A network-driven designer
works to the beat of the internet, creates its interfaces, fashions its
work products to an online aesthetic. A designer today is part of a
network-driven economy, but also is also driven by the increasing need
to navigate the social web of a field that is in constant flux.
These networks are not only digital, they are in cafes, clubs and
workplaces. Increasingly, email, websites, blogs, instant messages, palm
devices and cell phones become social spaces as never before. So how a
designer practices is influenced, if not controlled, by a new kind of
matrix, a network of interdependency that promises to exponentially
Living the network
Living and working in the network is not a simple task. The underlying
rhythms, structures and conventions of the network represent
non-negotiable rules that must be understood and practiced if one is to
be connected. An awareness of the network allows graphic designers to
better articulate and execute a personalized career path appropriate to
the time we live in. Weak-tie links
The acquaintances that we meet through a friend-of-a-friend (or
“weak-ties” as Mark Granovetter, the sociologist has said) represent a
networker’s best chance to increase his/her knowledge pool. Think about
it: Your friends (strong ties) already know what you know because they
are part of the same workplace or social circle. They represent a closed
group. But, the friend-of-a-friend (weak tie) represents an interface
to a new set of contacts and a new knowledge base. A dinner party spiced
with a few people who are unfamiliar with each other produces a greater
probability of original idea exchange (and potential projects) than a
party limited to a circle of old friends. Thus if you are a designer, a
network with financial service professionals, DJs, academics,
ethnographers and dancers produces a more beneficial network than one
composed mainly of other designers.
Whereas networks rely on a steady supply of diverse talent, a networked
designer must understand the value of variety when growing a network.
That is ”diversity, deviancy and difference” as the trend-forecasting
report Viewpoint has said, are the essential rules for keeping a
healthy network vital because new ideas travel from the fringe to the
mainstream. Traditional marketing methods, focus groups, quantitative
research and telemarketing are good at finding out what exists, but not
so good at predicting what will be next. A network ripe with deviant
ideas and fringe people is at high risk of producing innovative ideas.
The currency of a network is reciprocity
Networks work because of a conscious and subconscious understanding that
an act will repay somewhere down the road. There is an underlying
“open-source ethos” driving the network. Networkers expect to receive
payment—be it monetary, informational, instructional or spiritual, for
their participation. A sincere thank you or kind words from a student to
a mentor can serve as payment for information that would cost hundreds
of dollars an hour on the open market. In return for the shared
knowledge and instruction, the mentor now has developed a contact that
may prove in the future to be far more profitable than a paid project
Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed in the late 19th century, "A
minority of input produces the majority of results." Specifically he
noticed that in every economy he studied, 80 percent of the wealth was
held by 20 percent of the population. Further studies have shown that
this principle can be applied to almost any system, such as weather
systems, viral spreads and social networks. Thus according to the Pareto
Principle, 20 percent of the population are hubs—people who seem to
“know everybody” and are extraordinary attractors of contacts. 80
percent of the network is linked directly to these few hubs. Network
science calls these people “supernodes,” “booster hubs” and connectors.
It is not hyperbole to suggest that networks exist and function because
of these connectors.
The networked designer spends time like currency to maximize the return
on his time investment. A networked day may look like this:
Wake; have coffee; answer emails from contacts in Europe; set agenda for
day; start work on financial services information design project.
Break for chat with frequent project collaborator while working on
Powerbook in that little Thompson Street café with four tables.
Lunch with new contact met at nanotechnology conference.
Teach afternoon class on interface design.
Meet client to hash out place of blog in stealth marketing campaign.
Have coffee with frequent project collaborator for the past four years (meeting in-person for the first time).
Work on financial services project.
Dinner with former student who will create soundtrack for streaming video project on robotics.
Work on funding proposal for non-profit organization in India.
Find cheapest business class ticket online for workshop tour of China.
Answer emails from contacts from Asian clients and collaborators.
Research for self-generated physical-computing project.
Go to bed.
Growth is exponential
The existences of supernodes make network growth explosive. Over time we
don’t add one link at a time; we add a link that allows us access to
four links—one of which is a supernode—who in turn has 150 links
attached. Thus, by adding one link, we have separated ourselves by only
one degree from a coveted connector and their wealth of contacts. Work
that we do is compounded with the work done by others. And, furthermore,
networks are governed by the principle of “preferential
attachment”—that is the more we connect to others, the more others want
to connect to us. Think about two restaurants equal in size and look.
One is crowded and one is empty —which one would you choose? Similarly,
networked designers prefer to connect to those who are the most
Cultivated, not managed
By definition, networks are complicated systems of highly interrelated
parts. They tend to be organic in nature and cascading in growth. Thus
it is important for one to acknowledge and actively cultivate personal
connections. This means engaging with your network on a regular and
ongoing basis and strategic cultivation of connections with an eye
towards the development of long-term relationships.
One way to diversify your network is to make a regular habit of
attending symposia and conferences of other professions. When you attend
a technology, financial service or pharmaceutical industry event, for
instance, you will be undoubtedly be one of the few designers present.
This makes you a rather exotic conversation partner for the vice
presidents, business development professionals and marketing directors
(all potential clients) who make up the vast majority of the other
Connect your new and old nodes through working breakfasts, lunches and
dinners. Send out regular email updates about awards, conferences, new
clients and special events to stay, top-of-mind within your network.
Work and play
Networks blur the distinction between work and play. While it may have
once been bad form to think about personal relationships in a strategic
manner, now it is an essential mode of operation. Thus, one must look,
with a critical eye, at the composition and structure of one’s network.
Are you diversified? Do you have the right mix of connectors, followers,
leaders, deviants (those at the fringe of your network) and instigators
(those that ignite critical processes)? Are you actively and regularly
connecting the nodes of your network in activities such as face-to-face
meetings, online or informally at the coffee shop?
A community’s ability to facilitate face-to-face interaction relies on the concept of a “third place.” In his book, A Great Good Place,
Ray Oldenburg notes the importance of these places. Neither home nor
work, third places are venues like coffee shops, bookshops and bars. In
Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, a
“highly-mobile but quasi-anonymous” society uses third places to gather,
meet and function as the central nexus of their networked lives.
Starbucks is the quintessential third place. Powerbooks abound with
fingers flying. Speak with the guy frantically typing next to you, he’s
starting a wireless content business and will need a visual identity and
website. Exchange opinions on genetic crops with the Ph.D. student at
the other table, she’s an intern at an international consulting firm who
might need information graphics. Introduce yourself to the couple near
the door gesturing at a spreadsheet, they’re re-thinking their specialty
publishing business and will need a new online promotional campaign.
The network empowers designers in their pursuit of a meaningful (and
potentially profitable) career. This is not to say that the network
will solve all problems. The network cannot create talent, passion or
determination and cannot shield us from the ups and downs of the market.
With that caveat in mind, here is a networking checklist to guide you
to your new life as a fully networked designer:
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Section: Inspiration -
Interview with Cathleen Mitchell
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