The Value of Modern-Day Mentorship

By Ximena Vengoechea on September 8, 2015 in Web Design
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Feedback is a gift. But what’s the best way to find it? The common model suggests that we look to those who know more than us, which typically means that students turn to teachers, and interns and industry designers turn to their managers. The goal is to hear how we’re doing, where we can improve, and how we can grow in our careers. But sometimes managers are unavailable, and teachers are difficult to find. In these cases we need to seek out feedback in the form of mentors or peers.

There’s a difference between getting our hands dirty and getting advice; there’s only so much we can learn on our own when it comes to improving our craft and growing our skillsets. The problem exists for students in internships lacking career one-on-one’s, and even more so for those of us in industry full time: across industries, a third of Americans report low engagement at work, often the result of dissatisfaction with managers.

Luckily there are still many opportunities to build meaningful mentorships and grow in our careers—both for aspiring and seasoned designers. Those opportunities for mentorship just might look a bit different from what we expect. Read on for a look at why mentorship is so important in our careers, how it’s changing, and how we can best adapt to get the feedback we need to make the progress we want.

Why Mentorship?

The standard forum for design feedback in many companies and art schools comes in the form of the crit. In many companies, the crit is a foundation of the design process—it’s not just a school time activity, but an opportunity for designers to ask questions and make observations of work in progress, and offer each other advice and feedback.

When a crit goes well, peers can learn from each other and refine their craft. And because it is a designated safe space for respectfully giving feedback, it’s often where informal mentorships form: when those with expertise and a willingness to support others and provide feedback speak up, peers and designers seeking a little more guidance take note. These may not be formalized mentorships, but they are opportunities to learn from those we admire.

Today’s increasing shift to sharing ideas and designs on the web means that in some ways, the crit—and the opportunity to give and receive feedback — has become even more widespread. People’s opinions and insights are much more accessible than they ever were before, including experts. This is a good thing, because it means designers can get feedback from many different sources, whether they are students still in school or long-time designers expanding their skillsets.

Designing Mentorships

One company doing this is Designlab (disclaimer, I’m a mentor there), a modern-day apprenticeship rooted in the traditions of learning by doing, and learning by example. At Designlab, students sign up for online courses in UX design and research, and are paired with experts in the field to help them throughout the course. These experts serve as mentors, providing regular, individualized feedback to students on projects, as well as answering bigger picture questions about career development or skills growth in the industry.

Nearly 1,000 students have gone through Designlab’s courses, and over time a few key lessons have stood out. The biggest lesson is about mentorship: when it comes to successfully completing courses, it turns out that mentorship is a major contributing factor: the number of mentor sessions a student attends directly correlates to their success in completing courses. Students who attended all of their mentor sessions completed on average 84% of their course, whereas students who attended 0 or 1 mentor session completed only 35% of the material. Those who attend more mentorship sessions are also more likely to rate courses a positive experience than those that do not.

Why might this be? When students gave their own feedback on mentors, two reasons stood out: mentorship sessions introduce an element of accountability, as well as support in getting the work done.

My mentor did a really great job of not only helping me with the questions I had during the course, but [also,] during our first session, I remember how she encouraged me to finish the course and gave me tips on how to manage my time. This really helped to stay on course.”
—Tim Akinbo, UX Research & Strategy student

My mentor was always helpful and engaging–and was never afraid to be honest about…the real world. I never felt like I was being judged for being a beginner; all of her advice was understanding and helpful for where I am in my career.”
-Carrie Roberts, Design 101 student

Receiving regular feedback from mentors distinguishes students who will successfully complete and enjoy the course from those who will drop out. This is similar to employee engagement for those in the workforce—receiving regular feedback creates more engaged employees.

At Designlab, a tight feedback loop between mentors and students actually goes in both directions to ensure that the quality of mentorship sessions is high across mentorship pairings. After each 1-on-1 session, students provide feedback about how the session went. That information is shared with mentors so that they can learn how to improve their support.

Learn by Doing (but not in a vacuum)

Mentorship programs are ideal for some designers, but not all—so what options are there for the rest of us? Some designers may prefer to go their own way and seek mentorship outside a formal program. No matter how formal or informal the feedback we seek is, the important thing is that we’re not learning or designing in a vacuum, and that bit by bit, in the forum that feels right to us, we’re receiving and internalizing the feedback we need to keep improving every day.

The quickest way to getting feedback outside of a mentorship program is to share our work—online or offline—and to solicit feedback from those whose opinions are valuable to us. Austin Kleon has written extensively about this in his book “Show Your Work!”

Traditionally, we’ve been trained to regard the creative process as something that should be kept to ourselves. We’re supposed to toil in secrecy, keeping our ideas and our work under lock and key, waiting until we have a magnificent product to show before we try to connect with others.
But human beings are interested in other human beings and what other human beings do. By sharing our process, we allow for the possibility of people having an ongoing connection with us and our work, which helps us move more of our product.”
– Austin Kleon, Show Your Work!

And this is true even if we are not ready to share our work—perhaps even doubly so. It’s important to share not just work that has been polished, but work still in progress. Sharing our process is an opportunity to learn more about the process of others: how might the broader community of designers approach the same problem? As designers, sharing works in progress allows us to “work aloud” and iterate bit by bit with the help of others.

Today there are many places on the web and in person where designers can show and share their work. Online communities such as Dribbble allow designers to show-and-tell their work, and explore each other’s designs. For those who don’t have a Dribbble invite yet, starting a Tumblr is a great headstart to highlighting and sharing finished projects, and works-in-progress.

Local design meetups and workshops provide an opportunity to solicit feedback in person.Some even offer speed portfolio reviews where designers can solicit feedback on current projects and delve into feedback at a greater level of detail than the comments section of blog post might allow. In-person design classes are of course another option, though a bit more taxing on our calendars.

Not All Feedback is Equal

With so many potential feedback channels, it can be easy to lose track of what to look for from mentor and team feedback. There are two core themes to keep in mind, regardless of designers’ career levels: expertise and empathy.

Expertise: Understand where the mentor, teammate, or manager is coming from—what is their specific expertise and thus their lens for giving feedback? Managers approach giving feedback differently than peers. Junior designers may highlight different feedback than senior designers. Visual designers may focus more on the visuals, and interaction designers more on interactions. Who to seek out depends on what the designer is trying to learn or validate.

Empathy: When we seek the advice of others, it’s up to us to ask the tough questions and keep the conversation going. We need to ask our mentors and peers why they think something is good or bad or great. When it comes to seeking out feedback, it’s up to us to understand why others are noticing certain details, what they are looking for, and how we can meet their expectations in our designs. It can be hard to listen to feedback, but such sessions are a great opportunity to learn from the person providing it: as designers, we can use these sessions to listen to how others are articulating user problems and build our own vocabularies in the process. It’s also important to always assume and remind ourselves that the other person has our best interests at heart.

What Comes Next?

  • Seek ways to share work and gather feedback: Develop a habit of sharing works in progress, online or in person. Sites like dribbble.com are exclusively meant for this purpose. Establishing a tumblr is a less structured but equally great way to start.
  • Become a mentor and pay it forward: Check company resources and opportunities to mentor other designers and researchers at work, or, check out Designlab’s current course offerings and mentor designers and researchers outside of the office.

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