In late 1998 I finally joined the online design community from my home-based design studio in Portland, Oregon. Having been a one-person operation most of the 27 years I have been in the design field, I did occasionally experience bouts of isolation from the rest of the world. That was about to change.
According to Judy Litt, the About.com Guide to Graphic design, the About.com Graphic Design Forum started that year as well. Somehow, in my online searches, I stumbled across the forum and found an instant Internet source of community. Over the years I found myself participating in many other such forums – and lurking on a few others. In the case of the About.com Forum and the HOW Design Forum some online connections became “real world” interaction with members of both sites attending the 2003 HOW Design Conference in New Orleans. I felt as if I was meeting old friends – even though we were actually getting together for the first time.
Many of the forums are much more than an online source of “imaginary friends” for those in the design community. For many participants, the forums are an important element in their continuing design education. Such Internet sites can be a valuable tool in getting an almost immediate answer to a specific design or technical question. There does seem to be an addictive quality to forum participation. At times I do wonder how and when some individuals complete any work – and there are days I’m sure others wonder the same about me. The personal interaction of forum participants is incredible. Forum visitors often request advice about personal issues and share a great deal about their own lives. It’s as if the forums provide a very economical form of cyber-therapy. I do know the online interaction often helps me in dealing with the “cabin fever” of being a one-person, home-based, business operation. My own forum participation also attracted the attention of the editors at HOW, leading to the writing of articles for HOW Magazine and being asked to write the book “The Savvy Designer’s Guide to Success.”
Judy Litt (from the About.com Graphic Design Forum), Bryn Mooth (Editor of HOW Magazine and a moderator of the HOW Design Forum, Gavin Laking (Administrator of The Designers Network Forum, and Bob Nicholl (Lead Moderator for the Graphic Design Forum graciously agreed to answer a series of questions from me about the forums in which they are involved, and forums in general. With all the great input I got I’ve chosen to set this up as a “question and answer” session within this article. At the end of the piece I’ve included links to other online forums I’ve come across that might be of interest to those in the design field.
How long has your forum been in existence?
Judy: I’m actually not 100% sure; I believe about 7 years. My web site went live in the summer of 1997, but at that time, there was no forum. I think that we had forums within a year.
Bryn: HOW launched an initial version in 2000, and upgraded the forum (from what was essentially a discussion list format) in 2002.
Gavin: I don’t know! I’m supposed to have the date carved into my memory but to be honest I had to use Archive.org’s “Wayback Machine” to give me a reasonably accurate idea. It appears that the forum started sometime between May 30, 2001 and June 16, 2001. That would mean we’re into our fourth year. The Designers Network forum started during the collapse of another popular online design forum
Bob: Graphic Design Forum was launched on October 6, 2002.
What type of person is your average forum user? (student, professional designer, geographic location, etc.?)
Judy: The average user is a professional designer, although the membership runs the gamut: people who dabble in graphics for fun, students, those wishing to make a career change, people with design degrees who are working in other fields because they haven’t landed a design job yet, to professional designers with decades of experience.
Bryn:It’s hard to know, since we don’t currently require users to register and therefore don’t have any concrete information about them. Our supposition is that the majority are professional designers, predominantly in the U.S. We also think we have a roughly equal proportion of freelance designers/solo practitioners, in-house designers and agency/design firm employees. We also have students and non-US designers.
Gavin: I would like to say professional designer, but I’m tending to think the majority are university graduates either starting out for themselves in freelance or looking for their big break at an agency. The majority of the registered visitors come from either the UK or the United States, but we have a stream of people from all over the world visiting.
Bob: Our active membership really covers the entire spectrum of skill levels and professions. We have web designers, print designers, pre-press specialists, freelancers and agency employees and owners, as well as a lot of students. Geographically we have a strong Canadian & UK contingent, a few Aussies and a smattering of people from all around the rest of the world. As far as our US members go I would say at least 80% come from the eastern half of the country. I have no idea why this is, unless it just reflects the population of the US generally.
Most forums do evolve over time. How has your forum changed since its initiation - or what changes are in the works?
Judy: Recently the forum was redesigned to integrate it more closely with the About.com Graphic Design web site. There’s often a wall between the forum and the web site – many forum members may not even be aware that there is a web site associated with the forum.
The forum, in general, is much like real life: people come to it at a time when they’re very passionate about some particular issue. They like the people they find, so they stay for a while. But then sometimes real life gets in the way: business picks up, or business goes in a different direction, and you find yourself spending less and less time on the forum.
There are some forum regulars who have been here pretty much since the beginning. Some of those regulars eventually became only occasional lurkers – they are still often missed. There’s an ebb and flow to the forum, much as there is in any organization.
Bryn:As I mentioned previously, we initially launched a pretty bare-bones discussion list-type structure, and upgraded to the current forum in 2002.
HOW tends to be a very social, very connected forum; people refer to themselves as HOWies, and a number of pretty incredible creative collaborations (like a series of hand-bound zines) have emerged. It’s also cool to watch people who know each other via the forum make plans to meet in person — either at small gatherings that forum participants organize, or at the HOW Design Conference.
