Designer's Matrix: Networking Real Space

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 grow.

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.

Critical deviance

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 would have.


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:

7:30 a.m.:

Wake; have coffee; answer emails from contacts in Europe; set agenda for day; start work on financial services information design project.

11:00 a.m.:

Break for chat with frequent project collaborator while working on Powerbook in that little Thompson Street café with four tables.

12:30 p.m.:

Lunch with new contact met at nanotechnology conference.

2:00 p.m.:

Teach afternoon class on interface design.

4:45 p.m.:

Meet client to hash out place of blog in stealth marketing campaign.

5:00 p.m.:

Have coffee with frequent project collaborator for the past four years (meeting in-person for the first time).

6:30 p.m.:

Work on financial services project.

8:00 p.m.:

Dinner with former student who will create soundtrack for streaming video project on robotics.

9:00 p.m.:

Work on funding proposal for non-profit organization in India.

10:00 p.m.

Find cheapest business class ticket online for workshop tour of China.

10:30 p.m.:

Answer emails from contacts from Asian clients and collaborators.

12:00 a.m.:

Research for self-generated physical-computing project.

1:30 a.m.:

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 connected.

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 attendees.

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?

Third places

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.

Networking checklist

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:

  • Have a networking-friendly stance. Be prepared to meet new people anytime day or night, by having business cards, a laptop computer containing your portfolio, and a short story to tell about your capabilities and desires.
  • Think of places and relationships strategically. Manage and cultivate your network by connecting nodes at working breakfasts, luncheons and dinner parties.
  • Use “third places” like Starbucks to work and add nodes to your network.
  • Attend and participate in conferences of other professions.
  • Go early / stay late. The best contacts are often made during these off-times.
  • Fly business or first class at least once a year to meet upper-level managers who could become clients.
  • Reciprocate. Be prepared to give something back to those you meet.
  • Follow up on your promises. If you say you’ll email within 24 hours or will phone next week, do it.
  • Send email blasts regularly to your network list, with a paragraph and an image about awards, special projects, published articles and presentations at conferences, to stay top-of-mind.
  • Meet 10 new people every week.
  • Networking is just like dating; the goal is not to get married on the first date, just to get to the next meeting.