The hermit crab, the feral pigeon and the finer points of collaboration.

January 25th, 2017


Crabtastic - 'The Fat of the Land' album cover © Konrad Wothe/Sylvestris/ FPLA - Images of Nature

Anyone who has ever encountered hermit crabs will probably have discovered that they come in different sizes, in other words they grow. Not a completely noteworthy thought, I agree, however, have you ever considered what happens when a hermit crab grows? One day it wakes up, stretches its pincers and notices everything is a bit tighter than the day before. So what? It just packs up and scuttles about the sea bed in the nude looking for a bigger shell? Surely this would result in immediate consumption of its delicates by a food chain superior just waiting for this very thing to occur? No, what happens is quite a surprise and is really rather wonderful. When the hermit crab realises that it needs to take more spacious rooms it begins, as suspected, by looking for something larger, but its requirements are quite specific, it only wants the new shell to be a little bit bigger. ‘I’ll grow into it’ is not in their ‘vocrabulary’. But imagine how unlikely it is that an empty shell of the correct type and just the right amount larger is going to be found easily nearby. So the ingenious crab, invariably finding an appropriate shell that is not quite right, squats down and waits. It waits for other hermit crabs wanting to move house, and soon any number will arrive. They begin by feeling each other up, meticulously, eventually forming a size-ordered line ending with the ‘found’ shell. Finally, one signals: Shell we?and they all nip out and move into the vacated property next door. Incredible.

I am reminded of this story because it very much illustrates a point I continually make about the collaborative nature of design. Just as our crabs have learnt that collaborating results in far greater success than they could achieve alone, so a collaborative approach to design also leads to greatness. Asking a client to learn a little about human perception, semiotics and the design process helps them understand their choices more, gets them to feel more involved and creates a greater sense of ownership. Knowing a business’s audience really well and asking in a structured manner for feedback creates confidence and can be vital and even revelatory. And for a designer this level of collaboration necessarily stretches one’s imagination and creative muscle, improving one’s work exponentially. But how do we collaborate skilfully, bringing the best out in ourselves and others in order to achieve this high value work? The following story is exemplary – learn well people.

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Theresa has bought a small business. ‘New broom, new look,’ she decides in her first week at the helm and to make sure all five of her staff members are on side after the change of management she emails them all a business appraisal questionnaire. The document asks them for their opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of the business, its future positioning and their role within that, the back page has one statement: ‘We will be rebranding! Please sketch any ideas you have for a new logo here’.

Ebenezer, the finance director, doesn’t think he’s very creative; he likes to come to work, earn his money and go home again. His ideas about the company are formed from a fiscal point of view and that last page feels completely alien. He tries to put some swooshes together over the initials of the company but finds the whole process excruciating. Nigel, the receptionist, got a D in Art at GCSE, he puts most of his effort into the last question, producing a flashy logo using a painting app on his iPad and has an increasing confidence that he will be promoted because of this piece of work. Boris, the over-opinionated sales manager knows who he’s selling to, he believes a very visible change to their brand could be disastrous for consumer confidence and strongly thinks the logo shouldn’t change at all. Patsy and Eddie work in production, they constantly feel squeezed from all sides, they relish the chance to be heard at last and take the opportunity to vent their accumulated frustrations. They confer over the last page and produce two very similar ideas that strongly resemble the logo of the café they have lunch in every day.

Meanwhile, Theresa engages the services of Feral Pigeon a branding agency, she wants to feel sure that she’s getting the best for her new business. Figures aren’t Theresa’s strong suit so, on Ebenezer’s advice, she negotiates heavily on cost and eventually the agency agree to cut out parts of their process including the account manager and to replace the senior designer with Leonardo, a newly promoted, mid-weight designer. Leonardo asks for a brief and Theresa emails all five of her questionnaires in response, she attaches a few logos of brands she likes as an afterthought.

Leonardo has been told to keep an eye on his time on this project and having read everything he’s been sent he feels really confused. With no internal support he flounders and when an impatient Theresa calls to enquire about progress he feels pressured so ignores the ideas pages, because he can’t see how they fit any of the varied objectives listed, and instead works up three concepts which he thinks reflect the very different ideas he’s found in the paperwork. There’s no budget allowance for presentation of concepts, so Leonardo emails a pdf to Theresa who prints them out on the office laser printer (which could do with a new ink cartridge) and passes them round during a whole team staff meeting for comment. There ensues a ‘lively discussion’ during which Theresa notices that Ebenezer isn’t saying much. Eventually Boris succeeds in shouting everyone down and the team agrees that there’s probably no need to change anything. Theresa is annoyed because she really wants to make a statement of change so she thanks them all for their time and disperses the meeting by saying that their feedback is really vital and that she’s going to consider it all whilst she decides how to move forward. Everyone leaves feeling variously frustrated and disappointed but not really surprised.

Thinking about what to do next Theresa finds herself becoming increasingly worried that Ebenezer is unhappy and, perhaps feeling side-lined by the whole exercise, might find another job, thereby leaving Theresa with no tangible control of the company. Theresa knows what to do! She emails Leonardo to thank him for his work so far and politely requests that he work up a version of Ebenezer’s idea as the approved logo to base the new brand on. Feeling completely deskilled Leonardo does as he’s asked and they plan to get everything in place for launching the new brand in two months’ time.

Three weeks later Ebenezer resigns, saying that he feels uncomfortable being expected to be involved in so many other aspects of the business. It takes Feral Pigeon a year to get paid.

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So what have we learned about collaboration from these two fishy stories? Five points come to mind:

  1. Ensure that the business goal and the project outcome are honestly aligned, and stick to a known process with defined roles for that project.
  2. Respect and value the expertise of others.
  3. Listen carefully and give thoughtful input.
  4. Believe that just beyond the hard shell of our comfort zone lies growth.
  5. And most importantly be ok with vulnerability – trust that when you leave your shell everyone else will do the same.

It could just be crabtastic!


  1. Incredibly insightful as usual, plus combining my fishcination of branding, self-awareness and analogies about sea-dwellers. So true of so many places I’ve worked on many different scales. Point 2 particularly encapsulates the post.

    P.S. Excellent use of vocrabulary.

    by: Poppy on 31st January 2017 at 2:47 pm


    • Poppy – you’re back! Thanks for taking the time to read this and trawl as deeply as you have for meaning. Points 1, 3, 4 and 5 are a bit miffed that you’re not taking their expertise as seriously as point 2 though.

      by: shaell on 3rd February 2017 at 12:46 pm


  2. Highly entertaining and insightful. Hermit crabs are my new heroes.

    by: Ann on 2nd February 2017 at 7:46 pm


    • Aren’t they just? They seem to be the epitome of self-reliant, solipsism and yet they demonstrate this incredible social behaviour. I have just found this excellent BBC video which you might enjoy.

      by: shaell on 3rd February 2017 at 1:01 pm


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