If you're a design professional chances are good that you have at least a passing acquaintance with social media, such as Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter. It seems like getting along with others and being interested in design go hand-in-hand, and this is a big potential professional advantage. Because many clients are still trying to figure out how to use the CC field in their Outlook client you have a leg up in using what is normally an entertaining time-waster to make yourself look smart and to produce better work. It's not a huge feat of insight, but it is surprisingly uncommon, so here are a few pointers to get you started:
Ask Your Friends: If you've got a design project on your hands why not ask a few thousand of your friends for ideas? It turns out that everyone loves to share their opinion, and soliciting feedback is cheap and easy. In a recent book project my boomer co-author phonecalled 200 of his peers to interview. I emailed 6,000 and asked them to interview each other, with amazing results. The Internet is, like, big.
Find a Professional: One of the big upsides of the internet is that the real experts are readily available. Curious about a new kind of translucent cement? Email the inventorit doesn't matter if he's in Slovenia or down the street. Not sure if you can really embed LEDs in load-bearing cement? Ask that German guy who's been doing it for years. Having deep expertise to back you up not only makes your projects viable, it leads to all kinds of information and insight you wouldn't ever get any other wayand gives you a larger resource base to draw on later. At one point I emailed the world leader in biogerontology to ask about storing cloneable cells, and a couple months later was inexplicably able to produce some convincing arguments about hydrophobic mitochondrial DNA to a client.
Wear Their Shoes: An ancillary to being able to contact anyone is that it means you've got to try to fit yourself into the mindset of some very different folks. Spending the time to do your homework on what motivates someone means you can get some pretty interesting results, and can also produce some amazing cross-tautological collaborations. One of my favorite examples of this is when I introduced actress and Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins to Museum of Natural History Paleontologist Will Harcourt-Smith over coffee, with the result that we're now looking at pitching a wheeled prosthetic legs project to Nike.
It's Out There: One of the scariest things about the internet is the amount of data available about anyone and anything. If you take the time to run a few Google searches on whatever field you're looking at it's pretty easy to get at least the basic vocabulary and big players in short order. For example, if you look up Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement speech at Stanford university, you'll find that the Mac never would have been developed the way it was if he hadn't dropped out of school and took a calligraphy class. That inspired his insistence on WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) typefaces being at the core of his new machine, which ended up putting do-it-yourself designs (for better and worse) into the hands of the masses.
And slashdot.org will tell you about the driving force behind all superior Apple designs: Jobs hates buttons!
And Wikipedia will tell you that the history of Helveticaone of the most-used typefaces in the worldwas originated by the Swiss in the 1930s, but really took off once digitized versions were available on everyone's home computers.
Those were just my examples. You have your own design passions...shoes, cars, buildings, colors. Look up a few key tidbits about anything your passionate about, and you can speak from a position of passion, which is a lot better than saying you like their design. Suddenly you're bonding...because the one common thread between all designers, even those who violently disagree, is their unabashed passion that design makes the world a better and more fun place.
Give Back: This ties into the last bit of advice (below), but leads by extension to your being one of those professionals mentioned above. If you publicly share whatever useful insight you get a hold of, other people are more likely to trust you, more likely to share with you, and more likely to help you make things which are truly awesome. Just look at any website with an active community to get an idea of why this one mattersit's the folks that most generously give of their time and thinking that get the most respect, and who have the most people respond to their requests for help.
Be cool: This is the first and last rule of being a good hacker, and it applies just as well to design. If you are going to work with others, play nice. If you're not sure if you're playing nice, you probably aren't, and you should back off, ask a friend, and get advice. As someone once told me, "Just be cool. If you're not being cool you'll know it, and if you don't then we'll kick you out." There's no written definition, and every group has different expectations, but if you keep in mind what you learned in kindergarten you should get along just fine.
Josh Klein is a hacker by trade and training, focusing on applying systems thinking to industries and problems he otherwise has no business working onlike crows, telcos, and fashion. He has an upcoming book on hacking work due out next summer.