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Mentoring Junior Designers

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Over the past 12 years, I’ve been in a lot of training sessions; some were company mandated, others were ones I designed and ran myself, still others were sessions I paid money to attend. For a number of years, I’ve been in charge of a design team, and that means being responsible for training and development for my team members. While they are, of course, active participants, it’s important to acknowledge that training is about the transfer of information and the building of skills. The junior members of your team do not spontaneously gain skills. Instead, you need a clear process in place to train and mentor them.

There are a number of things to consider when talking about training designers. My experience has been on an in-house team, so I’ll speak to that type of training and mentorship, but this applies to all kinds of design and development teams. OK, onward.

Your weekly or monthly check-ins with your design team are a time to catch up on how current projects are going, but you should also find out what they need help doing and what new things they want to learn. I try to match designers’ yearly performance and development goals with shorter-term goals, scaffolding them so that we constantly build toward more complex abilities and tasks.

But how to find out these things? A simple exercise often helps. As you do a wrap-up on one project, ask the designer to complete the following sentences:

  1. One thing I can do now is ______.
  2. One thing I’m still unsure about is ______.
  3. One thing I’d like to learn is ______.

You learn:

  1. They now have a fresh new skill that needs to be practiced and embedded in their workflow.
  2. They are not clear on a task or technique and need your help to understand it.
  3. After doing this project, they have an idea of where they fell short.

The second and third answers are where you can focus your training plans.

For many people, there is a temptation to just assign a big new task and “let them get on with it.” But this is only effective for the most motivated people, and actually assumes they already have the skills to complete the task. That’s not really learning anything new, is it? So, let’s look at this in a slightly different light. Assigning tasks means looking at someone’s current abilities and tailoring the assignment to match. I think of this in four levels of difficulty.

Imagine the task is to develop a pattern library for a new web app the company is working on. The development goal is for the designer to learn how to design UIs based on components, code, and systems, not full PSD layouts.

Level one

“I’d like you to develop a pattern library for our new web app. You should base it off the corporate pattern library, and build it in Sketch. We need type, button, and menu styles, and it needs to be completed by the end of the month.”

This is the lowest level, and has very little autonomy. All the variables are controlled, from the content, to the references, to the timeline. This is good for a designer who needs to get the basics down.

Level two

“I’d like you to develop a pattern library for our new web app. You should base it off the corporate pattern library, and build it in Sketch. It needs to be completed by the end of the month.”

There is still very little autonomy here, but fewer variables are controlled. The designer has the freedom to decide what UI elements will be in the pattern library. You would use this level when someone has their sea legs, and needs experience deciding what is important in their projects.

Level three

“I’d like you to develop a pattern library for our new web app. You should base it off the corporate pattern library, and it needs to be completed by the end of the month.”

Here you can see there is much more freedom to design independently. As the design lead, though, you are still controlling important factors like deadlines. The design tool, in this case Sketch, is no longer important, as the designer already has knowledge of what the project will need, and can plan accordingly.

Level four

“I’d like you to develop a pattern library for our new web app. Let me know if you have any questions.”

Wow—almost complete freedom. The company goals are still defined, but the designer is given freedom to deliver whatever they think will meet the project goals.

Whatever the designer has identified as a skill they would like to learn, or a project they would like to try, you can use these different levels to assign that project. By offering direction that acknowledges the gaps in their knowledge, you will challenge them without making it an impossible experience.

So, you have assigned a project that will develop new skills for them. They have started on their way. Regular check-ins, especially during team meetings, gives them a chance to share their progress, not only with you, but their teammates. After all, as a senior designer, it’s your job to make sure they are able to complete the task and learn specific new skills. By reviewing both the controlled factors, like deadlines and project goals, and the more creative factors, like tools and visual design, your check-ins create a measurable, achievable pathway through the project. Everyone likes pathways!

