Stefan Sagmeister believes that if you want to achieve greatness, you should take time to be alone. The graphic designer, best known for heading up New York studio Sagmeister and Walsh and creating darkly inventive album art for Lou Reed and The Rolling Stones, insists that periods of solitude are essential for sparking the original ideas that lead to evolution and growth. During his most recent sabbatical, the design legend spent a solitary year in Bali, where he swapped client work for periods of extended, uninterrupted experimentation beginning at dawn each day. “Basically everything [Sagmeister & Walsh] have done in the seven years following the first sabbatical came out of thinking from that one year,” Sagmeister explains during his TED talk, The Power of Time Off. “One of the strands of thinking I was involved in was that sameness is so incredibly overrated. This whole idea that everything needs to be exactly the same works for very few companies and not for everybody else.”
Despite the wisdom of Sagmeister’s approach, a quick glance at the contemporary design world suggests that its community, not solidarity, that will take our creative powers to new heights. In the last few years, technological explosion has given rise to online tools such as Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and Dribbble – channels that double as around-the-clock ideas portals, where knowledge, trends and criticism can be shared effortlessly and in real-time. And a new brand of virtual community is turning traditional processes and distribution systems inside out. This is setting the stage for a new design democracy where collaborative creation and crowdsourcing are erasing the barriers to global reach.
In Tribes, futurist and marketing expert Seth Godin explores the way online communities form around a shared belief in an idea. He also argues that the future of creative industries will be built on clusters of like-minded people who find an audience and spark wide-scale change. It’s hard to find a better instance of this than Etsy. The online marketplace might serve as a vehicle for the new global obsession with the artisanal and handmade but it’s also a study in how community operates on the cusp of creative ambition and market demand. For Angela D’Alton, Community Manager for Etsy Australia, the company’s focus on community has played a pivotal role in its growth – a trajectory that has seen it evolve from a fledgling virtual marketplace to an online community with 24 million members and 42 million unique visitors a month.
“Etsy has always been lead by our community and we believe deeply in person-to-person commerce. Throughout the company’s lifetime, we have never lost sight of that. I think we are incredibly lucky to have such a high level of engagement among our members and it has always been our mission to stay true to our roots by listening to and working closely with our community of creatives and makers,” she says.
D’Alton also believes that community encourages collaborative creation and open dialogue, practices that can see creative conversations evolve. Ultimately, this leads to a richer design culture where old hierarchies are flattened out.
“The fact that participation in fields such as design is both accessible and affordable means that ideas flow more freely between people and their peers. This contributes to the overall diversity and quality of products that are created.”
But five years before carpenter Robert Kalin started laying the foundations for Etsy in a Brooklyn apartment, Jake Nickell, a 25-year-old Chicago designer was quietly spinning his passion for T-shirts into an online community with game-changing implications for the future of design. Threadless began as a social network, where members were invited to submit designs and asked to vote on their favourite versions. The winning pieces, which feature everything from manga-style drawings to comic book landscapes re-imagined in minute detail, were then turned into T-shirts and sold back to community members. According to an article by Max Chafkin in Inc magazine, Threadless achieved early growth of 500 percent a year – proof that a powerful online community could trump the presence of in-house designers, advertising or traditional sales. Threadless also allowed designers and illustrators to collaborate and exchange ideas, while offering a foolproof avenue for gaining exposure and finding paying markets for their work.
“In addition to attracting a lot of talent, the contest format encouraged artists to tell their less artistic friends about the site. Designers labour mightily on their submissions; they spend weeks tinkering with their work and soliciting advice from other members. Then they post links to their submissions on their websites, blogs, and MySpace pages, asking their friends to click, vote, and, the artists hope, buy,” Chafkin writes.
D’Alton says that online communities has meant that disciplines that were historically solitary or elite way to open conversations between buyers, sellers and makers. “This dialogue, an integral part of collaborative creation, enables us to explore new levels of innovation and resource-sharing, in design and beyond.”
But in the last few years, community has cast aside its novelty status to take centre stage in our creative lives. Online platforms such as Dribbble and Forrst allow designers to gain feedback into works-in-progress while social media tools like Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest spark lightning-fast inspiration to help us fix bad design decisions on the fly. The constant presence of online community also means that we’re never truly on our own. It allows us to test out our creative paths before we walk them and know that our work will find an audience before we put it in the world.
However, the rise of online community is not without its price. Access to a constant network of collaborators can ease the pressures of creative autonomy – there’s no need to forge an original vision and take the necessary risks to bring it to life.But in his seminal book Ignore Everybody cartoonist Hugh Macleod writes that the best ideas have lonely childhoods and that these don’t always line up with what others think. Like Sagmeister, he believes that community doesn’t change the fact that creative work is a solitary pursuit – one that asks you to shut out the noise if you want to truly find your voice. Macleod also suggests that relying too much on your community can become a pillar, a way to hide from the work that really counts.
“Nobody can tell you if what you’re doing is good, meaningful or worthwhile,” he warns. “The more compelling the path, the more lonely it is.”