Their clients sing praise of their work and its impact. "If it's not documented, it didn t happen," says Iris Carter Brown from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Holding up a report produced by Design Action about the campaign to stop Shell from polluting her neighborhood, she says, "Here's the proof, this is real. We are not crazy, and we are tired of putting up with this." The polished, sophisticated graphics project an image of an organized, sophisticated movement one that can overcome its opponents.

Design Action has since grown to four members along with a few young people as interns. Both Design Action and Inkworks require consensus for hiring and firing, but use modified consensus for other decisions. Hiring into a collective requires extra careful consideration: you are not just hiring an employee, but selecting a co-owner who will help run the organization. Design Action also looks for people who represent communities of the social movements they work with.

"Owning your own labor is incredibly empowering," says Inno. With rights, however, come responsibilities. "The decision-making process can be slower. We definitely move more slowly than other businesses."

"People make many mistakes in small businesses, too. Typical startups have a high rate of failure. Quick decisions can go wrong and everyone can lose their jobs. Co-ops have a high rate of success and are more stable." In addition to carrying a full workload, they are also considering ways of building a broader network to bring design and communication services to social movements. They hope to build a common training ground for people who want to become designers, and who want to engage their communities.

Eggplant Active Media Workers Collective ( is a collectively run design shop specializing in Web design and Web application development for nonprofit, progressive and activist organizations.

Many of the members met by working together in 1999 at the Seattle Independent Media Center. After exploring a variety of possible organizational structures from philosophical and legal angles, they incorporated as a business in 2001.

Eggplant is a Limited Liability Corporation. Technically, the corporation does not have employees, only associates. Each of the four associates are paid as contract laborers in the form of "advanced dividends," sharing the profits equally and giving a percentage into the collective s endowment to enable pro-bono work. The associates are responsible for their own income taxes because the corporation does not technically make money.

The team is split in terms of geography and tasks. Two of the associates are primarily coders working in Southern Vermont while the two designers work in Central Vermont. The team is in active contact through electronic communication and at weekly meetings in a shared office midway between the regular offices. Business, administration, sales and finances are primarily the responsibility of two of the associates.

"Everyone is responsible and accountable to each other," says Jason Lemieux, creative director. "There's no room for slacking off and plenty of peer pressure. You are directly affecting the lives of three other people. If one person is slacking, the others feel it to very high degree."

The group makes decisions by consensus, but with a fallback to a vote with a super-majority. The vote has yet to be used. In the event of an impasse, there is a two week time-out period before the decision is revisited.

The structure seems to be working. Business is growing quickly and the firm is poised to hire two new people.

"In a co-op, you earn great respect and friendship for your fellow employees and workers," says Jason. "It keeps boss vs. employee dynamics out of the workplace. The result is a happy, healthy workplace where people love their jobs.

"We all love our job. We all shape it. We take on projects we want and are excited about."

Red Sun
Founded in 1974, Red Sun Press ( is a collectively owned and operated union printshop, incorporated as a not-for-profit business in Massachusetts. The staff of ten is divided into teams: prepress, press, sales and a business manager. Each team is represented in a management team and everyone sits on the board of directors. The board sets overall, big decisions like salaries and big purchases.

The union helps set pay scale and governs the procedure for firing employees. Member Jenny Silverman notes, "Being a cooperative is good, but would not protect individuals from being fired without cause. Having a union contract requires owners to have justification and allows workers to have representation. It also shows solidarity with the broader union movement."

Salary for the four categories of jobs is comparable to industry norms, with an additional bonus for seniority. At the end of the year, the group shares the profits equally. "When everybody has a stake in the business, a certain ownership, people feel more empowered about their work and their life," says Jenny. "People are not afraid of losing their jobs. The pay structure is transparent and has some differentiation, but the gaps are narrow." The business provides health insurance for all employees, not just management full coverage for individuals, and 90% for family members.

Many of the members of Red Sun were active in the environmental movement and bring this commitment to the press. The printer was the first in Boston to stock recycled paper. The company recycles its own paper and film and uses solvents that are as safe as possible. They also promote sustainable solutions to their customers.

Price competition in printing is stiff, but the press works hard to remain competitive. By producing a high-quality printed product on recycled paper with a union label, the press distinguishes itself within its market and maintains a loyal customer base.

The group strives for consensus, but decides by a vote with a simple majority. Most votes, however, are unanimous.

"Sometimes it takes time to make decisions," Jenny says. "For example, it may take a longer time to decide on a major capital purchase than in a privately owned company. Although the process is sometimes time consuming, the deliberation results in cautious, good decisions. Our decisions have to be justified to the whole group.

