I still remember it well—my first networking gathering. I was a budding freelance writer, working from home long before the days of community workspaces. I’d heard about a networking opportunity for writers and editors at a local Hilton, so I stuffed some business cards in my pocket, gathered my courage, and vowed to escape with no less than three contacts.
It didn’t quite work out that way. I walked through the hotel lobby drenched in flop sweat, made for the hors’ d’oeuvres, grabbed a drink, and tried to latch onto a conversation. I slinked out with one business card. Worst seven minutes of my life. Networking is hell, I decided.
But it doesn’t have to be. 15 years later, as the editor of National Parks magazine, I’ve gotten much better at it. Sure, it helps to be in a position where I can hire people to write, edit, illustrate and design work for my publication—they now seek ME out. But it’s more than that. I’ve reached out to other nonprofit editors in DC and now have a few friends who can empathize with just about every challenge I face.
I wrote a few articles that appeared in design blogs and magazines, and got to know several editors at HOW. Those articles helped me connect to folks in the DC design community, which led to a spot on AIGA DC’s board of directors, and a position on AIGA’s In-House advisory committee. I spoke at a few conferences, and that led me to form friendships with designers at LA Metro, the U.S. Treasury, the Newseum, and the University of Maryland.
For me the key was to get away from the Frank Underwood approach to networking (i.e., “Find a clever way to use strangers”) and simply expose myself to new people by doing things that I already enjoy. Now, the connecting just comes naturally. You’re the only one who can decide what activities make the most sense for your own career growth, but here are a few ideas:
Join the audience.
With AIGA chapters and Creative Mornings talks in most big cities, odds are there’s some sort of design-related gathering within 30-60 minutes of your home or workplace just about every week. Aim to go once a month. Sit down next to someone you don’t know and just say, “Hi.” Ask them if this is their first event. If not, ask them which event was their favorite. Afterwards, ask them how they liked it.
Go talk to the speaker and ask a question, or just pay them a compliment. Even if you’re too shy to talk to a single soul, you’ve at least learned a bit, and that could lead you to a conversation in the next venue.
I find most happy hours painfully dull, loud, and awkward, and given the percentage of introverts drawn to the design world, I imagine that’s a pretty common feeling. For those of us who like a more structured venue, volunteering provides the perfect opportunity. The goal isn’t just to talk—the goal is to accomplish something, which generally involves talking with a purpose.
Even better: If you do a good job, people will remember you and want to talk to you even more. Not sure where to start? Try your local AIGA chapter.
Take the stage.
Public speaking seems scary, but I guarantee you know more than you think you do, and there’s an audience that would love to hear from you. First job out of school? Go talk to students about what it’s like to land your first job. Offer tips on the interview process, preparing a portfolio, and share some of your early lessons. Or give a brown-bag presentation to your coworkers—most of them know little about design, and just have a vague idea that your job is pretty cool. (See “Look Within,” below.)
Leverage social media.
This one is no mystery—people use LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to network quite a bit. But too many of them are blatantly obvious about using it as a networking opportunity—ramping up their activity when they’re looking for a new gigs—and many go overboard. Show me someone who posts dozens of times a day on LinkedIn, and I’ll show you someone without enough to do.
Don’t aim to impress folks with your brilliance—the biggest big wigs are too busy to spend hours trolling message boards for the next design genius. Stay focused on topics that genuinely interest you, and the process will be rewarding in and of itself.
Find a mentor.
Reach out to someone in your local design community who is a notch or two above you, and ask if you can take them out to lunch a few times a year, to establish a mentoring relationship. Most people love talking about themselves, and are willing to share what they’ve learned in their career if they feel it will be appreciated.
If you’re lucky enough to get someone to sit down with you, be prepared: Review their work, have plenty of questions, and share what you hope to get out of the process, so it’s clear from the outset. And eventually, ask if they know of others who might share their perspectives with you.
Ask a coworker in another department to go out to lunch. Too many of us focus our networking efforts on the next job OUTSIDE of our organization. But if you work in-house, you can learn a lot from your coworkers who know nothing about design. And if you hope to rise within your organization, you’ll want allies who wish you well. Try reaching out to someone who was just hired, and share some of your insights into the organizational culture, so it’s clear that you’ve got just as much to offer to them.
Read. (Yes, read.)
Wait a minute. Sitting in a room quietly, by yourself counts as networking? Well, it’s a start. If you want to have meaningful conversations with people the next time you’re in a professional setting, you’ve got to have something to say, a point of view, news worth sharing. You’ll be MUCH more engaging if you can share your thoughts on Steve Jobs’ biography, the latest issue of Wired, or a recent Q&A from The Great Discontent.
Take a class.
Learning is a great way to bond with people and make connections. Take a class in writing, drawing, painting, screenprinting or letterpress. Even if you don’t make any life-long friends, you’ll have had a little fun and learned a new skill.