Since the earliest days of Usenet and bulletin board
systems (BBS), designers have bonded together
online to share tips and techniques, agonize over
software bugs, help each other out, socialize and
play Photoshop tennis. While today’s social networking
sites, blogs and portals are slicker and
faster, the prevailing ethos of those pioneering times
still exists: Help your neighbor, contribute positively,
get good internet karma and maybe a little good
publicity along the way.
In 2009, online design communities take many
forms: the simple mailing list, Usenet groups, webbased
forums, individual or group blogs, larger portaltype
websites, portfolio showcases and full-blown
social networking web applications.
MAILING LISTS & USENET
Electronic mailing lists, also known as discussion
lists, are the simplest way to join or start an online
conversation. Once subscribed, users receive new
replies to a given topic via e-mail, and can reply by
e-mailing a special address. Mailing list functionality
is part of web-based topic groups—such as
Google Groups and Yahoo! Groups—that can be
hosted on a private server using listserv software.
Some discussion lists are by invitation only, such as
the Women Designers Group (www.womendesignersgroup.com), while others are completely public.
Usenet is a globally distributed collection of discussion
lists carried over a network of linked servers.
Most internet service providers (ISPs) maintain a news
server that relays Usenet traffic. Discussion topics, or
newsgroups, are organized by a hierarchical naming
structure, such as comp or sci for computer or scientific topics, respectively. A typical newsgroup name
is comp.graphics.apps.photoshop. You’ll need a Usenet
client to participate. You might also need to ask your
ISP what its news server’s address is. Usenet groups are always completely public, although not every ISP
relays all groups.
On both discussion mailing lists and Usenet,
good netiquette is a must. Newbies should always
check out the group’s FAQ (to avoid asking a question
that’s been answered 12,324 times previously).
Similarly, it’s a courtesy to other users to lurk (i.e.,
just read, not post) first to get a feel for the group, be
polite in all your transactions and stay on-topic. Oh,
and don’t feed the trolls: Don’t reply to those people
that pop up solely to start arguments.
Thanks to the proliferation of web-based bulletin
board software, you can find a forum to discuss
and darkroom techniques to posting work for
peer critique. In fact, the publishers of this magazine
host several forums: Graphic Design Forum (www.graphicdesignforum.com) and The Creative Forum
(www.thecreativeforum.com). Other design forums
include CreativeBits (www.creativebits.org), Your
Design Forums (www.yourdesignforums.com) and
Most web-based forums are open to the public
to read, but participation usually requires you
register. Some forums offer premium subscriptions
that allow users greater file bandwidth, extra posting
privileges or an ad-free experience.
There are many forums for specific applications.
Photoshop alone has dozens, from the official user-to-user forums (www.adobe.com/support/forums) to
unofficial sites such as www.photoshoptechniques.com, www.forum.teamphotoshop.com and www.photoshopcafe.com. Not only are these a great source
of answers to questions, but often they also host useful
tutorials that can help you solve a challenging
Lastly, there are regional forums that encompass
the entire creative field from a city, state or country
perspective. New Zealand’s The Big Idea (www.thebigidea.co.nz) is an example of a portal site with
forums, aimed at a domestic audience.
While you might not think of blogs as communities,
the better ones attract a loyal and regular group of
commenters and help create a loose-knit network of
bloggers that link to each other. At the very least,
they are a great source of learning and inspiration—and often heated debate in the form of comments.
Some of my favorite blog bookmarks include the
Society for News Design’s NewsDesigner.com; Garr
Reynolds’ PresentationZen.com (the online companion to his book of the same name); WebDesignerWall.com (a showcase of web design trends); and the
ever-useful AListApart.com (“for people who make
websites”), with a stellar list of contributors discussing
everything from CSS techniques to more abstract
notions of problem-solving mind-sets, transforming
discussion into collaboration and more.
Not to be outdone (and attracting some A-list
commenters like Art Chantry and Felix Sockwell) is
UnderConsideration.com, founded by designers
Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio (with some
groovy design touches from illustrator Marian
Bantjes). UnderConsideration hosts the Speak Up!
blog about design trends and issues; Brand New, an
overview of new brand designs and redesigns; the
Quipsologies linkblog; and The Design Encyclopedia,
a series of background articles intended to serve as a
resource for designers and writers.
AIGA Voice (www.aiga.org/content.cfm/voice) is
also a great read, and The New York Times Magazine
has a thought-provoking recurring series by Nick
Currie called The Post-Materialist as part of its
design and style blog, The Moment (http://themoment.blogs.nytimes.com)
If that all seems so far away from where you
live, consider there are probably design bloggers in
your city or region; they probably meet regularly to
discuss the biz, socialize and generate new startup
ideas. Here in Montreal, we host the world’s longestrunning
blogger meetup, YULBlog (named after the
city’s airport code). Having grown from a handful of
hand-coding “web journalers” back in 2000 to a list
of over a hundred bloggers in both official languages,
this real-life meetup puts a human face on people’s
RSS feeds and Twitter tweets.
