A Love Letter to Dribbble

A Love Letter to Dribbble

And Advice On How to Let It Change Your Life

Disclaimer: If you’re not into personal stories, you’ll probably want to find another blog post to read today. However, if you love Dribbble half as much as I do and like hearing real stories from actual people — please read on and who knows, maybe you’ll relate.

From my earliest recollections of childhood scribbles to the high school art studio, I’ve always felt a nagging hunger to do something meaningful with my passion for art and design.

As a fine arts major in college, I had a hunch that, like a Milton Bradley board game, life offered secret doors that opened to reveal rich pathways to personal fulfillment or success. I had no idea where to find them. I could sooner direct you to One-Eyed Willy’s loot in Goonies than to a purposeful professional life in design. Sure, college set me up with a decent old-school black leather portfolio and practical job-hunting advice that I struggle to remember — but where does one actually BEGIN to find a platform for his design craft?

Dribbble has been the single most influential source of inspiration for me in my adult professional life. My (ongoing) journey to and through Dribbble has evoked a few insights that I’d like to share with this community. At the least, it’s an expression of gratitude. At the most, maybe it will help motivate one or two of you to move from wherever you are now to your next chapter.

Start Somewhere … Else.

Growing up in Upstate New York was wonderfully stable — but my town wasn’t exactly the hub of artistic revolutions. Friends and family had no idea what it meant for a young man to make a living in art and design. Some still don’t. After school, I was eager to end the era of waiting tables and grooming golf courses in favor of web design territory.

I landed a job with the University of Rochester and they were willing to take a risk on an unproven but ambitious kid. There I discovered an influential mentor, but also started settling into that all-too-familiar routine … grateful to be employed in my field, but cranking out work not especially relevant to me. Been there? Looking back, I’m almost scared to think that 10 years of doing the same thing could’ve passed in a blink. Yikes. I needed a jumpstart — a radical change. It came. My best friend and I packed up our things and headed to New York City.

I know what you’re thinking. Cue ye old ‘coming of age’ tale where boy with humble beginnings from a small town moves to sexy big city. Sounds like the plot of every 80’s movie right? Bright lights! Big city! Jobs! Ladies! Diversity! A “potpourri of freaks!” to quote the television writers of Parenthood completely out of context. Big moves are known for big identity shifts. And the move to the city WAS a defining moment on my path to Dribbble. With no job and mentally armed with nothing but the thrill of a change and that old cliche, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” the U-Haul made it’s way down the New York State Thruway.

Flash forward through four Brooklyn and one Manhattan apartments. (Now cue the montage of me jogging in Prospect Park, walking bright-eyed through Times Square, rescuing my dog from an Upper West Side vet, getting sauced with buddies at Lower East Side bars, and eventually meeting the love of my life.) By day, I toiled away first at an amazing mission-driven non-profit and then later that was followed by a profitable private company. By night, I blurred out over complex freelance projects. I had the cinematic highs and lows that your 20s and 30s bring. I worked. I played. I explored. I married. I became a father. Twice.

With no love lost, in fact with deep appreciation for this journey that resulted in my three most precious accomplishments (wife, daughter, son), I couldn’t ignore the personal loss that was creeping in. I had settled into a lackluster professional routine and suppressed all creative design off-roading. Life challenges centered around navigating the city, finances, marriage and parenthood. Aside from creative assets that I personally illustrated for my wedding, art and design sat waaaay in the back of a very long bus full of other responsibilities. With barely enough energy at the end of the day to keep pace with freelance work, I was dry of inspiration and motivation — feeling my artistic aptitude and penchant for creative design slipping away. My identity was slipping away. Time for a reboot.

Reboot. Refresh Regularly. Take Risks.

I stumbled upon Dribbble while trying to find some inspiration for a freelance project. I was transfixed by what I saw. I blinked and two hours passed. I marveled at the astonishing quality of work from so many different artists and designers. A curated, invite-only community of designers? BAM. A secret door! Like the Goonies with the pirate ship in sight, the voices inside my head went berserk — I wanted in! Waiting to be drafted after seeking the nod, I refreshed like I was trying to buy tickets for the last Sublime concert. Nothing. I waited. Months went by. Nothing. I started to question my worthiness. Top designers from all over the world called this site home. Creativity poured out of every pixel. Seemingly out of the blue one day, at last, the fateful email came — Dribbble itself drafted me. YES!… and gulp.

It took a while to post my first shot. I felt insecure. A cocktail of excitement, fear, obligation, and hope drove my first contribution. I don’t know what I expected; confetti and balloons weren’t dropping from the sky. In fact nothing much instantly happened except that de-pressurizing relief that maybe you feel when you beat a deadline on a project or your favorite character makes it through another episode of Game of Thrones. But a renaissance was indeed beginning. The reboot was working. Someone, maybe even the Dribbble godfathers themselves, Dan Cederholm or Rich Thornett, had taken a chance on me. And now I would get multiple chances, of every shape, color, and size (well at least in a 800x600px canvas anyway), every day if I wanted. And so do all of you reading this.

Slowly, my strength, confidence, and design impulses started moving up to the front of the bus. Peeking in on Dribbble became an instant refresher, a sort of virtual Red Bull in between work life and home life. More intoxicating than any night on Smith Street in Brooklyn or reinforcing than those pep talks from well-meaning friends who seemed to have hit their stride in other industries (know the ones?) What I had been lacking all along was the proper community — to source inspiration, motivation and provide a stunning artistic platform. Ironically, my former day job was doing web design for an incredibly mission-driven community center. I should’ve known all along about the power of community.

Find Your Calling. Find Your Community. Cultivate Courage.

Does design consume you? Does it keep you up at night? Does it drive your nearest and dearest crazy because of the amount of time you spend staring at a screen? Do you feel addicted? Do you want to share it with others? Maybe you should stop thinking of it as your ‘career’ and start thinking of it as your ‘calling.’

Sounds cheesy, right? Yeah, I once thought that term was reserved for rabbis, priests, Joan of Arc, and peace corps enlistees before my wife started describing her everyday relationship to her work (not so coincidentally, community-building at the JCC Manhattan) as a calling. Something you feel compelled to do. Something you feel driven to do. Dribbble helped me realize design is mine.

A calling is best served with a heaping portion of community. Enter the Dribbble cohort. No doubt Dribbble can be intimidating, but in a good way. I mean, the talent on display is undeniable. From the concepts to the iterations and finished products, there is so. much. talent. My early Dribbble shots were nothing to write home about, but cultivating the courage to post them was growth. What was Dribbble providing to me that past professors, employers, tweets, or Facebook posts couldn’t? I feel it’s that mix of recognition, validation, the inclusion in a world-class design community … the fraternity I never had in college. And moreover — inspiration, sounding boards, and new sets of tools at every turn. I poured over thousands of designs, downloaded and studied everything I could get my hands on, and I even started giving back to the community with resources of my own.

One informal criticism of Dribbble is that it tends to be a mutual admiration society, but the fact that real people with tremendous abilities look at my stuff (sometimes rely on it for their own progress) … well, that’s surely motivating. And worth its weight in gold.

Dribbble also helped me cultivate courage. Courage begets risks, and risks (hopefully) beget opportunities. I started to get noticed a bit. I started having conversations with people that I might never have met otherwise. Unique freelance projects seemed to emerge from the fog. Networking panned out into requests for my resources. Collaborations arose. My portfolio evolved. An Apple blog called to write a feature on my video game throwback concepts. Personal projects and Twitter activity emerged. My work was becoming a representation of me and what I loved. I started feeling like I could hold my own at design conferences and meetups. Without replacing in-person community, Dribbble has become an enormous, almost epic, extension of it.

I started understanding that doors don’t open by themselves — they open when you are ready for them to open. If you really get me going on this over a scotch, I’ll start sounding like Neo from the Matrix … when you are ready to believe, that is when you can truly realize your potential. (Translation: I drank the Dribbble-Aid.) I finally feel a body of work developing that has personal meaning. I started designing out of passion and instinct — not on deadline. Doors flew open.

Show Gratitude and Give Back.

Present day, many things remain constant. I am still in New York City with my wife, two kids, and dog. I still occasionally work through the night with crazy intensity. I still feel like a Goonies kid more than an established professional some days of the week. (You know that feeling like someday they are gonna just find you out?) I’ve drafted a handful of other talented people to Dribbble, welcome as many new members as I can, and pour over other people’s hard-fought design battles and solutions. Most importantly, I am still just as motivated to learn from others, find inspiration, and engage in meaningful design dialogue. Anyone can call themselves a designer, but for once in my life, I know authentically what it means to be one.

I am still only a fraction of the way to feeling totally holistic and accomplished in my craft, navigating the design world, and most importantly, balancing it all out with the real world demands of family and parenting. (Please give me a shout if you can mentor me in “Daddy vs. Design”!) Design and all that surrounds it is a life-long pursuit — one that is different for every person and one that will keep me on my toes until my very last day. However, Dribbble helped me find my calling. Dribbble helped me find a community. I feel a brotherhood (the gender-neutral kind) with all of you who also feel a passion for design deeply-rooted in heart and mind. Dribbble didn’t give me that but it certainly helped give it a voice. I am grateful for all the support of my family, friends, and especially my wife, in my journey to this place. I am especially grateful to Dribbble and all those who maintain it, contribute to it, and provide designers with an opportunity to find their voice – or their calling. I rank this community’s influence on my life right up there with the start of my career, my move to NYC and starting a family. I can’t wait for what lies ahead.

Thank you Dribbble, on behalf of many grateful artists who started “somewhere else” for providing a community which pushes us to be innovative, happier, more confident, more inspired designers. See you on the court.

Mike Donovan

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