Along with food and lodging, an apprentice historically received the skills they needed to prosper in their careers through a close working relationship with a Master, an experienced tradesman or tradeswoman. In return Masters received inexpensive and reliable labor from their apprentice.
The modern mentor and protégé relationship does not have such strict guiding principles nor as clear a compensation. This lack of structure both enables and overwhelms young designers as they step into new careers. The fact remains, however, we do need help navigating our working lives. We all do.
Enlisting the support of a mentor is fortunately not out of reach, but it requires the tenacious ability to pitch yourself – and keep pitching yourself– even when you aren't sure what value you have to offer.
Why have a mentor? Who should have one?
“Mentors will help you become a better designer. They will look at your work and spot the problems immediately. You can learn a lot from those who have been in the field longer than you, and they will help you navigate the corporate culture.” Diane Cherie, user experience designer.
Having someone to look up to and offer guidance can help a mentee do three main things:
- Establish career direction
- Improve a lackluster portfolio
- Get through a slump
Such a relationship is not only good for the one being mentored, but also for the mentor.
“At every stage, there are new things to learn (from preparing files for print to preparing RFPs), new people to respond to (from creative directors to clients) and new challenges to face (from running out of adhesive spray before a presentation to having to lay off an employee).” Armin Vit, designer, speaker, and writer.
Most experienced designers will already be familiar with the benefits of sharing their wisdom, but it doesn't hurt to engage a potential mentor by clearly demonstrating the benefits of their interaction with you. A mentee provides a mentor the opportunity to:
- Learn through teaching
- Give back to a community that helped them
- Bolster a reputation
So how does a young designer go about forming this kind of valuable relationship? It can be tricky, but with some effort and a little common sense, it is far from impossible.
Engaging a potential mentor
The design world is brimming with people to admire, but it is difficult to find a mentor that will pay attention to you. Those who are successful enough to warrant admiration often prioritize work opportunities over anonymous requests for help, and while mentors are uniquely charitable folks, they are busy. To begin a meaningful conversation with someone you respect, first figure out what you have to offer.
Think of an interesting way to engage in conversation. You can you offer to publish an interview, write an article, or give them something that they may not have or be able to get – could be a link relevant to their business, a case of local beer, or a plate of your grandmother's top secret, homemade cinnamon buns. It could also be as simple as attending one of their events and meeting them in person. Be creative.
- Take care with your introductory message. Keep your message short and to the point. Write no less than three revisions. Keep in mind that professionalism will outweigh cleverness, because no matter how original you think your message is, it's been done before.
- Seek mentors who are already actively involved in providing feedback and direction. Successfully engaging a mentor greatly depends on the mentor's preexisting willingness to engage. You can't tweet at someone and expect they will critique your work, but if you build up a relationship over time your chances are much higher. Use design communities to find these people.
- Write your questions down so you know exactly what you are aiming to accomplish. Do you want to know which conferences you should attend? Or how to gain a loyal following for your work? Maybe you want to know how to deal with a difficult boss? A clear line of questioning demonstrates your intelligence and commitment to a successful career.
- If a mentor says no, look elsewhere. Don't waste your time or other people's time by persisting when your message isn't welcome. Also, don't take negative feedback personally. Just keep looking.
Many young designers hesitate to reach out to others for the same reason we stay in jobs we don't like or hang on to dreams without acting on them – fear. Fear is the greatest enemy in our personal careers. But really, what have you got to lose by trying? A bit of face? Is that all?
A much better question, because it isn't fear-based, is this: What have you got to gain? In my experience I've been thanked for taking a chance and reaching out to other professionals, which is worth considering the next time you stop yourself from taking a risk.
It can take a mistake to learn that certain behavior is inappropriate or unwanted, and by the time that mistake is made clear, it is too late to redeem the relationship. Professionals can be fickle. Many of the following tips are common-sense, but are worth sharing with designers who are just starting out.
- Don't send unnecessary correspondence, ie. too many thank you notes or more than one follow-up email. Write or call when there is substance.
- Don't use a mentor to get a job. Make sure you're looking for help for the right reasons, not just to take advantage of someone else's connections.
- Don't take a mentor's advice over your own gut instinct. The exercise of having a mentor is meant to develop your own expertise. Sometimes you have to trust yourself.
- Be genuine. Relate to others' interests but maintain what makes you unique, as well. Impressing someone is never worth giving up your passion for heavy metal or beat poetry, and in fact your forthrightness about what you love is more admirable.
- Care passionately about what connects you to your potential mentor. It make be book cover design. It might be typography. This too should be genuine.
- Practice courtesy, politeness, and thoughtfulness.
- Pass it on. Show others the kindness you've received.
(Re)define your mentor
Mentors do not have to fall under the traditional apprenticeship model. Inspiration and guidance are found in many different places, so finding the advice you need may be as simple as shifting your understanding of what a mentor is. You may find the following 'mentors' already present in your career.
- Local mentor: This can be someone you can call or email at short notice to grab a coffee; you would normally chitchat, but you also share mutual respect, and the opportunity is there to have a professional conversation.
- Email mentor: Email is more intimate than online design communities because it solicits a single focused response as opposed to broadcasting to a group. This might be someone you send screenshots or links to for a quick opinion of your work.
- Ghost mentor: You may follow someone who doesn't know they are mentoring you. Perhaps you peruse their work and read their blog, getting tips that are nonspecific to you but helpful nevertheless.
- Mentor network: Many people together can influence decisions you make in your career. A mentor network could be a group of conference-goers, a critique group, a network of employees or friends on Twitter.
- Career mentor: You wouldn't send this person your portfolio, but you might ask them for tips on interviewing or what your next career move could be. These people don't necessarily have anything to do with design and could be a parent, a business leader, or a more experienced team leader at another company.
If you see the relationships you already have as opportunities to learn from other skilled professionals, you'll find yourself with more mentors than you probably want.
Can friends be mentors?
Professional mentor relationships will naturally mimic the reception you might have in real world situations, and they offer you feedback without getting too personal. Nevertheless, friends can also prove valuable confidantes when it comes to sensitive issues like inner office politics, salaries, or potential moves. The drawback of friend-mentors is that peers tend to be more competitive with one another, which can put your friendship at risk.
“The closer two people are in age, in background, in process of identification, the more there's a danger of envy.” Alain de Botton, writer and speaker.
A mentor-friend relationship is a lot like working for friends – sometimes it turns out okay, and sometimes it doesn't. There is no definitive guideline and you'll have to determine what works for you. A good rule of thumb is to surround yourself with people you respect who are smarter than you, and you will find your design improving naturally, mentor or not.
The modern mentor
There is always something new to learn. Technology, trends, and accessibility to design tools mean that a design education is never over.
“No matter what state of your career you are in, there is always a better place to be—that is, if you are even somewhat ambitious—and it is not uncommon for that next place to require some sacrifices and hardships.”Armit Vit
In traditional apprenticeships, it was no doubt reassuring to know that Masters shielded inexperienced artisans from obvious mistakes, but today's mentor relationship has become much more complex, and in a way, more distant. The modern mentor no longer protects but guides their protégé, and the most a mentee can hope for is a clearer idea of their own priorities and goals.
As designers grow and mature, their questions will take on different shapes and so too will their answers. Goals will shift, and mentees will by necessity swap out old mentors for new ones, accumulating several guides over their career. The best mentors will always be the ones encouraging an individual to find their footing so they too can someday share their wisdom with another mentee