Design Career

A year of mentoring

February 24, 2024
5 min read

2020 has been a heavy year. It put so much weight on every individual in the design community. Early in March, I’ve considered every work-from-day as if it was the last. I won’t lie about the anxiety of losing a steady stream of income due to the fact of seeing massive layoffs and emotional meltdowns around the tech world. It’s challenging to keep up with positive morale and remain a reliable shoulder for others to lean on.

If you are a young designer stepping into tech jobs, you’re incredibly credited for what you signed up for. It’s less about fulfilling a job’s responsibility but more about committing to being therapeutic and creative at the same time during such uncertain times. Despite product, communication, or brand design, designing experiences requires a significant amount of energy, empathizing with our audience and finding a one-of-a-kind pathway to turn from frustration into playfulness. Additionally, to keep a competitive edge among other counterparts, it’s an endless pursuit of honing design crafts, improving communications in all aspects, and resisting slacking off from meetings to meetings.

At one point, you feel the outputting demand puts you down for what you enjoy doing, moving pixels around, and exploring your aha moments.

Well, I don’t have a universal remedy that solves every issue. What helped me was an opportunity to virtually mentor other designers and strive to become a better listener than acting as a pedagogical authority.

My design intern this year, Emily Liu introduced me to this mentorship journey. At first, I wasn’t ready at all. How do I connect with Emily during lockdowns? I’ve never met her in person, and we live in different countries. Luckily, we share the same timezone. I know little about her life, her work styles, her wants, and needs. There was no playbook yet — the tech world was adapting to this remote-first mindset for everything.

First of all, mentoring started with care.

Among all frameworks, practices, and tools, the most critical takeaway of being a mentor is caring for mentees. It’s been a tough time already, and no one feels good about being instructed.

Eight months later, when I asked Emily what she found the most helpful from me, she told me that the moment she discovered I was on her side, helping her achieve her success, things started to make sense. Surprisingly, I expected something tangible — feedback, constructive criticism, or encouragement on exploring an extra mile. Not any of those.

From our instinct to not thrive and achieve alone in a year of polarization and social distancing, it is significant to keep our light on what matters.

Ask for remote working sessions.

A memorable moment that clicked between us was that we tried on virtual working sessions.

It’s not the most powerful feature of Figma. Still, Figma did a great job facilitating a virtually present moment that we could think, navigate, and rationalize design thinking at the same time.

In a logistics-related project, we paired up, mapped out all pathways for primary, secondary, and edge user stories, and challenged ourselves to think down each level to design actions, behaviors, and potential trade-offs. If we just split apart and do our part, we would never achieve strong reasonings behind each likelihood that shapes the experience.

In an early stage of defining the problem space and exploring designs, remote working sessions and a little bit of handholding can move the needle.

Open to feedback, but also hold confidence.

I think designers are natural critics for their work and are self-aware of taking in diverse perspectives. However, many of us struggle with imposter syndrome and self-doubts when we put our best work in the frontline and expose us to a vulnerable position for feedback.

If you are a young designer and you practice sharing designs with a wide range of stakeholders, some of them may know a lot more than you do, it’s okay not to please everyone, anyone. There’s no one else but you to hold the defense line for your users, representing their struggles and standing for their best interests. You have a critical perspective on making product decisions, so be confident to voice your opinion and help others know. This tip should be valid in most situations, regardless of expertise, title, and decibels (yeah, the loudest voice can mislead judgments.)

Rationalize every decision you made.

Rationalizing decisions sounds counter-intuitive for a young designer. Often, the “gut” tells us everything. There’s nothing necessarily wrong because that design sense is a compounded knowledge from counterless hours putting into crafts and fine-tuning every possible detail. However, it’s not convincing — as far as how non-designers see.

Justifying your intention is as essential as validating your practices. Let’s say you feel compelled to roll out a fresh new design that’s “obviously better than the old one”. Benchmark your statement and reverse engineering to unfold driving facts that landed you on that understanding.

Why is it better? What sounding elements make it better? By how much? At what cost? Is it better for all users or a specific group of users? In which situation, the design can go wrong? Is it derived from product limitations or cultural impacts?

I’m not throwing questions at you to drive you crazy. It is what it takes to create depths to your work, apart from any Dribbble or Behance shots in web searches. No one would hand you an essay to tell you why. You have to figure out a structure that holds your assumptions and suggestions.

Give and learn.

A mentor role is not about showcasing “what I know that you don’t know”. It’s a retrospective search-and-find over knowledge and support: “Ah! I have been there too.” Then, synthesize the best learnings I can offer and provide insights with modesty.

For a quick answer, searching the web is undoubtedly better. To connect with a mentor is to find an empathic advisor who commits to cutting off a few dead-ends and giving a hand on prioritizing what to look through first. Giving and learning are interchangeable in duo ways.

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