February 8, 2016 - Comments Off on Tips for New Designers Part 2: Networking

Tips for New Designers Part 2: Networking

Following up on last week's piece, the next logical step for young designers is to get started with networking. My first thought was to jump right to the interview, but there’s often a good amount of time and energy that has to be put in before the opportunity of an interview presents itself. While I certainly won’t profess to be an expert at networking, I have done it for a while and have learned a few things that have worked for me. This approach is probably most applicable to people who are more introverted, since that’s my experience. I imagine that extroverts have a much easier time with networking, and I definitely envy those with more social fluidity than I possess. The skills to be a successful networker are important, however, and flex similar muscles to those that designers use in professional settings?—?such as meeting new clients and giving presentations.

Start With Your Portfolio

As with many things, the difficult part of networking is getting started. It’s helpful to get going if you’re just coming off of?—?or at least are in the process of?—?putting together your portfolio. Through that process, you’ve spent a good amount of time with your work, and you have a sense of how it represents the type of work that you want to do. Take that impression and translate that to the design world around you. Ask yourself questions like, “Who does the type of work that I want to do?” and “Where do people with similar interests socialize?” You might not know those answers already, but that’s where search engines come in handy. Start with queries like, “web design meetup” or look on social media, and follow that path down the rabbit hole. See what’s available in your area, or maybe even the next closest big city. Sometimes travel is involved, but that may be a price that you’ll have to consider.

Make Your First Moves Online

It's never been easier to meet like-minded designers than it is now. It's almost impossible to be a practicing designer these days without having an online presence. Use that to your advantage and try to find where the conversations are happening online. Whether it's on social media or work sharing sites like dribbble, there are people doing the type of work that you want to do online. Follow them, see what they’re up to, and have a conversation with them if you think that you can do that in a way that doesn’t come off as sycophantic or trollish. Asking questions is a great way to do that, as designers are often eager to share about their work and process. Following people is an effective way to stay on top of developments in the industry, and sometimes surfaces in-person networking opportunities. Practice that vital designer skill of listening to become receptive to the discussion that’s happening around you.

With so much of the design world happening online, the people who you interact with can lead to friendships, partnerships, or recommendations. If they're located in near you or in a place that you're traveling to, there's always the chance that you can meet up in person to talk.

Be Strategic About Your Focus

It can be intimidating to attend a new meetup, but I would suggest starting there when it comes to meeting people in person. Especially if you’re new to the field or in a new area, it’s helpful to see what the lay of the land is without the pressure of forced 1-on-1 interactions. For that reason, I would suggest finding a meetup that seems like it might be of interest and give it a shot before reaching out to individuals or more exclusive groups.

Networking has a cost. The first and most obvious one is the time involved. Whether it’s finding the event, getting to the event, or just the time spent there, there’s always a cost. The second one which introverts feel particularly acutely is tax on your social energy. In contrast to extroverts, introverts find social situations draining, which takes energy away from other tasks and necessitates downtime. Given that cost, it makes sense to prioritize the meetups that you go to. Most likely, there will be another session in a month or two, so you can always make note of it and attend the next one.

Navigating The Social Seas

Once you’ve done the work to figure out which meetup you want to attend, you’ve gotten there, walked in the door and gotten your name tag, there’s always the rather awkward moment of figuring out who to talk to first. If you bring some friends with you (maybe ones that you’ve met through online networking), this can be somewhat easier. Often times it’s easier to work into conversations that are already in progress that way. Should you bring some friends along, make sure that you don’t spend the whole time talking to them exclusively. Meeting new people is the point, after all. Try to incorporate people who you don’t know into the conversation, or work your friend group into other people’s conversations. If you don’t have friends along, there’s more pressure to insert yourself into conversations that you aren’t necessarily invited into. That’s really tough, and something that I struggle with. Keep in mind that we’ve all been there, and that everybody else in the room is there to meet other people. Inserting yourself into conversations is a moment of vulnerability, but it does get easier with practice. You will also find that you have an easier time if you approach the situation as authentically as you can. Own who you are and don’t feel pressure to put on airs to impress people. Again, not the easiest thing to do in practice but work at it and you’ll get there. It sounds kind of silly, but I’ve even given myself goals of interacting with X amount of people before leaving the event.

What you get out of in-person networking depends a lot on the event as well as how you approach it. I’ve been to my share of events that feel a bit like a feeding frenzy, where designers become sharks circling to few people who might be hiring. I’ve been to other events that are really just about shop talk or a purely social gathering. Most events fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, but it’s usually best to not go with the hard sell. Try to get to know people and express a genuine interest in their life or work before jumping in and asking for a portfolio review or interview. Having been on both sides of the equation, people tend not to respond well to others that are just using them to get ahead. You need to offer something, even if it’s as small a token of validation. Regardless, it's always good to have a business card that you can give to people who you meet so that they can drop you a line or check out your portfolio online (because it's looking good by now, right?). Also don't be afraid to ask people for their card so that you can take the initiative and reach out to them first.

Reel Them In

Hopefully you’ve been able to tap into your online and in person resourcefulness by this point, and parlayed that into some sort of introduction to a person who is working in an area that you’d like to be in. Don’t let that opportunity window close, and make sure to follow up with this person before too much time has passed. The dating rules definitely don’t apply here, and the fresher your introduction to this person is when your email lands in their box the better. As with the in-person interaction, try not to ask too much or start with the hard sell. It’s up to you to suss out the situation, but a coffee meeting or informal interview can be a great start. If you’ve done some research and they have an open role that you would be interested in, you could inquire about that specifically. This sensitivity to the situation is something that you’ll learn over time, and eventually you’ll get a knack for it.

Ultimately your goal is to set up 1-on-1 meeting with the person where you can show them your work and ask questions. That's a whole other topic though, which we'll jump into next week.


This is the second in a series for new designers getting started in the field. For part 1 about putting together a portfolio, head over here.

Published by: Ira F. Cummings in Blog

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