How mentorship helps me be a better designer

by Anna Brenner

In August 2019 I became a short course mentor for Designlab, an online design education platform that’s primarily mentor-led. I was looking for opportunities to be more involved in the design community, and as an active practitioner of human-centered design, I wanted to find a safe space to spread those ideas and discuss them openly. My experience with Designlab has allowed me to do all that and then some — I’ve come to realize that my experience as a mentor has also contributed to my work as a product designer and design consultant. It’s allowed me to hone in on some soft skills that can be tough to navigate in work environments, all while building relationships with truly lovely people. For me, this has greatly benefited relationship management and communication with both customers and teammates.

The Designlab mentorship model is one designed with both mentorship and teaching in mind. Designlab provides the curriculum and project prompts; students submit their projects through the online portal, which also allows for mentors to give specific notes and feedback on those projects. Students also get weekly hour-long sessions with their mentors, which can be used for live feedback and talking through any questions the students may have. All in all, feedback plays a huge part in the Designlab experience, and giving good feedback can be pretty tough. I’ve learned through trial and error to make sure that all of my notes are kind, specific, detailed, and always highlight what the student has done well. I try to provide a “why” whenever possible, even and especially when that feedback is more subjective. And because the courses are short (only four weeks), I have to make sure my feedback is actionable based on the students’ skills, comfort level in their respective design software, and available time — it must be conscientious of specific circumstances.

Those moments of feedback can certainly be draining for the student, especially when they’re learning new software while simultaneously trying to get good work out the door. It can be disheartening for any designer to work hard on a project only to go back to the drawing board, but I think it can be especially so when you’re new to design and considering an entire career switch — negative feedback can make you worry that maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all. Not only is this good cause to make any negative feedback as positive and encouraging as possible, but it also creates space to truly celebrate the small things. I even like to consider my role as a mentor to be part personal cheerleader — getting really excited about tiny wins helps to make the overall experience much more positive, and it helps to cultivate an environment in which the student feels validated and supported. This cheerleader mindset can sometimes take some effort to bring out (we can’t always be cheerful all the time) but it’s nonetheless something that can be brought into the professional workplace both in terms of your internal team as well as your relationship with clients. That environment of support and validation helps to establish trust, and trust is key in those moments of collaboration and co-creation.

Being a mentor has also helped me become more conscientious of my voice as designer, a position that I believe always holds some type of power. Designers have the skills and tools to create beautiful and impactful products and experiences, and in today’s digital age that carries the potential of deeply influencing a lot of people (they don’t call us “movers and shakers” for nothing). The ethical implications of design are enormous — as a product designer, I have a duty to help make the world a more safe, just, and beautiful place. And as a mentor, I have a duty to pass that along to my students. My “mentor” title helps to open up a space in which the student can ask me hard questions and get genuine answers, and it's in those moments that I can practice voicing those ethical considerations and honing in on exactly why those ethical considerations are made, all while reinforcing my own commitment and understanding of a given value. Like a client, the student can really take or leave that advice, but it still gives me the opportunity to practice voicing and speaking to specific design decisions.

All in all, I’ve found mentorship to be something that actively challenges me to bring my best self to my work. The questions that students ask me are great foundations for reflection and contemplation, all while also allowing me to speak open and honestly about my own shortcomings — as a designer without a classic graphic design background, I have to work even harder to talk through my UI feedback. It makes saying “I don’t know” all the easier.

If you are interested in becoming a mentor or even finding a mentor, I highly recommend checking out Designlab, Built By Girls, or MentorCruise. All three provide specific guidelines and programs that facilitate feedback and general mentorship skills, which helps ensure that you are on the right track in your mentorship without it being overly time-consuming.

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