Network Access: Finding and Working with Creative Communities

A curious complaint seems to ripple across the internet every so often: people state that “design” is stale. The criticism is that no original ideas are being generated; anything new is quickly co-opted and copied en-masse, leading to even more sterility, conceptually. And that leads to lots of articles lamenting the state of the communities they work in.

What people see is an endless recycling within their group, with very little bleed-over into other disciplines or networks. Too often, we speak about our design communities and networks as resources to be used, not as groups of people.

Anthony McCann describes the two main ways we view creative networks and the digital commons:

We have these two ways of speaking: commons as a pool of resources to be managed, and commons as an alternative to treating the world as made up of resources.

One view is that communities are essentially pools of user-generated content. That freely available content is there to be mined—the best ideas extracted and repackaged for profit or future projects. This is idea as commodity, and it very conveniently strips out the people doing the creating, instead looking at their conceptual and design work as a resource.

Another way is to view creative networks as interdependent networks of people. By nature, they cannot be resources, and any work put into the community is to sustain and nourish those human connections, not create assets. The focus is on contributing.

A wider view

By looking at your design communities as resources to be mined, you limit yourself to preset, habitual methods of sharing and usage. The more that network content is packaged for sale and distribution, the less “fresh” it will be. In Dougland Hine’s essay Friendship is a Commons, he says when we talk enthusiastically about the digital commons these days, we too often use the language of resource management, not the language of social relations.

Perhaps we should take a wider, more global view.

There are numerous digital design communities across the world; they are fluid and fresh, and operate according to distinct and complex social rules and mores. These designers are actively addressing problems in their own communities in original ways, and the result is unique, culturally relevant work. By joining and interacting with them—by accessing these networks—we can rethink what the design community is today.

Exploring larger communities

There are a number of creative communities I’ve become a part of, to varying degrees of attention. I’ve been a member of Behance for almost 10 years (Fig. 1), back when it was something very different (“We are pleased to invite you to join the Behance Network, in partnership with MTV”).

Screenshot of an old Behance Network page
Fig. 1: Screenshot of the Behance creative community website in 2009. Source: belladonna

While I lived in Japan, Behance was a way for me to learn new digital design techniques and participate in a Western-focused, largely English speaking design network. As time has gone on, it’s strange that I now use it almost exclusively to see what is happening outside the West.

Instagram, Twitter, and Ello are three mobile platforms with a number of features that are great for collecting visual ideas without the necessity of always participating. The algorithms are focused on showing more of what I have seen—the more often I view work from Asian and African designers and illustrators, the more often I discover new work from those communities. While interesting for me, it does create filter bubbles, and I need to be careful of falling into the trap of seeing more of the same.

There is, of course, a counter-reaction to the public, extractive nature of these platforms—the rise of “Slack as community.” The joke about belonging to 5-10 different Slack groups is getting old, but illustrates a trend in the industry during the past year or so. I see this especially with designers of color, where the firehoses of racist/sexist abuse on open digital networks means that creativity is shelved in favor of simple preservation. Instead, we move, quietly and deliberately, to Slack, a platform that is explicit in its embrace of a diverse usership, where the access is much more tightly controlled, and where the empathy in design/dev networks is more readily shared and nurtured.

Right now, these are the creative platforms where I contribute my visual thinking, work, and conversations toward addressing messy visual questions—interactive ideas that assume a radically different way of viewing the world. There are, of course, others.

Exploring visual design alternatives

In Volume II of Mawahib (a series of books that showcase Arab illustrators, photographers, and graphic designers), we see one of these design communities compiled and printed, an offline record of a thriving visual network (Fig. 2).

Photograph of printed book interior and cover
Fig. 2: Page spreads from the Mawahib book, showcasing Arab illustration and design work

And perhaps it is in the banding together that real creative change can happen. I was fascinated to read this article about an illustration collective in Singapore. At 7 years old, it’s reportedly the longest running drawing event in Singapore. Michael Ng says, “Many people don’t know illustrators like us exist in Singapore and they’re amazed. Companies have also come up to hire us for work because of the event. We also network amongst ourselves, passing on opportunities and collaborations.” Comments like this show that there are thriving visual design scenes worldwide, ones that collaborate internally, and work for exposure and monetary gain externally.

Illustrated poster promoting an event
Fig. 3: Poster from the Organisation of Illustrators Council in Singapore, advertising one of their collaborative sketching nights

UX research that builds community

Earlier in this article, we started by looking at the different ways people view existing creative communities. But what about people who create new ones? Here, once again, we have designers and strategists who use careful cultural research to create and develop sustainable digital networks, not simply resource libraries.

First, let’s look at the pilot of My Voice, an open source medical tool developed at Reboot. The residents of Wamba, a rural area in Nasarawa State, Nigeria, struggled to find a way to communicate with their healthcare providers. Reboot saw an opportunity to develop an empowering, responsive platform for the community, a way for people to share feedback with clinics and doctors in the area.

