Within the past three years we've witnessed an explosion of design community sites dedicated to posting shots of your work for public critique. To make sure they get the best of people they tend to be invite only. Out of nothing more than pure luck I did happen to get such an invitation to Dribbble and Forrst and have been relatively active for the past year or so.
On the good side of such services we get an instant view into the trends/direction of the industry. A place to expand our perspective of the digital world and the limitless creative potential held within, along with an opportunity to improve your skills by peer review and self motivation. But does the good outweigh the bad?
Instant Industry Insight
One really nice advantage to being included in those kinds of digital design communities allows is the ability to see at a glance where the industry is. What's hot? What technique are appearing multiple times? What colors are being used? How are layouts formed? All of which can give you insight for how to start approaching your clients and what kinds of work you want to show them.
The most obvious advantage to these kinds of communities is that it's very easy to find some design work that inspires you. I know before I approach a design I like to see how other designers have tackled the project. You get a nice bag of all styles usually including minimalism, realism, simple & clean, dark & dirty, and you will eventually see that the possibilities are limitless out there! But at the same time I think it's important to find inspiration from places behind other digital interfaces and website designs. Ever look at intricate detail on a watch? The colors in undersea coral? Take a look around!
Most the sites out there allow comments. By posting your work there you have a chance to have your design reviewed by other professional designers. Obviously this can work out great when they challenge your design by questioning the reasons behind your design. This often either reinforces your confidence in your design work, or causes you to think about it another way. Either way you can't loose.
While design communities like Forrst and Dribbble can help a designer improve and find more inspiration, they can also create some bad habits in designers. They can cause to think to aesthetically than focusing on our content, influence us to design for the designer crowd over our actual audience. Lastly, it can negatively impact our self-worth if we put too much value into it.
Thinking Too Aesthetically
After posting my designs at these communities the feedback I get can often do more harm then good. When a designer tries to think of the design through the eyes and mind of the audience, the context I'm making it, and the resources available I get some very valid feedback that really applies to the problem I'm trying to solve. Sometimes it's in a suggestion that reaches the audience better than I originally had. Other times they find a weakness my design will have communicating a certain idea.
Then there's the bad kind of feedback. The "this should be green and not blue" kind of feedback. This is the type of feedback you'll find the most and I think this is what damages the integrity of design. Design is a planned solution to a specific problem. So when a person suggests you just change something without a reason, the value you had from making your designs has just diminished. "Because it looks cool" is not a valid design reason.
Loosing Touch With Your Audience
I found after a while posting at forrst that I was beginning to start designing for the people at forrst and not my audience. I was making design decisions expecting to get a stronger reaction from the people browsing forrst over the actual user base likely browsing my site.
Am I Really That Terrible?
One of the most painful parts of first joining these communities is when you post your absolute best design you've made after years of work and you get no feedback on it. I think it's at this point many start thinking they're just not good enough. I've definitely felt that way at first. I found sometimes I need to take a break from these communities and just go for it in my work so I make sure I develop my own decision making capabilities without having to run it through the crowd. Second, when you do get feedback and followers you need to remind yourself that they are just designers. They may like your work, but that doesn't mean it's good or bad. They just like it.
So now it's up to you how to decide how to take these design communities and make them work for you. If you need an invite, feel free to ask just have your portfolio ready.