- April 7th, 2010
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Professional networking is a critical component to a successful career as a designer. Whether it be for finding new clients or identifying opportunities for growth and improvement, a strong network of contacts is extremely valuable. In this article, we’ll take a detailed look at the subject of networking, the benefits it presents and tips that can be used in your own networking efforts.
Networking involves building connections and relationships with people from various backgrounds and professions, including other designers and developers. This article was written with Web designers in mind, but the principles are generally applicable to any profession ― although the specifics may vary.
If you haven’t been actively involved in networking, you may be wondering why you should even bother with it. Before we get into the tips and suggestions for networking, let’s take a look at some of the benefits.
Word-of-mouth advertising is a leading source of business for many designers. Simply put, if more people know about you and your services, you’ll have more opportunities for referrals. By getting connected and staying in touch with those in your network you will be on their mind when someone they know is in need of the services that you provide. A potential client who gets a personal recommendation from someone who knows you or has worked with you will be much more likely to become a paying client than someone with another type of lead.
Much of the networking done by designers is with others who offer the same or very similar services. Obtaining referral business through a network of designers is more common than you might think. Although your services may have some overlap with another designer in your network, you’re each going to have some unique strengths and weaknesses, as well as varying levels of experience with different types of clients. Additionally, there could be some types of work that others simply don’t like to take, or situations where schedules and deadlines make it impossible for a designer to work with a particular client. In situations like these, it’s very common for the designer to recommend a friend or colleague.
Especially for freelancers and independent designers, having a strong network opens up countless possibilities for collaborating. This could be a one-time thing that arises from the needs of a particular project, or it could be an ongoing collaboration. Ideally, your network will include a number of people who have skills that complement yours. This will allow you to work with others and each focus on what you do best.
If you trust and value the people in your network, you will not hesitate to turn to them when you need some advice or help with a problem. Do you know someone who has been through a similar situation and could give you some advice from their own experience? For designers and developers, this could be a technical issue, such as dealing with a coding challenge or determining the best solution to a client’s needs, or it could simply be a need for guidance in some aspect of running a freelance business.
A professional who is well-connected will typically have more opportunities than a comparably skilled professional who is not well-connected. You may have no pressing reason today for a strong network of contacts, but you could run into a situation in future when having others you can count on would be invaluable.
For freelance designers, maybe you don’t want to freelance forever, and when you’re ready to start looking for employment the process will be much easier if you already have an established network that knows you and your quality of work. Yes, you could wait to do your networking when you’ve officially stopped freelancing, but you’ll be better off if you have some established relationships before then.
So far, everything we’ve discussed has focused on what your network can do for you, but true networking is not one-sided. One of the benefits of being well connected is that you will have plenty of opportunities to help others. Perhaps you won’t be the freelancer who is looking for employment, but maybe you will be the contact who puts a freelancing friend in contact with someone who’s looking to hire a designer.
Aside from all of the professional benefits, networking can be a fun way to meet new people and build friendships. This can be especially valuable for freelancers and others who work from home. Networking may be one of the few opportunities you have to interact with other professionals in your field ― not being able to go to an office every day to interact with co-workers.
Networking Tips for Designers
Now that we have looked at some benefits of networking, here are some tips you can put into practice.
One of the keys to being well connected is making it possible for others to reach you. Sure, networking is about your efforts to meet others, but it also involves being accessible when people want to get in touch with you. This could include having a contact form or email address on your portfolio website, being involved at social networks, linking to your social profiles from your portfolio and responding to people when they reach out to you.
Seek Mutual Benefit
The most successful types of networking relationships are the “win-win” ones ― in which both parties benefit in one way or another. If you want networking to have a major impact on your business or career, make the effort to find opportunities for mutual benefit. These situations will encourage both parties to keep the relationship strong and improve it in any way possible, bringing results that could not be accomplished individually.
Finding win-win situations is not easy, but they will present themselves when you get to know others very well and you all can see each other’s unique strengths, abilities and opportunities. These types of networks will more likely lead to stronger, long-lasting relationships.
Many designers maintain a blog on their portfolio website or other domain. Blogging is not only effective in attracting potential clients but is also a great way to get involved with other designers and build a network. Blogging is personal in nature and involves two-way communication, making it extremely conducive to interaction. Bloggers tend to read other blogs as well, and the design blogging community is very active. Blogging is a great way to get exposure and open up opportunities to meet other professionals.
Focus on Depth of Relationships
Like just about anything else in life, quality is better than quantity. While having connections with a wide variety of people is good, you’ll find that your most significant benefits from networking come from your closest relationships. As you connect with people, get to know them on more than a superficial level. The people with whom you build strong relationships will likely become part of the “inner circle” that you reach out to on a consistent basis.