"But when people come together," she says, "It's a great moment."

The 62
The 62 ( is an art and design collective in Brooklyn, New York. Three of the members are graphic designers with day jobs. The fourth is a part-time organic farmer. They spend their evenings at The 62, a place for their extra curricular projects.

The group started as a loosely associated studio called the Visual Mafia producing their own posters, street art and graffiti "to cultivate a dialogue on the street," says Matthew McGuinness. The group disbanded in 2000 when two members left for Italy. A few joined up again in 2001 and formed The 62 to focus on public art and projects.

The studio designs printed materials and Web sites for a mix of small corporate clients and arts organizations, nonprofits and independent theater groups. They also create T-shirts, artwork and participate in community projects.

One of these projects, the Rebicycling Project, grew from a conversation with a friend and social worker to become a ten-week educational program with high school students in the South Bronx. The project taught kids to build, take apart and rebuild bicycles, along the way discussing alternative transportation, media and advertising and typography ultimately naming the bikes with logos designed by the kids.

At the end of the program the studio donated their tools to Recycle-a-Bicycle, a nonprofit, environmental education and job training program, to continue to work with kids.

The studio is incorporated as a partnership and uses consensus to operate. "If everybody is not on board, we choose another project," says Matthew.

The group is committed to sustainable and environmental practices and hopes to bring their interests to other communities.

"As a collective, we like seeding alternative ideas. We take turns working on projects," he says. "It's like a group of musicians. We've found a comfortable working space to jam."

The Tech Underground
The Tech Underground ( is a collective of fourteen in the San Francisco Bay Area. The team offers Web development, networking and tech support and have built an impressive client list of over a hundred activist and environmental groups, arts and educational institutions, health services and grant-makers.

However, unlike the organizations above, the Tech Underground is not actually a legal entity. They are not incorporated, but are an informal alliance of individual consultants, a network that is entirely voluntary. Individual members conduct contract work, collaborate and back each other up.

The group was started by a couple of system administrators on-call all the time. Support from members of the network allowed them to pass the pager when stepping out of town. The group now shares a uniform contract, billing and rate scale, offering their services exclusively to nonprofits and always at a discount.

Though the network relies heavily on electronic communication and does not have a central office, "Our clients and members are all in the Bay Area," says Web developer Kendra Markle. The group meets face-to-face every six weeks for general discussion, with subcommittees meeting more often. At general meetings members discuss current projects and new leads, as well as organization-wide updates (such as reports back from conferences) and any questions best resolved by the larger group (for instance, should the network grow? And if so how and when?). The overall group operates by consensus.

The big meetings are followed by a social hour where the group catches up and meets potential new members and other interested and interesting people. New members currently are only considered if the network needs their skills and when more than one member knows and has worked with them before. The group also keeps a referral list of other people and invites them to the social time to find out how those jobs worked out.

Individuals may still take projects of their own, without the Tech Underground name, but then do not get the benefits of working with other network members. Each person chooses the projects they want, and each is responsible for their own taxes and health insurance.

In addition to the backup, as an affiliated group the members can take on bigger projects. One project for Youth in Focus in Oakland involved five members and involved a range of services from technology planning to database design and construction to interoYce networking. "The client knew that additions would be tightly integrated and that rollout would be smooth. They knew they were always covered," says Kendra.

All together now
The cooperative structure may not work for everyone, but if you're interested, here are a few resources to find out more:

National Cooperative Business Association:

The U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives:

Network of Bay Area Cooperatives:

International Co-operative Alliance:

The Industrial Cooperatives of America:

As graphic designers we know that shapes give meaning to forms and inflect their expression. The same can be said of the shapes, or structures, of our organizations. It s no accident that the groups above tend to work with nonprofit and activist organizations.

Co-ops reflect a commitment to something greater and yet something very basic that we are stronger when working together to solve common problems.

Co-ops are a microcosm and model for a society built on mutual respect and direct participation, where businesses are rooted in their communities.

Whether coming together to benefit a community or out of entrepreneurial ambitions, when employees own and control their own workplace, they can create a better, happier working environment and a richer life.

Co-ops are something greater than the sum of their parts. They are more than business as usual.

Editors note: Design, photography and illustration can all be lonely professions. Cheer up: get into a collective! DK Holland

About this article
Design Issues is a regular feature of Communication Arts. Communication Arts is a participant member of the Icograda Design Media Network (IDMN). For information on the IDMN, visit

Reprinted with permission by Communication Arts, 2006 Coyne & Blanchard, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally published in Communication Arts September/October Interactive Annual 2005

About John Emerson
Backspace is a design consultancy dedicated to research, development, and promotion of design in the public interest.