What does it take to become a thought leader in the design community? By thought leader, I mean someone who can make a statement about design or designers, and have it be listened to, blogged about, retweeted, and argued over by thousands of professional designers and others in related industries.
We’re going to explore some of the common traits of these types of individuals, and go over some ways in which you too can eventually get there.
Recommended Reading: How To Quit… Acting Like An Amateur Designer
Be A Great Designer
Creating high quality work is the number one key to becoming a leader in any industry, and especially the design industry. Your work will almost speak for itself. No one is going to listen to a designer whose work is of poor quality. People may not always agree that your design solutions are the most ideal for the problems you solve, but almost everyone can recognize a high quality design when they see one.
There’s no way to overstate the importance of this trait. Designers can be a very picky, highly judgmental group of folks – it kind of goes with the job. Again, getting them all to agree that your work is "good" is probably never going to happen. But at least they can agree that you’re a consummate professional who knows what they’re doing in Photoshop or Illustrator.
It’s extremely important to learn your craft and perfect it if you want to lead others in the industry.
If you want to be listened to, you’re going to need to be visible to others in the design world – not just in your particular niche, but everywhere you can make an impact with your ideas.
If you’re a web designer, this means that print designers also have to see you and be able to respond to your ideas, as well as software designers, product designers, and anyone else tangentially related to your industry.
Do what you can to spread the word about yourself and get people talking about you. Whether that’s through blogging, social media, or going viral on YouTube.
Marketing yourself is a constant challenge that every designer could stand to do more of, but it’s especially important if you want to be a thought leader. If no one knows who you are, then what you say won’t matter to anyone but you. And maybe your parents.
You build credibility as someone worth listening to based on how accountable you’re willing to be for your words. If you say things behind a veil of anonymity and never respond to challenges to your ideas, then people will pick up on that and you’ll be ignored in the design world at best, and ridiculed at worst.
This doesn’t mean you have to be completely open about every single thought you have about every topic. In fact, that’s probably an unwise tactic if you’re trying to build a reputation as someone worth listening to. But you should strive to own your ideas and make it clear to others that you can back them up and defend them if need be.
Always continue to raise the bar, not just with your work, but also with what you say to fellow designers. Once people know you as someone who always has an interesting conversation going on around you, they will be compelled to participate and respect your ideas.
Have An Opinion
This goes without saying. If you don’t have any opinions about design or about designers, or if you never make them known, you’ll continue to wallow in obscurity.
It doesn’t matter if your opinion is controversial or even upsets some people – the design community needs to be constantly challenged and introduced to new ideas in order for designers to maintain their “edge”. Even – no, especially – if sometimes those ideas make them mad or cause them to think.
As I mentioned earlier, designers can be judgmental and a bit harsh sometimes. And truthfully, you shouldn’t want it to be any other way. If the design community as a whole simply accepted every idea passively and with equal regard, the quality of the designs being created would suffer tremendously.
Designers need a bit of push back for their ideas; constructive criticism makes you a stronger and more creative designer. As a thought leader, when you say something controversial, designers will either set out to prove you right, or they’ll try to prove you wrong. Either way, they won’t just sit still and do nothing.
Finally, remember that becoming a thought leader in the design community is not something that will happen overnight. It will take years of building up your reputation and becoming widely known enough to not only be listened to, but to be respected by your fellow designers. Remember, being a top-notch designer comes first, then everything else falls into place behind that.