After a nine-week trial of the platform and software, the residents of Wamba saw the clinics begin making small changes to how they communicated—things like better payment info and hours of operation. The health department officials in the area also saw a chance to better monitor their clinics and appear more responsive to their constituents. What began as a way to report on clinic status and quality became a way for the community and local government to improve together.

Photo of two people facing one another; one is a woman wearing a black headwrap and a red sweater
Fig. 4: Interviews with community residents for the MyVoice medical app

In another project, a group of researchers worked with a community in South Africa’s Eastern Cape to design and test mobile digital storytelling. Their experience creating a storytelling platform that did not follow European narrative tradition is enlightening, and hits on a key framing in line with how the people in Ndungunyeni view creative networks (Fig. 4).

Contrary to their initial ideas, the UX researchers found that storytelling ”…as an individual activity is discordant with villagers’ proximity, shared use of phones and communication norms. They devote significant time exchanging views in meetings and these protocols of speaking and listening contribute to cohesion, shared identity and security.”

Image of two planning documents presenting an arrangement of photos and digital media viewing device controls, with lines pointing to various photos and device control icons on one end, and to paragraphs of text on the other
Fig 5: Mobile digital storytelling prototype (left) and story recording UI (right)

In both of these examples, we see new creative networks relying on linked social systems and cues in order to thrive. Most importantly, they rely on reciprocation—the trade of ideas, whether there is immediate personal benefit or not. Each of the participants—the community members, the UX designers, the clinics, and the local government— was able to collaborate on a common goal. Simply-crafted technology and UX made this possible, even in rural areas with little cellular connectivity. They all contributed, not looking to extract value, but to add it; they used these networking tools to deepen their interactions with others.

Building alternatives to current networks

Almost every project we work on as designers would certainly benefit from alternative viewpoints. That can be hard to set up, however, and collaborating with designers and developers outside your immediate circle may seem scary at first. Keep in mind that the goal is to add value to others’ networks and build interpersonal connections. This is the only way that we keep the creative ideas fresh.

Starting with freelance and project work

Sometimes the simplest way to access different creative circles is simply to pay for project work. A great example is Karabo Moletsane’s project for Quartz Africa. An accomplished illustrator from South Africa, Moletsane recently did a set of 32 wonderful portraits for the Quartz Africa Innovators 2016 Series (Fig. 6). When I asked Moletsane about how she got the illustration job, she said it came via her work on AfricanDigitalArt.com. Moletsane also said she regularly posts work on her Instagram and Behance, making Quartz’s choice to work with this talented South African for a global series on African innovators a no-brainer.

A combined graphic. On the left is a piece of contemporary artwork depicting the portrait of a woman. On the right is a piece displaying 32 portraits in a similar style, arranged in rows and columns.
Fig. 6: Karabo Moletsane’s full series of 32 African Innovators, for Quartz Magazine

Hiring and team-building from different networks

Sometimes, shorter freelance projects won’t give you long-term quality access to new design communities and ideas. Sometimes you need to bring people onto your team, full-time. Again, I point out what Dougland Hine says regarding the ways digital communities can work:

…people have had powerful experiences of what it means to come together, work and build communities [but] the new forms of collaboration easily turn into new forms of exploitation…

Instead of looking for short-term access, hiring and developing team members from other networks can be a powerful alternative. Tyler Kessler, the CEO of Lumogram in St. Louis, recently wrote about hiring a new head of development based in Nigeria, and what it has meant to his company. He used Andela, a startup that is training and hiring out a new generation of developers from Nigeria.

Collaboration around specific Ideas

Your contributions to networks also need not be permanent or rigid. There are numerous opportunities to join collectives, or working groups, that build more ephemeral networks around specific issues. One such project, by the DESIS Cluster Collective (pdf), was set up “to investigate which new services, tools, and solutions we can design together with the elderly, when thinking about our future society.” The breadth of ideas is astounding, from systems for healthier eating, to mini-parks within urban areas for seniors to hang out in. Each team involved contributed deep user research, information design, and cultural cues to propose new ways for our elderly to coexist (Fig. 7).

Combined image depicting a young woman and an elderly woman sitting at a table, several arms leaning on top of a large map, and a series of four stick-figure illustrations featuring people addressing environmental and situational challenges.
Fig. 7: Cultural interface research with the elderly, conducted by the Royal College of Art, England in 2013

The form and utility of design communities in the 21st century is fluid, and goes from groups of like-minded designers and illustrators to communities working digitally to solve specific problems. Even short-term collectives are addressing social issues.

All are intricate groups of creative humans. They shouldn’t be viewed, in any way, as “resources” for extraction and inspiration. Too often in the Western design world, we hear that ideas have largely plateaued and become homogenous, but that ignores the amazing work flourishing in other nations and pockets of the internet. How you build connections among other creative people makes you part of the network. See them, however ephemeral and globally distributed, as a powerful way to expand your design horizons and be part of something different.

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