Netting a bigger catch

This is the age of small fish in big ponds. Take me, for instance. Until the arrival of the Internet, I was a British journalist with a slightly arcane specialism in architecture and design. Very occasionally someone from Le Monde or Die Welt might contact me for a quote, but that was about it. But now, like all the rest of you, I’m out there in cyberspace and my pond is the world. Anyone can see what I write, and there are people in places like Iran, Turkey and China who are only too happy to use it without permission.

This doesn’t matter, however, since for every dozen or so cyber pirates out there, there might be someone who sees your work and decides to commission you as a consequence. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are. Take a look at your client list: a few years ago you’d have met every name on it, face to face. Today, you’re very likely to have some names there that you have not only never met, but quite possibly never even spoken to on the phone. You will be having a professional relationship by e-mail.

This is marvellous. In cyberspace – unless you’re one of those exhibitionists with a webcam — no one can see that you’re working from your kitchen table rather than a posh office full of Eames chairs. In cyberspace, no one knows how old you are, or that you’ve just discovered that there’s no milk for the coffee, the biscuits have gone stale, and the cat has just thrown up on the doormat. It’s not quite like Second Life, but it’s getting close. Small fish can swim big.

Recently, I went to see a group of graphic designers who work for lots of big names and had landed a serious all-American brand. I couldn’t help noticing that the studio was not very big. No more than half a dozen people there, all in. In the past, this would have counted against the team, no matter how talented they were.

Not any more. Their client had been aware of their work – because everyone can now see everything, everywhere – and commissioned them on that basis. Designs were sent out for approval as PDFs, and so the job was done. At no point had they stepped on a plane to go and see their client, or vice versa. So overheads and expenses stayed low, and an international design job was done with a carbon footprint the size of a shrew’s, from a young studio that in the past could only have dreamed of that kind of job as they churned out jam-pot labels for supermarket own-brands.

Remember the giant corporate design companies of yesteryear? They’re still around in some form or other, but the whole market has loosened up as a result of this working flexibility. Just as a whole wave of independent magazines resulted from cheap new photocopying technology in the mid-1970s – surely an early example of user-generated content, as we would call it now – so broadband communications have revolutionised working methods in the early 21st century.

There is, of course, one crucial thing to bear in mind. Just because everyone can see your work doesn’t mean you’ll strike it rich. Any more than all the millions of bloggers out there get massive publishing deals. You’ll still get nowhere if you’re rubbish. But if you’re good, well, you might just get that phone call from the US. Just make sure you get paid in sterling or euros, not dollars. You won’t get a call from China, of course. They’ve already seen your work and copied it.

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