YULBlog’s monthly meetups have helped to
spawn Station C (http://station-c.com), a coworking
space; Creacamp, a women’s DIY/creativity meetup;
several audio and video podcasts such as culture videozine
Urler.tv and more. There’s also a good deal of
overlap with Montreal’s Pecha Kucha night (http://montreal.pecha-kucha.ca), too.
In the 300-baud gold-rush days of the web, when
bandwidth was scarce and quality links hard to
come by, savvy entrepreneurs created portals—convenient
jumping-off points to useful internet destinations,
which evolved to offer a panoply of free
services (accompanied by advertising, naturally).
Today’s biggest portal sites are Yahoo!, MSN
and, believe it or not, Google. Roughly speaking, all
three offer parallel services, some with better degrees
of integration than others—web-based e-mail, photo galleries, discussion groups, calendaring tools and
While not catering to designers specifically, these
services can really come through in a pinch, especially
if you’re traveling, and your laptop containing
your contract-winning portfolio gets lost or stolen.
Having a backup on the web can’t hurt.
Designers do make good use of the discussion
groups to create local meetups. Increasingly, user-to-user
“answer sites” like answers.yahoo.com can help
you resolve everything from puzzling tech questions
and finding a good web host to dealing with a tough
Several sites are specifically set up to tap the
amount of expertise out on the web. About.com
hires topic experts to curate pages of links and
blog about news of interest to their communities,
including graphic design and graphics software.
Instructables.com is all about step-by-step, user-to-user
Designers’ groups such as AIGA have embraced
the web as an efficient means to provide services
and information to members. Alongside the aforementioned
AIGA Voice blog, the aiga.org site provides
ways to find, join or start local chapters (who
often have their own websites and blogs in turn), a
Designers Directory, affinity groups for like-minded
members; student groups, guides to events and workshops;
tools and resources, as well as a jobs board
and career guides. It’s under the Careers section that
AIGA has taken its first steps into allowing users to
create their own communities on the official site,
through the Groups feature. Similar to Flickr Groups,
each user-community gets an image pool and discussion
forum, and is moderated by the founder.
The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada
(www.gdc.net) site offers a good roundup of news,
a relatively new blog, columns, a mailing list, articles,
classifieds, listings of awards and events, plus
links to provincial and regional chapter organizations.
Individual designers can sign up to create an
account and post a portfolio online. There’s also a
much-needed guide for businesspeople looking to
purchase design services that’s well worth recommending
to your clients.
Both AIGA and the SGDC make use of existing
social networking sites like Facebook, mostly in an
ad hoc, chapter-based or unofficial way. It’d be nice
to see these organizations do more to integrate social
networking tools in a more comprehensive fashion,
but for now, this seems to serve users’ needs well.
Coroflot is, as far I as know, the longest-running
portfolio-hosting and design-jobs site. It’s constantly
updated and organized by design area—everything
from architecture to fashion to 3D modeling is
featured. Coroflot offers a clean, simple members’
area where you can post a CV (curriculum vitae) and
portfolio of images. Tools on the site allow you to
subscribe to updates from other Coroflot members
(similar to Flickr’s Contacts or Twitter follows).
There are also more extensive tools for employers to
create and maintain profiles and post job listings.
Members can create Groups with image pools and
discussions. Creative Seeds, the official Coroflot
blog, features advice and Q&As, too.
DeviantArt is more of a pure portfolio-sharing
site and creative community, skewing toward popculture,
subculture, outsider art and amateur works
more than commercial interests—sometimes NSFW
(not safe for work)—but the trade-off is that the site
is huge. There are many, many talented designers,
illustrators and photographers there, and it’s genuinely
a great way to interact, post works-in-progress
and get feedback. Portfolio sites act as an indicator of
the visual zeitgeist—and are also an interesting way
for employers to find raw talent.
SOCIAL NETWORKING APPS
Finally, Facebook is the 800-lb. gorilla of social networking.
Originally an online version of Harvard’s
paper “facebook,” given out to help people get to
know classmates, it evolved beyond universities and
high schools and opened up to the world at large.
Nearly every official design organization has some
sort of presence on it, and its interest groups offer
real-world interaction with local peers. If nothing
else, its excellent search optimization makes your
profile page an important hub to link your external
portfolio sites to.
LinkedIn is aimed at professional networking.
While it doesn’t offer much specifically to graphic
artists, it again lets you link to your portfolio sites,
and more importantly, uses a human network of
introductions to let you interact with people who
can provide assistance, answer questions and advance
After gaining a great deal of publicity from the
way the Howard Dean campaign made use of it during
the 2004 Democratic primaries, Meetup.com is
now part of the internet mainstream, facilitating realworld
meetings and even collecting membership dues.
In the end no one site can do it all—so get out
there on all of them.