The Myth of Merit

Thoughts on building an audience and measuring success

I used to tell other people not to worry about their following. And in some ways, I still believe that should be the case in the right context, but it took me a far too long time to actually understand the terrible privilege that comes with being able to make that statement from a place of already having assembled one (not huge, but enough) and experiencing the benefits (however limited) of that visibility.

What my intention was (however misguided), was in trying to tell folks just breaking on to the scene to create work like no one was watching. It was an attempt to inspire those who were either too nervous to put their work out into the universe or to encourage those who felt as if their work — no matter how much overtime they put in — had experienced no traction in return for their long hours and sleepless nights.

But I can see what a poor consolation that may have been to those who needed a more nuanced hope. After all, the work we create, however frivolous or shallow it might seem in pixels, is ultimately the way we make a living. In that way, our body of work is our path towards financial stability and in some cases, the ruler by which we measure our own personal success.

But the truth of it is: None of us is promised visibility or an audience in return for great work. There are countless folks who are making truly remarkable design that hasn’t yet (and may not ever) find the right audience. There are people far more deserving than I am to have their work getting the views that my work does. That’s not to tout my audience as massive (it’s not, but I suppose that’s all relative), but rather to suggest that the limited audience that I’ve been privileged enough to build thus far in my career would be just as deserving — if not more — of many other individuals who haven’t yet found the visibility they’re toiling to build. And I call it a toil, because I know how difficult this is. There’s often a tremendous pressure on accumulating a following that can feel somewhat daunting and maybe even hopeless for new designers.

Because in many ways, the Design conversation is one that feels like it’s been going on for a long time; with many speakers leading the discourse. I know because when I first started, I felt just as alone and just as directionless. There were giants ahead of me that had built coliseums of great work and I, with my bootlegged copy of Photoshop (sorry, Adobe) was an impostor with a canvas.

I don’t know how and why certain designs catch on more than others. There’s clearly a tie with that seems to be popular in that particular season of life within the community. For example, 3D is taking off in the Dribbble community and it’s absolutely beautiful! But even working within the confines of trends or what’s on the Popular page doesn’t guarantee visibility. I’m not sure why some of the work that we spend days on days of revisions and painstaking hours on refining doesn’t land, but that quick diddy we did in 30 mins may spread like an unconfined wildfire — but sometimes it does! We can’t predict who will connect with what, but sometimes it does and oftentimes (maybe more so) it doesn’t.

Building an audience has never felt like a science to me. I don’t have the magic bullet for what it looks like or 10 simple steps for getting the follow ratio of your fever dreams. I suspect that, like many things in life, both privilege and dumb luck play a part. The content I was creating found a home in nerdy fandoms and like-minded gamers and cinephiles but to even get there in the first place, the situation had to be just right. And that may have been nothing more than dumb luck. Maybe someone “influential” (ew, okay — that word is gross) stumbled on it and decided to share it out? Maybe the Bioshock fanclub just happened to all decided to peruse Dribbble at the exact same time and collectively decided “huh, this ain’t bad”.

There are any number of factors that we can’t control that may contribute to broader visibility. And many of those who have developed a platform at that scale haven’t achieved it based on merit alone. I know I didn’t.

Dribbble was the home my work found, but that doesn’t mean that it will be the best home for yours. Experiment with different communities. It won’t hurt to get your work on different venues where it may just find a home.

What I’m hoping you’ll avoid is the determinism that tells you that you can’t make it. The inner voice that keeps whispering that it’s impossible to build an audience or achieve success. And when it comes to building a large audience, you just might not! Truthfully, you may never build the massive following of your dreams, be interviewed for that publication you’ve been following since you started, or land that dream client that you’ve been aspiring towards since you first broke out onto the scene as a wide-eyed youth — full of equal parts self-doubt and determination.

But life has a funny way of working out.

Whether it’s finding a much better client relationship than you ever could have hoped for in an unlikely place or actually discovering that your self-worth isn’t found in your follower count, what I truly hope for you is that your cynicism and your own insecurities come at odds with the constant reminder that these things do not define you or the worth of the work you do. That you’re reminded from time to time that the path to success looks substantially different for every one of us and that comparison is a poor game to play with rarely any winners.

What you’ll soon see is that in many ways, discovery and visibility is a human game (at this time, at least). It takes eyeballs and clicks and signal boosts. In that way, the onus lies on the community to elevate and champion voices that are still small and quiet and raise them to a thundering roar. We, collectively, should be seeking out new work, new voices, and new perspectives and working to build a broader platform for them and with them.

I’ll cop to not doing my part here. I could be a more vocal advocate for those that should have an audience. I should be doing my part to use the engagement I have to widen the Design conversation to be more inclusive of emerging artists and designers — not just old hats and legacy peers.

I can do better. I will do better.

And I’m not alone. We need more sharing of new work, more championing of new perspectives, and a collective more towards not viewing new artists or designers as competition, but as colleagues that we cheer on from the sidelines as they get their time to shine.

So let’s wrap this up. Wherever you are in your career, I hope this find you well. However you’ve felt about your own work up until now or about the audience you’ve built so far, my hope is that you don’t let cynicism or determinism tell you that it’s all pointless. It’s not.

What I hope is that you’ll reframe the internal dialogue around success and achievement; and that you won’t let others define it for you. I hope that you don’t stop doing what you love, even if no one has yet lined up to watch you do it.

Because the path looks different for all of us.

And if you’re just beginning, make it one hell of a ride.

Edit: I’ve started a thread of some designers and illustrators I’ve discovered on Dribbble with less than 500 followers. You can follow along as we work to elevate the visibility of emerging artists.