Don’t sit back and wait for others to approach you. Get involved in social networks, go to local networking events, attend seminars and approach people who you’d like to get to know. If you’re at an event or using an online social network, the other people are there for the same reasons as you ― so don’t be intimidated by the thought of approaching them.
This could also include commenting on design blogs, participating in forums and writing guest articles. Your network will be a valuable part of your career, so be proactive and work to make it something special.
Know What You’re Looking For
If you’re proactively getting to know other professionals, it helps to know what you’re looking for in potential contacts. This allows you to identify the right people to approach, making your networking efforts more effective and efficient. For example, if you’re a student who will be graduating in a year and looking for a job as a designer, it would be beneficial to connect with people who run design studios or people who work at places that may be hiring designers. If you’re a designer who doesn’t do any development work, it would be beneficial to know some good developers who you could team up with on projects.
Think of your strengths, weaknesses and situation. Who or what would help you get to where you want to be? Identify people who are in these ideal positions and get to know them.
Know What You Have to Offer
Just as important as knowing what you’re looking for in others, you should also be aware of what you can offer others and why you would be a valuable member of their network. Think about what is unique and special about your skills and the opportunities you could present to others.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should go around telling everyone exactly what you can offer them and why they need you; but having a clear sense of your own worth helps you identify ideal situations of mutual benefit and how to present yourself in ways that make you stand out.
Some of your best contacts will not be people who you actually need to keep in touch with. Rather, you may have a contact who knows the type of person you’re looking for and can act as a gateway or messenger to them. Your network becomes exponentially more powerful and valuable when you realize that you’re connected not only to the people who you know directly, but also to all of the people who they know, too.
The social networking website LinkedIn is a good way to visualize this concept. You may be connected to 50 people on LinkedIn, but each of those people will be connected to others who you don’t know. If each of your contacts is connected to another 50 people, you’re only one person away from some potentially valuable relationships.
Practically speaking, if you’re looking for someone with a particular skill or experience, talk to others in your network to see who they know who may fit the description. Indirect networking is often more effective than direct, because it leverages the networks of others and gives you opportunities to get recommendations from people you trust.
Don’t Wait Until You Need Something
Networking is more effective when it’s not done under the pressure of needing to produce immediate results. Reaching out to your friends and contacts when you need something is natural, but having a large and established network that stands ready to help when the need arises is more effective. Networking only when you need something is unlikely to result in mutual benefit and could give others the impression that you’re interested only in helping yourself.
Help Whenever Possible
Helping others and making yourself a valuable contact and friend to others is a big part of networking. You will not always be in a position to help, but avoid the temptation of helping others only when there’s something in it for you. A network of people who are willing and eager to help each other will be positive for everyone.
Don’t “Use” People
When looking for the right people to build your network, thinking only of what other people can do for you is all too easy. But that’s not an effective way to interact, and they will often see through your efforts.
The best way to avoid using people is by looking for situations in which you can help them. By emphasizing your value to them rather than how they can help you, you’ll avoid seeing them only for what they have to offer. If you focus on helping others, they will likely want to find ways to help you in return.
Don’t Let Networking Hurt Your Productivity
Although professional networking should be an integral part of your work, it’s not going to put money in your pocket directly. Freelancers in particular need to stay focused on providing services to clients in order to generate the income that keeps them going. Networking is important, but it should not interfere with your core operations.
Online networks and email especially can be distractions. Develop a system that allows you to interact with others in a way that doesn’t hinder your work. For example, rather than leaving your email and Twitter account open all day, set specific times to check them. Each person is different and has a way that works best for them, so find one that allows you to network with maximum benefit and with minimum disturbance to your productivity.
Don’t Always Evaluate People
When you’re focused on strengthening your network by making valuable connections, it’s easy to start measuring people by what they can bring to the table. This is a dangerous habit because it will make you reluctant to get to know some people because you don’t think they have much to offer.
Don’t Try to Be Everywhere Online
Plenty of opportunities are available to network, particularly online. But you can be active in only so many places, so don’t spread yourself too thin. Instead, choose a few networking websites and groups that show promise, and you’ll find that you have more time to be active.
Being active in a few circles yields better results than having limited activity in many circles. This goes back to the need for quality over quantity in building relationships.
Web designers and other online professionals are fortunate to have a number of high-quality conferences and events in their industry that provide opportunities to learn and network. If an event is taking place in your area, check it out. Of course, if you’re willing to travel, you could attend events anywhere.
Pay Attention to Local Opportunities
One of the traps of online networking is that it can cause you to miss opportunities for face-to-face networking in your local area. Many localities have chamber of commerce events, business card exchanges, seminars and other events at which to connect with local professionals. Pay attention to these activities in your area in case they offer something that warrants your involvement.