Bill Kenney

How to Grow a Design Audience

I can still clearly remember the “first” time I posted my work online. It was to a little site called DesignLove. At that time, 2009-ish, I had zero online presence and Focus Lab wasn’t born yet. DesignLove was third in line behind Forrest and Dribbble as places for designers to gather and share work. It was the smallest, safest place to post my work and not feel like a total fraud. But from the moment I posted, I was decisively bitten by the work-sharing bug. It was thrilling, terrifying, gratifying, and humbling all in the same motion.

Growing A Design Audience V2

Interestingly enough, my goal was not to grow a design audience. It was purely to see if my work resonated. Little did I know 9 years later that it would result in hundreds of thousands of followers across a few key platforms—resulting in major growth for Focus Lab in both team members and clients. The butterfly effect. Just to be clear: This is my story. It may or may not work for anyone else and it’s constantly evolving to this day. Much of the context in this story is focused around Dribbble specifically, but the rules apply to any platform.

Step 1: Show it all, especially in the beginning.

If there was anything I learned early, it was to share everything I could. That volume was my path to success. Since I didn’t have an existing following or a big name agency to tie to, the only power I had was to post, post, and post more. If I couldn’t out-design the work around me, I could at least out-muscle it in sheer volume.

I turned into a posting machine. There were years on Dribbble where I posted nearly every day (with a little burn-out mixed in). In those days my scale was more tipped to quantity than quality (more on this in step 4). To be clear: the goal is to avoid perfection and simply be vulnerable and post all the things. Don’t paralyze yourself waiting for the best shot. Sometimes in-process work is more engaging, anyway.

Consistency and staying top of mind is key to growing an audience. For this reason alone, volume carries a ton of weight. Once a day is plenty. Don’t confuse this for swamping people with junk.

Step 2: Keep it real, and find your superpower.

Force yourself to open up and share your work regardless of how you feel about it. Bring people into your world, your story. It makes it WAY more relatable. When your design work starts to feel so perfect and manicured, it can feel robotic. People like people. They like seeing others’ struggles, how others approach certain projects, etc. No robots here. Be real.

It’s also extremely important to find your superpower. The sooner you find this the faster your audience will take shape. This will allow you to really target the style of design you enjoy making and the types of followers you want. You will find “your people” and they will love your work! For me, my reach was a bit more broad, but you can see how illustrators, motion designers, UI designers, etc. all target a specific visual style and then hammer away on it. Think of people like Nick Slater, Adam Grayson, Riley Cran, Fraser Davidson. They stay in their design lane and just kill it! This is very advantageous when trying to find a following online and keeping them engaged.

Step 3: Be wary of the built-in traps!

As you begin to grow a following, the feelings of thrill, terror, gratification, and humility get amplified. Often to a deafening level. It’s a slippery slope of psychological tensions that starts with, “do people like my work?” or “am I getting new followers?” to “do people like ME?” You may find yourself fighting an internal battle and checking your phone every five minutes. That is a natural result of the process.

“Be very, very careful not to confuse your work with your worth.”

(Go on, read that last sentence again.) Your design work does not define you as a person. You bring much more to the work than some design thinking and pixels. I never went too far down that slope myself, but I did brave the fears at times. Thankfully I was able to sprinkle a popcorn trail behind me.

Don’t engage with trolls. This will be hard! When trolls come out, and they will, work very hard to not get sucked in. Thoughtfully gather your response rather than simply reacting. I typically try to think, “what good will my response do?” and “how will my reaction look to an outsider watching this?” Those two questions usually prompt me to take a breath and move on. On a few occasions I’ve felt the need to thoughtfully and thoroughly respond, but as years pass I rarely feel the need.

Step 4: Be the tortoise, not the hare.

Maybe the most important step is being patient and understanding that everything takes time to blossom. The key is to stay the course. Don’t expect to see waves of big growth in the first few years, even. For myself, and then Focus Lab, it was more of a hockey-stick growth curve: slow and steady before a sharp uptick. In the beginning the work is long and hard with little reward, but the great thing is that eight years later the work is easier, more fun, and brings better results. It’s all about putting in the time upfront. I didn’t just wake up with a gaggle of followers. I put in the time and energy and that was the outcome. Nine years in the making.

But back to quantity vs. quality. With those nine years under my belt and 22 team members surrounding me, the goals and strategy have changed. Volume is no longer our strongest hand. It actually runs counter to our standards. We can now triple down on quality while also staying vulnerable enough to not only share perfection. The line is always moving and we adapt as we need to. As long as we feel true to ourselves, and our audience is still engaged, then we are in our happy spot.

Last words.

Let’s talk about you: How do you define what your goal is? If you’re looking for a peer network or companionship in a following, your strategy will differ from a conversion-to-sales-focused audience. If you aren’t sure, just do what I did. Start posting. Do your best to enjoy the ride; you never know where it will take you.

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