| Who Needs Charisma in Design?
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Who Needs Charisma in Design?

Today I’m headed to this year’s AIGA Awards Gala, and it has me thinking about charisma: What it means to have charisma while networking as a designer.

In middle school, I was encouraged to participate in Forensics, the Milwaukee Public School’s equivalent of all-day theatre camp. I avoided it because I denied the part of me that liked performing in public. Even though others clearly thought I belonged on the stage, I saw myself quietly drawing in a sketchbook. I guess that’s what’s attractive about graphic design. It indulges my introversion.

For years, I avoided networking on a larger scale, and would often use technical competency as the excuse: No amount of charm can make up for troubleshooting code, managing an animation timeline, or perfecting the Bezier curve tool, I would say.

Did that mean suddenly 'turning on the charm' to advance my career?

Then my career started to plateau. It wasn’t the work. While my technical skills were improving by the minute, I wasn’t seeing an increase in pay and responsibility I had hoped. I needed to do something differently if I wanted to see change. Did that mean suddenly “turning on the charm” to advance my career?

There’s something seemingly smarmy about self-promotion as a means for career growth. You come off like a salesperson for yourself. For many years, I worked part-time as a sales associate for Banana Republic, a clothing retailer, and I was very, very good at it. I was often honest with customers about their needs, while still being myself. I wasn’t afraid to approach any customer, and ask them open-ended questions. I learned to disarm by knowing when to back off and when to be available. I became reliable for more than sizes. I could fit someone’s entire wardrobe for years (and all for only $9/hr.).

Charm is about presenting the best version of yourself, on the faith that others will recognize you as authentic.

That’s when I figured out that being charming isn’t a switch that you turn on and off to meet a specific need. Charm is about presenting the best version of yourself, on the faith that others will recognize you as authentic. Since this realization, I have seen a change, though not immediately in pay rate (it doesn’t really work that way). The changes have come in the old and new relationships I’ve fostered over the years. People I respect support my ambitions, hopes, and dreams because I show up, and I am who I say I am.

...networking isn't just about clicks, drags, and 'likes.' It's about showing up and opening up.

Back to this year’s Gala. Being a graphic designer can be isolating. Even moreso if you’re a designer of color or grew up low-income. You walk around with a burning anger over, say, Why are there no dedicated design scholarships for low-income students and students of color?

Then I met Mark Randall.

He is one of this year’s AIGA medalists and cofounder of Worldstudio Foundation, which has awarded more than $1 million to more than 700 students. I thanked him for his dedication to seeing substantive change in the design industry.

And it was a reminder that networking isn’t just about clicks, drags, and “likes.” It’s about showing up and opening up.


Image above was taken at the Gala, using print and digital photo booth from OM Digital.