Why designers need human contact

It's never been more important to nurture your local design scene, says Dawn Hancock.

Have you ever signed up for a lecture, excited to hear words of wisdom from some inspiring individual, only to arrive at the event without knowing a single soul and ending up waiting impatiently in a corner, downing liquid courage and scrolling through your Twitter feed?

It's an awful feeling. Time can't pass quickly enough in those situations.

I'm the classic definition of an introvert, and I'm guessing if you did a study on designers, the majority of us would fall on that side of the spectrum (based on my completely unscientific, personally biased research). It's just in our nature to be more in our heads and less in our words. And with so much conversation being done online, we are poised to fall deeper and deeper into these patterns.

Without face-to-face interaction, we tend to live with our guard up, overly self-conscious about everything we create. Sharing a coffee or a pint - or even just a smile - evens out the playing field in a way that can only happen when we get out from behind our computers and into the real world. It can also greatly help us on our career paths.

You're not alone

When I started my business 15 years ago, I had the fortune to meet a handful of entrepreneurs who, although from different industries, shared many of the same challenges I did.

Having those women in my life helped me realise that I wasn't alone in my struggles. More importantly, they shared their collective knowledge and guidance to help move me along my path far faster than if I had learned all the same lessons on my own.

This informal collaborative experience was the basis for the AIGA Chicago Mentor Program I established in 2009. My mission was to create a scheme that fostered connections between individuals within the Chicago design community.

Creatives are grouped by interests, experience and things they want to learn more about, and each group establishes its interests in the beginning and creates its unique three-month agenda. It's simply about sharing and learning from one another - over casual drinks or perhaps in a more formal meeting at a studio.

Community glue

I hoped that this programme would be the much-needed glue for our design community, but had no idea the impact it would have - it's turned out to be AIGA Chicago's most successful programme.

Chicago is a big city and can feel intimidating if you don't get out and participate (I know first-hand). Until the Mentor Program was developed, much of what AIGA created offered very little opportunity for interaction.

In the five years the programme has been running, well over 2,000 people have been brought together to share experiences, collaborate on projects, network (and get hired), gain friends and all in all, feel more connected. And it's proven to alleviate most of those awkward moments at events, too.

Words: Dawn Hancock

In 1999 Dawn Hancock founded Firebelly, a studio committed to socially responsible design. She coordinates the annual Grant for Good, and in 2002 launched the Firebelly Foundation and Firebelly University. This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 226.