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In any industry you’ll eventually hear the terms “giving back”. It’s become almost a sort of catch-phrase, not unlike “totally organic” or whatever the newest buzzword is . But while “giving back” might be somewhat overused and on its way to buzzword status, it doesn’t mean the term should be overlooked or dismissed. In this article, I’m going to talk a bit about giving back and the graphic design community: specifically, what it means, why it’s important, how you can do it, and how it can benefit you.
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In a broad sense, “giving back” means sharing your knowledge base with your peers. In the graphic design community – and I’m using the term as an umbrella term of sorts, meant to include all elements of graphic design from branding to print to web design – it means sharing anything related to design you think your design peers might find of value. For example, maybe through your career you’ve discovered a lot of little known Photoshop keyboard shortcuts. Maybe you’ve discovered, and feel like sharing, something more cerebral like tips on how to be an efficient designer. Perhaps you made something, like a Color Theory Quick Reference Poster, that you think your designer peers might find useful.
All these things – specific & tangible items, thoughtful musings, practical business tips and more – all constitute “giving back”.
It seems our industry, like many others, is a busy one. I know Paper Leaf is constantly balancing the menial tasks of running a business as well as all the fun parts, like designing websites or building identities or whathaveyou. Many of the fellow designers we know personally are in a similar boat – and it’s a good one to be in. But it does beg the question – with time stretched so thin, why should I take time out of my schedule to give back to the design community?
Well, to get the selfish one out of the way – it can benefit you. We’ll talk about that more a bit later in this article. But let’s lose the selfishness for a second and talk about us – meaning, the design community we’re all a part of. Sharing resources and tips gave me a huge boost when I was learning design, and the wealth of information out there still helps me to this day in uncountable ways. I’m sure many of you can say the same – from the tutorials on Smashing Magazine all the way to the informal discussions over a pint with a fellow local designer, none of us would be at our respective levels without this effort to “give back” from others in our community. As well, if all of these resources disappeared overnight, I know I would have a much harder job ahead of me the next day.
To keep giving back & sharing alive, we can’t just all take. Think of it like the spokes of a wheel – each spoke makes the wheel stronger. If we keep taking spokes out without replacing them, the wheel will weaken until it collapses. As well, sharing comes around full-circle. A great example of sharing coming full-circle is the growing advancement of jQuery plugins/applications. Someone develops something – say, the Lightbox gallery – and shares it. Fellow designers riff on this idea, and come back sharing improved, quicker & more lightweight versions which we all benefit from.
Think of how much you benefit from these design resources out there, and when you feel ready, make your contribution back to the design community. Someone will appreciate it and use your knowledge; who knows – they might even develop something that leaps the industry forward. In turn, graphic design as an industry will become stronger & more respected, and both yours and my jobs become easier.
There are a multitude of ways you can give back to the design community, and I encourage you to explore all of the ones that make sense to you. The first, and most obvious in my mind, is to start a blog. Granted, there are a lot of design blogs out there, but for every design blog there is a different opinion and a different method. To make a completely unsubstantiated claim based solely on personal observation, the internet has become the main tool for research and communication for designers – by starting a blog, you can reach a huge audience of designers at various levels. You can reach the young designer in Edmonton, fresh out of school. You can reach the designer fresh from a career change in Ireland. You can reach the bitter, old cranky designer in Berlin. The point is, your reach is huge and I encourage you to take advantage of that, whether through writing articles, sharing resources, or another method. But please, if you start a blog aimed to give back to designers – use it to provide value to your readers. Don’t use it as a platform to complain or talk about your breakfast.
If you don’t want to start your own blog, consider writing for other well-established design blogs that designers use as a resource. This allows you to immediately share your knowledge with a large base of designers that has already been built. Here’s a great list of design blogs looking for writers.
I’d also encourage you to give back at a local level. For example, just this past week I was back at my old design school talking to the students. I had a desire to come back and share what I had learned in “the real world” of professional design, so I simply sent an email to the Director of Education there. He also thought it would be a good idea, so I came in and gave a two-hour presentation based around freelancing best practices, etc. This allowed me to directly connect with a group of up-and-coming new designers, and help them over the bumps of the real world. It was satisfying – and eye-opening – for me to give back like this.
There are a lot of other ways you can give back to your design community – like allowing a student to job-shadow you, to take a request Paper Leaf recently had. Check them out, and if one or all of the methods is suitable for you to implement, I suggest giving it a shot!
Alright, alright. So we’ve talked about what “giving back” means; we’ve talked about why you should do it; we’ve talked about how you can do it. But the big elephant in the room remains – how can giving back benefit me? I mean, I need to eat, right? I need to keep improving or I’m going to be passed by those skinny-jean-wearing students I so kindly shared my practices with!
Well, giving back benefits you, so now you can relax. For one, sharing your knowledge makes you think about what you do & how you do it from another person’s viewpoint. It forces you to ask yourself hard questions – for instance, if you’re writing about how you manage a project, you will automatically start asking yourself whether or not your methods are the best way to do so. Sharing this knowledge keeps you steeped in design; it keeps you on top of your game. We all know that design is a quickly advancing field – staying on top of your game is a must, and a huge benefit of giving back.
Secondly, giving back helps establish you as an expert in your field. By speaking publicly, or writing publicly, you’re showing your peers – and inevitably, potential clients – that you not only practice design, you actively think about design. Your clients will have a lot easier time signing that contract knowing that you’re a design professional who actively thinks, progresses and shares. Giving back encompasses all of these things.
Finally, giving back can have direct monetary benefits if you give it time. Look at any of the big design blogs you have in your RSS feed – Smashing Magazine, Six Revisions, CSS Tricks etc. Those ads on their site don’t just get to hang out there for free – the owners of those blogs get paid, and they deserve it. Granted, they’re not all driving Rolls Royces, but it helps them eat right? These blogs are just a small sampling of design professionals sharing their knowledge, growing their viewer base because of that, and then because of that user base, they can sell ads to help pay the bills. And hell, I know I’ve clicked through ads on a few of these sites and found valuable tools because of them.
So you can see – giving back does benefit you, but most importantly it benefits all of us. It benefits the young designer, the middle-aged designer, the old designer who’s seen it all. So give it a shot! Whether by starting your own blog, writing for other sites, speaking publicly or some other method, giving back to the design community will help us grow stronger as a group, move the practice of design forward, and it’ll make you better at what you do as well.
What do you think?