It’s Not What You Know, It’s Being Nice To People

Published:  January 21, 2014

There is an old adage that has been said to death. It argues that in life and opportunity, success isn’t necessarily down to education but in your fortunate connection to a person of influence. It is such a cliché that it can be said so carelessly as to diminish its accuracy, which was certainly my experience as a design graduate. I thought I knew a lot, but I knew nothing. And moving to Melbourne, I knew no one.

I met a cute boy at my first job. I asked him for coffee, to which he agreed, and faithfully brought his pretty girlfriend. My surprise subsided as I found I liked this girl—we were both designers, young and confused in a city we didn’t know yet. We became friends, rather casually, but over the next six years, two of the full time positions I acquired were down to her referral.

It wasn’t because she was particularly connected—it was a coincidental alignment of place and time on both occasions—but it was this unlikely relationship that secured for me (twice) a design job in a highly competitive city. It was good timing entirely through the existence of this relationship—no recruitment agents, self-promotional mailers or pleading emails required.

But there is another angle to this truism. It’s not just what or who you know, but who knows you, and while a graduate might feel limited in the ability to make new connections (or even friends), the internet is here to empower you to do it all from behind a screen. There are multiple ways to curate your online presence, pushing it into the periphery of anyone who may care, and there are many combinations to maximise this potential — a blog and Twitter, an Etsy store and Facebook fan page, a website and Pinterest board. For design specifically, Twitter has been able to retain a certain professional integrity, more vocational than Facebook, but far less curriculum vitae than Linkdin. You are allowed to simultaneously celebrate your work, your personality and your opinion, so long as it is on-topic and informed. And on top of what you say, who listens can be measured—a Klout score, measuring your audience engagement on Facebook and Twitter (the ‘who’ you know) has been reported to aid in your employability over that of your experience or education (the ‘what’ you know).

Now far beyond my graduate days, another exploitative attitude towards my relationships has been the appointment of editor, in which my contact list, personal, virtual and barely-there, has been raided for sources and leads. I now understand the predicament of the commissioner—you are always looking, but the person you are looking for hasn’t always made themselves seen. Sometimes when they have, their approach is muddled, and instead of presenting their immense usefulness, I have had to decode tweets, blog posts and traces of work and opinion to decide if they may be a good fit. A lot of the time, this can’t be done, and an opportunity is missed.

Looking back now, there is a lot of advice I could have given my graduate self. She ran on the fumes of good luck and I am dumbfounded she got anywhere at all. Now, fortunately in the position to hire and commission designers and illustrators, I can see it from both sides, and it all feels so simple—

Tips to start an online (professional) relationship:

  1. Put your best work out there and make sure you keep it updated. Process pieces are great for this, as a way to understand your thinking and process.
  2. Tweet and retweet things that reflect the way you work—influences, current affairs, your opinion and beliefs. Employers and potential collaborators also want the reassurance that you will all get along.
  3. When you contact people directly with your work, make your cover letter really short and really concise. Long emails can cause boredom or, when gone unfinished and unreplied, mounds of subconscious guilt.
  4. Tell people directly what you want to do for them, and how you will do it. Email pitches with ‘I would like to work with you’ are too vague, unless your timing is auspicious. Saying ‘I want to do this project, this way,’ is rather exciting.
  5. Don’t assume your colleague is better, smarter or more talented than you, they may be just as lost. Reaching out or proposing a collaboration could be great for both of you. Twitter collabs are cute.
  6. Repeat and be patient.

As fickle as an internet relationship may appear, the implications of a successful, professional connection cannot be undervalued, although, like my IRL example at the beginning of this piece, the fact remains that a ‘successful’ connection could be with anyone, and may be impossible to predict upon meeting. Which reminds me of another, yet more contemporary adage of such countless repetition I again will not utter myself, but still entirely excellent advice coined by graphic designer Anthony Burrill.  Something about being operational and active as much as humanly possible while maintaining a sunny interrelation with all those around you…


Image: Tyler Spangler 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *