Design Mentorship: From A Mentee's Perspective
Notes From a Young Designer | July 18, 2017
Here is a secret that’s not-so-secret: the design community is incredibly accessible.
I tell you this because it took a while to figure this out for myself — and I hope that this little post will encourage you to reach out more quickly than I did while navigating the very beginning of my design journey.
Being completely honest, all cards on the table, I can say that my most meaningful design growth has come from mentorship. As someone who has learned design from on-the-job experience and personal passion projects, this has been my door to expanding insight and continuing to be challenged to reach higher, go further.
So you’re interested in mentorship. Now what?
Let me take a step back, for a moment. You have questions. I will do my best to give you answers, while sharing a few personal experiences about being on the receiving end of mentorship.
There is no 1–800-FindAMentor technique that promises to ensure successful mentorship. But when you do find the person who is willing to fill this role, the experience can bring your design understanding to a new level.
1. What is a design mentor?
A little food for thought. Your design mentor should be:
- A person with design experience who you admire, trust, and look to for advice and insight.
- Someone who is willing to invest their time and energy in you. This can be inclusive of design critique, soft skill advice, advancement of personal craft, and career path advice.
- A friend who cares about you on a professional and personal level.
2. Do I need a mentor?
Honestly, it’s up to you. If we were chatting over coffee, I would ask you about your intentions, design career stage, and what you are hoping to gain from mentorship. These might help you in determining whether or not mentorship would be a good personal decision.
Reach out wisely, and find a balance. While having a mentor may be ideal, being surrounded by too many voices can be overwhelming.
Allow yourself to create a personal design perspective and take independent initiative, while remaining teachable.
3. How do I find a mentor?
This is a loaded and very relevant question. While “mentorship” has become somewhat of a hot topic, the way in which someone finds it remains a bit of a mystery.
So far, I have come across three forms of mentorship: longterm mentorship, mentorship moments, and indirect mentorship. I hope that at least a small piece of these will be helpful and resonate with you. Here we go:
When the idea of “mentorship” comes to mind, it is often longterm mentorship. This is a relationship that lasts for an extended period of time — perhaps throughout the duration of a job/internship, mastering a certain skillset, or for a project’s timeline. The mentor and mentee set goals to drive the relationship and learning process.
In my design journey so far, I’ve been fortunate to have had two such mentors: one which formed during a previous internship, and the other which is currently ongoing. Each has come at a different point in time with respective skills and areas of focused learning; each has resulted in exponential growth. A few key links in finding these two longterm mentors have been:
Longterm mentorship is something that takes time and should not be forced. The hard truth is that not everyone is meant to be your mentor in this capacity. Designers are people, and people have busy lives both inside and outside of the office. Have patience in finding the right person who is willing to invest in you.
Personally, I have never had a “Will you be my mentor?” moment. My longterm mentorships have naturally developed over time (and I largely attribute finding them to the two following points in this section).
2. Attitude and strong work ethic.
Longterm mentorship requires the mentee to be present and driven. Aside from pixels on the screen, a person’s approach to design strongly determines who will be willing to be their mentor. There is a noticeable difference when someone is genuinely excited, open minded, and willing to work hard in order to learn. Just as we mentees hope for an amazing mentor, a mentor desires to give their time and energy to someone who will effectively pursue and apply new knowledge.
People tend to invest in individuals who they see high potential in.
One of my mentors mentioned that he noticed my active desire to learn and, because of this, began to work with me. He took note of a young designer who was eager to grow, and then made the choice to invest time in being a mentor. If complacency had been present, I am not sure that this mentorship would have still formed.
3. Work on the same projects.
Spending time with a designer will result in more opportunities to demonstrate your design skills and passion. A great way to do this is by working on the same projects as designers who you admire and would potentially hope to learn from through longterm mentorship.
For instance: during an internship, my first project was led by the designer who eventually became my mentor. Throughout the project, we were able to sync-up for feedback on designs; and even as I moved to other projects and teams, we continued to meet for critique and feedback. Over time, our conversations expanded to include my career goals, desired impact, and personal strengths and weaknesses. It was a gradual mentorship progression that began from working together on the same project.
Recently, I was listening to a design podcast and the topic of mentorship came up. The designer interviewee mentioned that, while he can’t promise to have a longterm mentorship with every designer who reaches out to him, he does take the time to respond to direct questions that are sent to him.
This is what I have come to refer to as “mentorship moments”: brief, meaningful experiences of intentional mentorship. For instance, this might be a quick question on prototyping interactions, design sprint advice, or how to make a voice for design at the leadership table. Rather than a longterm engagement, it’s an effective and helpful conversation for a specific moment.
To be completely honest, this mentorship has been a bit intimidating for me to initiate. I have reached out to a few designers through Twitter and LinkedIn, and it feels like making a personal introduction to Wonder Woman or Superman. I give myself a pep talk before hitting “Send” (every. single. time.). Because of this, I know one thing to be true: if I can do it, then you can definitely do it. You can have a mentorship moment. And when you do, here are a few things that might be helpful:
1. Know your intentions.
Before reaching out to designers in the field, it’s important to take a moment, step back, and evaluate what you are hoping to gain from the conversation. This ensures that the conversation will be valuable to both you and the designer. Having a clear, concise agenda demonstrates respect for the designer’s time and allows you to receive the most helpful feedback.
For me, the intention was to hear the designer’s story (there are so many hidden gems of advice in this), learn what they valued in a recent design graduate, and gain advice in attaining those skills. This helped me to stay focused on how to approach the conversation.
2. Reach out to designers who you admire.
Be intentional about who you reach out to, and try creating a list of designers in the community who you look up to. Once you have this, say “hello” with a brief intro and your reason for reaching out. It’s nice to also mention ways to connect for the chat — for instance, I always suggested the options of either email or a 15 minute phone call (if they had a little time to spare), whichever was more preferable and convenient for the designer.
Don’t spontaneously reach out. Make meaningful connections that you care about.
In my search, I found it helpful to look through the designer’s portfolio to find aspects of a designer’s craft that I admired. As a young designer, some of these aspects included their portfolio layout, current company, career path, or previous projects. There was always a specific reason for my outreach, and I made a conscious effort to make each inquiry worthwhile for the both of us.
3. Have meaningful conversations.
If a designer is willing to chat, follow through with your inquiry. My advice for you is to gently guide the conversation without going through a checklist of questions. Designer “status” aside, remember that this is just an open dialogue between two human beings.
Before hopping on a call, I found it helpful to outline questions and conversation topics that would be beneficial to cover. This made sure that we pinpointed specific areas of learning. I was able to gain insight on relevant topics, and the designer was able to effectively address questions within the allotted time that they had set aside.
4. Follow up.
Gratitude is never out of style. After each conversation, it’s nice to send a quick note of thanks to the designer for their time.
For each designer’s note, I found it helpful to include a bit of what we had talked about, how I would act on the advice given, and a final “thank you”. It only took a few minutes to write, and made a huge difference — letting the designer know that the conversation was meaningful and their time was respected. (Sometimes, a designer would even write back with one last blog post or resource related to our chat.)
Your mentor may not necessarily know that they are your mentor. The internet has given open access to designers’ thoughts through podcasts, blogs, and social media.
On my desk, there is a sticky note with the names of designers who I highly admire and make a conscious effort to keep up with through blogs, podcasts, etc. This is my way of being mentored by some of the greatest minds in our field.
Here are a few links that might be helpful for you in finding indirect mentors:
3. Social Media
If you hope to find a design mentor, I encourage you to go for it. Don’t blindly rush in, but definitely give it a chance. There are incredible designers who are willing to give a helping hand if you reach out with genuine intentions.
As a young designer, I cannot imagine being in the position that I am today without the mentors who have come alongside to give insight and advice. There are no words to describe the gratitude that I feel: for the longterm mentors, mentorship moments, and indirect mentors. Each is special and never taken for granted.
Someday, I will definitely pay it forward.