How (and Why) You Want to Find a Great Design Mentor

Designer Mentoring — from becoming an enthusiastic mentee or an inspirational mentor — it’s a critical step in mastering your craft and becoming a better designer.

In these posts I will share my learnings, gleaned as both a mentee and mentor over the course of my career as a designer and leader in User Experience/Interaction Design. I hope to share some wisdom on how to start and maintain good mentoring relationships — and how to create value for both parties involved.

In this part of the two part series we’ll cover the steps of being a great mentee, exploring:

  • The crucial mindset & qualities of a mentee
  • Essential qualities of a good mentor (and why the best design mentor for you may not be a designer at all!)
  • How to find and vet mentors, and set clear goals
  • Working, and communicating effectively, with your mentor
  • Measuring success

And in the second part of the series we’ll cover why and how to become a great mentor:

  • Becoming a mentor: your next step to design learning
  • The benefits of mentoring
  • Qualities, approaches and intentions to strive for
  • How to start mentoring & tips for finding mentees
  • How to work with mentees
  • Handling imposter syndrome and times when you ‘don’t know’

Before you can find and secure a great design mentor - you'll need to understand how to become a great Mentee.

Becoming a great mentee

Being a great mentee might not come as naturally as you think. You’ll want to get clear on three key of aspects of your mindset before you approach your mentors:

  1. Confidence. When new to a field, we can feel ‘less than’, indebted, or just plain insecure about about why someone accomplished, busy, and knowledgeable would bother to mentor us. Having confidence is the first step in being a great mentee.
  2. Mentors gain a great deal from mentoring (see benefits of mentoring in the ‘Mentor’ section in part 2). So approach mentors with confidence knowing that when you become a good mentee you are giving a mentor as much as you are getting.
  3. Appreciation. That being said, know that you still are ‘getting’, so it’s important to be appreciative, both explicitly and through your interactions.
  4. Commitment. One of the best ways to show appreciation is through commitment: Meeting regularly, being punctual, trying suggestions, sharing outcomes (both failures and successes). By regularly talking with your mentor you show that you’re committed and that you appreciate their insight and feedback.

Once you’ve got your mindset covered, you’ll want to approach mentors. Know that not all mentors are created equally — there are essential qualities to look for in a mentor.

Identifying a great design mentor

Here are 4 key points that I’ve found can guide you to understanding what a great mentor looks like.

  1. Your mentor doesn’t have to be in your field (e.g. design). Remember a mentor doesn’t need to be a designer to be very valuable mentor, they just have to be able to help you develop skills that are of value.
    As an example a senior UX leader I know once shared over coffee: “I can find lots of people who can put together a wireframe or a visual mock. It’s people with emotional intelligence, communication, leadership and client-relations skills that are hardest to come by.”
    One of my most valuable mentors was a senior-level executive who was not in design but was extremely skilled in work politics. He provided invaluable guidance on ‘reading’ and navigating the work politics of the place I was working for at the time.
    Ask people who are in roles you aspire to what skills serve them best and which they wish they were stronger in. Then seek a mentor with those qualities.
  2. Availability. Mentors should be willing to commit to regular meetings and open to being called on occasionally if an emergency need for advice or support comes up.
  3. Support, Empowerment and Trust. I can’t stress enough the importance of trust. When I have not felt comfortable ‘being imperfect’ and confiding my career-related mistakes, fears and insecurities to a mentor, I have missed the opportunity to get support and encouragement from them and deprived them of being able to share lessons learned from similar experiences in their own careers.
  4. Listening and Ask More, Tell Less. In the same way that it is a mistake as a designer to jump too quickly into designing a solution to a design problem before having asked the right questions to be able to design an effective solution, a good design mentor will make sure they have a full understanding of your needs and ‘designer problems’ before they jump into ‘designing a mentorship solution’ for you.

Where to find a good design mentor

The best way to find and vet mentors is through trusted / reputable sources. Here are a number of resources that I recommend you explore to find good design mentors. You can look for similar resources in any field of work.

Reach out to your local UX/IxD/Design association. Tell them you are looking for a mentor. Ask if there are members they could recommend/introduce you to. Ask about events that would be good places to meet potential mentors. In Toronto, ToRCHI, a local chapter of the larger SIGCHI organization is an example of one such organization with experienced practitioners.

Organizations like IxDA sometimes hold Speed Mentoring events to match mentors/mentees. Ask your local group if they hold/would hold such an event.

Contact colleges / universities like George Brown College here in Toronto, who teach design. Ask if they can suggest mentors from their alumni, professors of the subject to recommend / introduce you to senior students who would be good mentor candidates.

Reach out to people you know / trust in your professional network and ask them to mentor you or recommend prospective mentors. They may be able to introduce you to someone you are interested in connecting with (LinkedIn can be a great source for identifying people in your network who know people you would like to meet.)

Ask someone at your workplace: If you are working with someone who is a good designer, ask if they would mentor you or recommend someone else at the company that they have worked with who would be good fit.

Mutual-mentoring: Propose a mentorship exchange with someone who has a skill you want and may want a skill you have, eg IxD mentoring in exchange for front-end development and/or visual design mentoring.

Don’t limit the definition of mentoring: I mentor several people, and have several mentors, in several different areas of my life. Sometimes it’s ongoing, sometimes a one off, sometimes they become part of an informal ‘advisory committee’, one of many wonderful on-call mentors who are willing to lend a supportive ear / hand when I need advice or help in an area they are wiser than me in.

How to kick-off your mentee / mentor relationship

Here’s my process on how to initially work, communicate and engage with mentors:

  1. Prior to first meeting get clear on the skills you are looking to develop, goals you are looking to achieve, your ideal schedule and process.
  2. At the first meeting, get to know the person. This will help to establish a rapport and to gauge fit based on the ‘Qualities to look for in a mentor’ above.
  3. Discuss in more detail mutual skills & interests, future goals, time and process contributions.
  4. Suggest following up in the next day or two to decide whether to move forward.
  5. Following the first meeting thank the person and, if fit was good, ask if they would be interested in moving forward. If yes, confirm the date and format of next contact.
  6. Second and subsequent meetings: To keep the relationship productive and mutually-fulfilling communicate regularly. Even if just monthly or quarterly, it keeps the momentum going, and rapport strong.
  7. Communicate authentically and vulnerably. It can be hard to share imperfect moments, mistakes, insecurities and worries. But sharing those allows mentors to share back on times they too failed or were unsure of themselves. Hearing this from someone who is now in some way ahead of you is incredibly comforting and encouraging.

Measuring success

Establish checkpoints for measuring progress. The criteria can be measuring the number of design artifact types you’ve learned about and practiced (novice level) to rating comfort level / skill in dealing with clients and stakeholders (senior level). The important thing is to establish a means by which to chart your growth and to follow through on that initiative.

The mentor/mentee relationship is often seen as a give and take. The mentor gives and the mentee takes. In reality, the dynamic is more fluid and nuanced. A good mentee is there to absorb the wisdom of the mentor, certainly. But they are also a contributor to the discussion. To be a good mentee, you have to come prepared to meetings with questions, you have to know which areas of interest you’re ready to explore, and you need to be open not just to hearing what’s being said, but actively engaging with it and taking the learnings into your own practice on a daily basis.

Read Part 2 of the Design Mentoring series, How to Become a Design Mentor: Your Next Step to Design Learning

Authored by Nathalie Crosbie, Associate Director, Experience Design, Myplanet. You can see the truncated version of this conversation on InvisionApp’s blog.

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