I encourage you to use a process like this to build up the skill levels of your more junior teammates. Looking out for the health of your team, and the projects you launch, means also looking out for the learning and development of your team members. This process starts with senior and junior designers working together to identify training needs. It continues with assigned work that builds, not crushes, your teammates. And finally, because few people can just spontaneously learn on their own, you act as a constant mentor through the assignment. The process standardizes the transfer of information and techniques from senior to junior designers, in a clear and understandable way, so that your team members gain the skills they need to grow as designers.

About the Author

Senongo Akpem

Senongo Akpem is a designer, illustrator, and the founder of Pixel Fable, a collection of interactive Afrofuturist stories. For the past fifteen years, he has specialized in collaborating with clients across the world on flexible, impactful digital experiences. He is currently the Design Director at Constructive, a social impact design agency. Previously, he was art director at Cambridge University Press, where he led a global design team.

The child of a Nigerian father and a Dutch-American mother, Senongo grew up in Nigeria, lived in Japan for almost a decade, and now calls New York City home. Living in constantly shifting cultural and physical spaces has given him unique insight into the influence of culture on communication and creativity.

Senongo speaks at conferences around the world about cross-cultural design, digital storytelling, and transmedia. He loves any and all science fiction.

6 Reader Comments

  1. Thanks for this! I’m not at the point yet where I’m mentoring junior designers, but I’d like to one day and this article has given me some great starting points.

  2. This pretty much sums up what I don’t have in my place of employment! Invited to move up from front end web-dev to programming, then expected to know what needs to be done, how, where when and by whom in a whole new level of complexity. If someone was there assigning tasks that gradually increased in complexity, I might be much further along than I am now!

  3. but there are some overtly smart guys who think that they know everything and therefore, I have stopped offering them advice.

  4. Thank you for this great article; I really appreciate how you are able to summarize a rather challenging task into very simple steps that can be easily adapted in different contexts. I will definitely give this a try!

    I just wanted to share a couple of additional tools that I find helpful when mentoring a new employee.

    1. Setting up expectations and ground rules. As a mentor and a mentee in the past, I found that mentorship relationships are most successful when both parties have a clear understanding of what their roles are and what they can offer to one another. Every mentorship relationship is different and depends on the level of engagement that each participant is willing to commit to (for example, some mentors might be very open to coaching that goes beyond immediate skills and consider career-coaching as a more holistic approach, they might be flexible about when you can get in touch with them or they might prefer that communication be limited to specific times during debriefing sessions, etc.). Having mentor’s and mentee’s roles discussed and defined at the outset will help reduce frustrations and disappointments that might result from unarticulated and assumed expectations. I often like to let a mentee know what I will do for them (such as give structure and direction to their work, provide guidance and feedback, challenge and empower them to handle problems independently, explain organizational values and politics, etc.)as well as what I can do for them(such as help them explore potential career opportunities, share professional development resources, etc.). By being open about what I will and can do upfront, it helps build a relationship of trust and sets up the tone of mutual respect where I can also expect certain things from my mentee (such as being punctual and prepared for our meetings and taking ownership of their work). It is a win-win.

    2. A coaching wheel. If you search for a template in Google, you will find many. Essentially, it is a template that helps visualize ones priorities. I ask the employee to use the 8 sections of a circle to identify skills that they would like to obtain or develop. Then, using the centre of the wheel as 0 and the outer edge as 10, I ask them to rank their level of mastery of each skill out of 10, by drawing a straight or curved line to create a new outer edge for their circle. The new perimeter of the circle represents their “wheel of skills” and can be used as a point of reference to go back to each time the employee gets to work on one or more of the identified skills. It is a great way to visualize both priorities and progress. From a mentor’s perspective, it is a great way to keep track of what strengths you have across the team and to use these strengths when needed as well as knowing which areas employees still need to develop (you could even do mentee-to-mentee pairings based on corresponding strengths and weaknesses).

  5. What a great blog. I’m currently researching to get ideas and helpful hints before I start blogging with my own grade. Your site is inspiring and I will certainly be back to visit again.
    Thanks for your great advice!

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