Getting started in your creative career is tough. You’ve got boatloads of ambition and energy, but you lack experience, the kind of knowledge that feels like you can see into the future because you’ve been there before. So we’ve introduced a new column that will allow you to get the benefit of hindsight before you’ve actually gone through the experience. Welcome to “The First Five Years” where Mitch Goldstein, a professor of design at Rochester Institute of Technology, answers reader questions related to the uncharted waters of beginning a career. This month, Mitch answers a question about the best strategies for — don’t cringe! — networking.
Q. How do I network?
The most important thing about building a network of clients and collaborators is to be a good person first, and a good designer second. No matter how brilliant you may be, no matter how exceptional your portfolio might look, no matter how elite of a college you graduated from, none of these things matter if you are a jerk — nobody wants to work with a talented jerk. Clients or studios are going to collaborate with you, and the soft skills of interpersonal relationships matter greatly. You need to be someone people want to work with, want to talk to, and want to take seriously as a creative practitioner. Employers like designers who are enthusiastic and intelligent about their field, and presenting yourself as someone who cares about the work is important. Remember: clients and employers hire people, not portfolios.
With this in mind, if you are an outgoing person, attending events where you will meet like-minded creative professionals is a good idea. AIGA talks, CreativeMornings, design conferences, etc… can all be valuable ways to connect with other designers. Designers often pass work to each other when they don’t have time or ability to take on a new project, so having a community of other creative pros can be really valuable. If you are a more introverted person, then maybe huge events like national conferences are a scary thing — in which case, don’t go! Maybe you would enjoy yourself more at smaller local events, or possibly online communities like Slack. The more you are honest with yourself, the more you will naturally gravitate to the right kinds of events for you.
Social media can be a valuable way to connect with others around the world, or it can be a toxic nightmare of derogatory comments and snarky subtweets (it is very often both). What is more important than how many followers you have is what comes up when a potential client or job searches for your name online. Think about how you present yourself on social media — are you a generally positive entity, or a negative one? Are you excited about what you and others are making, or are you constantly belittling other designers’ work? Criticism about our profession is both important and necessary, but bashing other people’s projects for the sake of retweets helps nobody, and reflects far more poorly on you than on the work you are throwing under the bus. Everything you put online under your own name — absolutely everything — is a part of your portfolio whether you want it to be or not. Think about what you say, and how you say it, before hitting “tweet.”