We’re planning to do a major upgrade to HOW’s forum within the next several months; it’s been in the works for awhile, and we’re waiting for the project to reach the top of our over-worked New Media Team’s priority list. We’re considering some pretty substantial enhancements.
Gavin: The forum is constantly evolving, growing and developing. The forum is made up of two parts. One part, the larger part, is the people; they come, they go, they stay a while, they learn and they contribute back. The people keep the forum alive- they give it a reason to be. The smaller part is the software for the forum. I’ve used 2 main pieces of software since initiation both have started out very basic and I have added to them as I have learned more about the language. That part is also evolving and getting better- little tweaks here and there to make the experience of using the forum that bit friendlier and more useful.
I think the biggest things I1m working on for the forum is additional
categories, more powerful moderation and visible visitor profiles. I have always continued to develop the most simplistic of mechanisms for running the forum because I want people to get straight into the communication with each other. I want to make the forum somewhere that people pop into multiple times a day to check and contribute, I want it to be somewhere students and professionals alike can recommend to one another for solid advice, guidance, knowledge and opinions.
Bob: Since I’ve been a member from the beginning, I watched the forum evolve through several incantations in the beginning. When we first started out it was mainly a technical information forum. People would sign up, ask a question, get an answer and then never return. As we started to develop a strong core membership the social side of the forum started to show itself. In March of 2003 we added a lounge section we called “Off Topic”. Ever since then that area has been by far the most popular and active section on the boards. The biggest change to the forum was when Jupiter Media purchased it from original founder Allen Harkleroad in April of this year. This brought about changes such as new forum software and the addition of advertising. Things were a little bumpy during the first few weeks while we all adjusted to our new corporate owners but then settled back into our normal routine. One recent change of note is with the increased interest in photography displayed by our membership, we added a new expanded photography section with several sub forums including “for fun” competitions and photo assignments.
Posting on some forums seems to be dropping off in recent months. Do you think the trend toward blogging is partly responsible, or are other issues at play?
Judy: My forum definitely follows a cyclical pattern, somewhat similar to what you see at gyms: come New Year’s, you’ll find all sorts of people discovering the forum for the first time; participation drops off during the summer while people are enjoying a more laid-back lifestyle and vacations, picks up again in the fall with the influx of new design students, then drops off again in November and December with the holidays.
However, I do believe that now there are so many ways to communicate off of forums - such as blogs, skype, etc., that that has eaten into forum participation somewhat. In addition, more people are becoming interested in chatting or IM-ing; which is somewhat ironic. In the early years, I also had a thriving chat room associated with the site. However, as time went on, participation dropped, until it wasn’t worth my while to spend much time in the chat room. Eventually chat was phased out.
Bryn:I haven’t seen a noticeable drop-off. We currently have more than 370,000 posts on the HOW forum — it seems to never let up!
Gavin: I think that some of the people that would normally contribute heavily to a forum, as a means for getting their voice heard are turning to blogs. I think the biggest ‘problem’ is that there are too many forums, too many blogs and so the whole information in one place thing gets lost in a sea of similar sites. I think the dropping of contribution in the last few months can be attributed to a lot of other things happening in the world; not just in our community in general- people are getting busier, people are getting into new things.
Bob: I haven’t noticed this at all on the GDF. We have averaged around 250 posts per day for the last couple of years. So far in 2005 that average has actually increased a bit to 265 posts per day. I think blogging is more of a complement to peoples posting rather than a detriment. I’ve noted many cases where an idea has been expressed in a post and then expanded on greatly in a member’s blog.
Do you moderate the posts on your forum for abuses? If so, how and why?
Judy: I don’t moderate them in the sense that I have to read a post before it get posted, even for new members. I do skim all messages. I try to take a hands-off policy as much as possible.
However, this being the Internet, it’s not at all unusual for people to misinterpret another’s post. Occasionally I have to close threads to posting if too many people are getting on the “me too” bandwagon, or things are degenerating into flame wars. I have to ban maybe two or three people over the course of 7 years. I always give posters private warning before banning them. Some people seem to think that free speech means you can say anything you’d like to say, no matter who it hurts. That’s one of the few things I’m pretty adamant about: civility.
Bryn: Two of us on the HOW editorial staff are responsible for the forum; we both browse it daily, and we respond when someone alerts us to a troll or spammer (or other inappropriate activity) via email or a posting in the Suggestions for HOW section. With the planned forum upgrade, we’re going to introduce moderators — volunteers from among the forum community who will be able to delete posts or topics and otherwise help us keep tabs on the thing.
Gavin: I see nearly every post ever made to the forum and so I can edit a message, delete a message or outright ban the visitor posting abusive messages. Luckily we don’t suffer from a lot of abuse. We get perhaps one or two abusive messages a week. I also try to keep the number of messages with no replies to a minimum in the forum. Most of the time a message won’t be responded to if it is a blatant promotion for the visitor’s services, and we operate an unwritten rule that these sorts of messages should not be responded to, then I just ‘cherry pick’ them off after a day or so.
