The three types of capital
The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, studied the way that artists operated and found that while they were happy, in the early stages of their career, to make little money, they focussed instead on building other forms of capital: social capital and cultural capital. Put very crudely, social capital is the network of people you posses, the individuals and groups who know you, talk about you, pass on your details to others either casually or deliberately.
Cultural capital is the knowledge you possess, much of it specific to your domain, but a lot of it seemingly "unrelated" or even useless. For example, if you are a practising interactive designer, knowing the outcome of the US midterm elections may not seem like something you need to know. But being the sort of person who takes an interest in the world and is able to hold a meaningful conversation about it marks you out as intelligent, interesting, wise. Cultural capital covers a wide area, and is the thing that helps you maintain and extend the social network that builds your social capital. In other words it gets you invited to things, to participate in events, and increases your chances of being the first person people think about when they’re looking for someone to do business with.
Bourdieu identified that though artists (and by extension people in many other occupations, such as design, acting, journalism, politics, teaching etc) accept that their initial income may be low as they embark on their career, their time spent building up other forms of capital is important because it is used later when it’s converted into economic capital – getting that better job, getting that important commission, getting a lead on a new project and so on.
However he also spotted that the art world, like many others, relies on a few important people, or "gatekeepers". These are the individuals or organisations who control entry to the world beyond them. Universities and academics are gatekeepers: they decide who can and cannot enter the world of academia and, through assessment, decide who can go on to practice in particular fields. In the art world, Bourdieu identified curators as gatekeepers: these people decide who will get their work seen. They too operate on an economy of social and economic capital, building up reputations for spotting "the next big thing" among their peers and, as a consequence, building up financial capita as well.
Design has its gatekeepers too, as does the media. They exist in many different forms but essentially they are the people or groups who decide whether you can access their world – it might be a membership-based group like the Chartered Society of Designers, or a collective, or an interviewer for a job. Entry to these areas may depend on basic ability, but it may also depend on possession of "contacts" (social capital) or knowledge of the industry and the wider world (cultural capital).
For many people working in art, design and media, cultural capital has been gained through a range of media and events. In design, magazines like Creative Review and Design Week give you an insight into what is being seen as cool, or what the industry is up to. The editorial team at Creative Review play an enormous role in determining our collective taste, and can promote an individual or agency to stardom, and cult status or even destroy them with a critical comment.
Attending an interview knowing which agency just won which commission, or which chairman just resigned and set up his own group – the sort of knowledge gained from a religious reading of Design Week – may just identify you as someone who should be helping to run the company.
Meanwhile the art world has many similar magazines but also events such as previews and openings, or simply exhibitions. Knowing who’s in and who’s out, who’s just shown and where, and knowing what to say about all of that is essential to getting on in the art world. But how do you get the all important invitations? And who do you share all that knowledge with?
This is where your social capital comes in. In the art world there’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation in that getting invitations to the right gatherings so you can meet the right people requires you to know the right people to get the invitation in the first place. But this is something that universities have long offered, although without really acknowledging it. In a study of fashion graduates from one London college, Angela McRobbie found that the graduates who were most successful didn’t make all that much use of the technical skills they thought they’d gone to college to learn, but the social network they built up while they were there. Keeping in touch with fellow students is one of the most important things you can do to build your career, and passing on information and leads, and making introductions is vital. But this is problematic: the world of art and design is famously jealous of other people’s success, and passing on the contact details of someone you want to do business with yourself is professional suicide isn’t it?
Well not really. In his exploration of altruism inThe Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins asked why it is that people risk life and limb to help strangers, as there’s no genetic benefit to doing so. In fact, he says, there is. If we are willing to plunge in to a river to save someone else’s drowning child, we raise the probability that someone will do something similar should our own kids need help. Altruism is a bit like the concept of "karma" – do something good for someone else, and something good will happen for you. People who don’t share tips and leads, who don’t make introductions between friends and potential business partners, will quickly find themselves not receiving similar help from others.
But even when you have made those all-important contacts, there’s still the need to get your work in front of them. For many this means lugging your portfolio around London or Edinburgh or Brighton or wherever there’s a group of design firms, art galleries, boutiques and other potential outlets. Being able to travel, and having the money to do it, has been key to success. After a while you might be able to get an agent (another gatekeeper) but initially the pressure is on you to find the time and resources to tout for work, alongside everybody else.
That was then. This is now. It’s still important to build up social and cultural capital, but the ways in which you can do it have changed considerably. Instead of being at the mercy of gatekeepers you can now act as your own agent, or show off your work to anyone, sell it direct… the choice is yours.
Twitter is a tool that many people either "get" or "don’t get". It’s also very much abused. But somewhere in between all the Justin Beiber chatter there are many conversations going on about stuff that concerns you. Discussions of the latest HTML 5 techniques, of the latest gallery exhibitions, of job vacancies and more. People post links to their work and build up networks of friends, admirers, advisors.
Sure, much of the stuff on Twitter is redundant and unimportant, but that’s how communication works – most of the things we say to each other are trivial, but if we didn’t say those things then we wouldn’t relate to people and therefore wouldn’t hear them when they suggested we look at a specific website, or asked for help. You have to accept the redundant stuff to get the important stuff. Humans just don’t communicate in short bursts of vital information. The key to using Twitter is to get of the public timeline, search for people using key words (like "service design", "Tate Modern" or whatever) and follow them. Join in a conversation and see if they follow you. Share useful information. Get a "client" like Tweetie on the Mac or iPhone so you can have Twitter open in the background without having a web browser open, and glance at it every now and then, the same way you tune in and out of conversations in the pub, picking up on key words you might hear.
Blogging is an essential tool, or at the very least having a web site. A tool like WordPress (which is free) is very handy because it not only offers a powerful blogging platform, it can also be used to build a very effective website with little or no knowledge of HTML or CSS (and if you do know about those things, it becomes even more powerful). A blog is a way to engage people in conversation, to help them understand you as an artist or designer, and to figure out what you know about the world. It provides a context to the "shop" that is your portfolio.
Facebook is arguably less useful for building a social network, but useful for maintaining one. Some people have said that Twitter is for meeting people you’d like to know, and Facebook is for keeping in touch with people you wish you didn’t… But behind the joke is a good comparison: Twitter for getting to know new people, Facebook for people you do know.
Delicious is a good research tool, a way to share interesting sites with others, and useful for students to get "curated" knowledge rather than the uncurated deluge you get from Google.
A site like Etsy is a great way to sell work – many artists, designers and craftspeople place their work for sale there and build up loyal followings. It’s well worth looking in to.
And a tool like Google Reader is essential for keeping on top of the flood of information out there. It allows you to use RSS to subscribe to blogs and sites and organise them in to groups, then use either the Google Reader web site or a tool such as NetNewsWire or Reeder (there are many others) to read on your computer or phone, as every time a site updates you get the content "pushed" to you directly. A very useful tool, great for building up cultural capital.
Just four examples here, but there are many more. Johanna and Lauren are both DJCAD graduates who make use of Twitter and blogging to create not only an online presence but a sense of expertise (which is a true reflection) and to generate business. Take a look at Johanna’s Twitterpic project, for example.
It’s Nice That is a site set up by two of my former students from the University of Brighton. They organised a small exhibition in a tiny gallery in Brighton about five years ago and have established themselves as gatekeepers in the creative industries, as well as running their own agency.
And my modules have their own blog and web site where you can find lots more information and tutorials on using RSS, blogging and more. Well worth a visit, and to try to figure out how I’ve used WordPress to build a simple but, I think, effective site.
So it’s time to put away your preconceptions or fears and delve in. Most of the tools are free and easy to use or get to grips with. The best advice is to be altruistic – help each other out. If you know how to set up WordPress, help someone who doesn’t…
By the time you graduate you should be aiming at having a good online presence through Twitter, a web site and/or blog, and be using what’s out there to build your cultural capital.
One more thing: get a professional email address such as "email@example.com". Full instructions are on the Design Studies site!