We don’t suffer bad language or flaming, the forum is almost self-moderating in a way- the general population is grown-up and stay on topic.
Bob: We do moderate posts in the forum. We have a great group of moderators made up of long time members who volunteer their time to read virtually every post. Our function is not to limit the opinions and expressions of our members. Instead it’s to make sure that members aren’t attacked on a personnel level for those views. We encourage spirited discussions on any topic and only step in when things devolve into personal attacks. We don’t allow any racist or hate-based posting or conversations of an explicit sexual nature. Spam posts are immediately deleted because nobody likes them. Obvious trolls are also banned from the forum before they can stir things up. Our philosophy from the start has been that this will be a friendly forum and in respect of that our moderator staff mostly stays out of the way.
What are your greatest satisfactions and frustrations with your forum - or forums in general?
Judy: Probably one of my greatest satisfactions with the forum is that it’s a wonderful community for graphic designers. Not only do forum members help one another out, whether that’s with a business problem, a software problem, a career problem, or brainstorming, they often become real friends - even if they live halfway around the world and most likely will never meet in real life.
One of my biggest frustrations is that forum members rarely give newcomers the benefit of the doubt. They’re too quick to decide someone is a troll, and not only do they jump all over such a poster, you’ll get 30 or more posts telling the poster just what a nefarious person they are. All that does is keep the thread in question alive, which is actually the original poster’s purpose in the first place. It can also make designers look very unprofessional at times, and the truth is you never really know who is lurking on the forum.
Bryn: Greatest satisfaction: Supporting a terrific creative community of designers. HOW is all about giving designers the information and inspiration they need to be successful, and it’s great to know that the HOW forum helps do that by connecting people in a meaningful way. It’s a key part of the HOW brand.
Biggest frustration: Feeling like a parent, like I have to frequently remind a bunch of rambunctious children to mind their manners and play nice. Forums are odd entities — they connect people in a very disconnected way. Because there’s no face-to-face interaction, people’s internal censor tends to turn off — and some posts get personal and inflammatory. Then there are the people who post nasty stuff just to provoke. And the spammers.
Gavin: The greatest satisfaction with running my own forum is knowing that I’ve created a place for like-minded people to come together and converse. I like to think that we’re all friends and would hope that between these friends work is being completed to a higher quality through shared knowledge and experience.
I have a single frustration with the forum! It doesn’t get as many visitors as I feel it should; more visitors would hopefully mean more regulars, which would grow the knowledge circle. My frustration with other forums is normally down to the software; I feel it sometimes gets in the way of an otherwise great place.
Bob: My greatest satisfaction has to be the wonderful personal relationships I’ve built up with people who I would never have had a chance to meet in other circumstances. I have made many fine friends over the years that I have never met in person. Another great thing is having instant access to a network of experts in every facet of the industry, willing to help with any questions or problems I might have, usually within an hour. My biggest frustration is with the clique mentality that seems to develop in a lot of forums from the older members. We’ve always tried to avoid this at the GDF, mostly successfully. I’ve run into this phenomenon a lot in other forums, both graphic design related and other subject based where the old school members are not very welcoming of new members and sometimes outright hostile.
About.com Guide to Graphic Design
About.com Graphic Design Forum
Editor, HOW Magazine
Site Owner / Administrator / Forum Daddy
The Designers Network
Graphic Design Forum
Online forum resources:
About.com Graphic Design Forum
About.com Desktop Publishing Forum
alt.design.graphics (Google Group)
Art Talk at The I Spot
Communication Arts Forum
Graphic Design Discussion (Yahoo Group)
Graphic Design Resource Group (Yahoo Group)
Meetup Graphic Design Board
The Creative Forum
The Designers Network
UPDATE: Since this article was written
Judy Litt has resigned from
her position as About.com Graphic Design Forum Guide. Judy
that capacity for over eight years and will be greatly missed
designers and students in the graphic design industry. A
should be on board at About.com in the near future. Changes
currently underway at the HOW Design Forum, with a new forum
on the fast track for implementation, and member moderators
soon to be
helping HOW staff members with forum duties.
About the Author
Jeff Fisher, the Engineer of Creative Identity for Jeff Fisher LogoMotives, has received over 475 regional, national and international graphic design awards for his logo and corporate identity efforts. His work is featured in more than 75 publications on the design of logos, the business of graphic design, and small business marketing. He shares his observations about the design industry on his blog, bLog-oMotives.
Fisher is a member of the HOW Magazine Editorial Advisory
Board and is also on the 2006 HOW Design Conference Advisory
Council. His own book, “The Savvy Designer's Guide to Success" was released by HOW Design Books in late 2004. An excerpt from the book may be found at CreativeLatitude.com. More information about Jeff Fisher LogoMotives is available at http://www.jfisherlogomotives.com