Back in the ’50s and ’60s—well before the computer age—graphic design was a trade. And just like apprentices in welding, carpentry and plumbing, designers spent years looking over the shoulder of a master to learn the necessary skills, like paste-up, typesetting and hand lettering. Landing a job required patience, dedication and schlepping a hefty leather portfolio to dozens of offices.
No more. Now you can find the world’s best creative work on Ad Age, Awwwards, Behance, Dribbble and Pinterest. You can download Adobe Creative Suite and learn all its tricks and shortcuts by watching tutorials on lynda.com, Skillshare and YouTube. You might even get a job on the strength of your social-media presence.
So why do graphic designers still need mentors?
Two reasons come to mind. First off, design is all about people: your job requires you to sell ideas to clients and coworkers, overcome the occasional unsupportive supervisor, and tackle plenty of interpersonal challenges that aren’t easily explained in books or online forums. Second, you can’t overestimate the benefit of having someone in your corner, especially if you’re a freelancer. Even if you’re a full-time employee looking to take on more responsibility and jump ship in a year or two, you may run into a boss who would rather focus on your strengths and minimize turnover.
Enter the mentor.
When Chelsae Blackman returned to Washington, DC, after earning her degree from the University of Michigan, she quickly found a job as the sole web designer at a small political tech firm on Capitol Hill. Blackman was hoping to find a mentor who could help her learn more about the city’s design community, so she reached out to the local AIGA chapter, which paired her with senior-level designer Liz Rose Chmela. The relationship flourished: the two met every week or two, had deep conversations about managing supervisors and shaping portfolios, attended design talks, and visited new coffee shops to vent about their workdays.
“Many times in my career, I’ve worked for a manager who wasn’t a designer, so having a mentor helped me learn how to communicate with a team of developers, how to ask my boss for resources and what to do if I’m not feeling challenged,” says Blackman. “With a mentor, you can openly have those conversations without feeling like they’re going to jeopardize your career, because there’s an expectation that [a mentor relationship] is a safe space.”
When Blackman left that first job to transition into user experience (UX) design, she eagerly volunteered to become a mentor herself.
“Even though I wasn’t a senior-level designer with ten years under my belt, I felt like I had enough experience to help someone just coming out of school or someone who was self-taught and just transitioning into the career,” she says. Blackman learned how to critique someone’s work in a meaningful way, and the art of the difficult conversation, prompted by a mentee who was consistently late for their appointments. “Honestly, I’m not sure how well the message was received [by that mentee], but it was a great opportunity for me to speak up and point out unprofessional behaviors that aren’t acceptable,” she says. “Having those honest discussions is really important, and it helps me practice what I preach.”
Blackman’s experience is one of many success stories due in large part to the efforts of Dian Holton, who has led the mentoring program for AIGA’s Washington, DC, chapter for seven years. Every January, dozens of junior- and senior-level designers fill out short, detailed questionnaires to facilitate the matchmaking process. Over the course of four months, as many as 40 designers meet as a larger group three times, and in pairs every week or so. The ultimate goal is to foster a relationship that goes beyond simple cheerleading.
“Mentors should be able to help with networking, acting as a champion and advocating for their mentees, but they should also play devil’s advocate when they need to,” says Holton. “A good mentor won’t always say, ‘Oh, you’re so great!’ They’ll be able to explain why a project isn’t really working, or ask difficult questions when it’s time to make an important decision. You need to be supportive but also be realistic about what that mentee might need.”
A formalized program offers structure for any potential mentors or mentees entering unfamiliar territory, but meaningful mentoring relationships can also start organically. As the head of his own small design shop in New Jersey, Rob Jelinski met freelancers through friends and networking events, and he regularly sought out their help to expand the impact of his own agency; in time, he started looking for opportunities to mentor the younger designers who crossed his path.
Jelinski recognizes that mentoring is a two-way street, so he looks for young designers with plenty of raw talent, and he hopes they admire his work too. If he and a potential mentee don’t click in terms of personality or design aesthetic, he’s happy to offer occasional advice or even provide career-coaching services for a small fee, but he reserves the mentoring relationship for one or two designers at a time. Once he’s established that mentoring relationship, Jelinski devotes 30 to 60 minutes to each designer every week, with the hope of eventually inviting them to do paid work through his agency, fostering an even deeper engagement.
“For me, the most rewarding thing is when the light bulb turns on,” says Jelinski, “like when they finally understand how to price a project so that it’s always profitable or when they say, ‘I just got a new anchor client, and I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it if it weren’t for the advice that you shared.’”
Online mentoring platforms provide the obvious advantage of serving designers in regions that lack a strong design community. But the greatest strength of these “long-distance relationship” generators is their ability to help match people on dozens of criteria. Want advice from a UX designer who dabbles in illustration and nonprofit advocacy? You’ll have a good chance of finding such a designer at a site like Designed.org, which offers more than 300 mentors, like Australian product designer Kat Bak, who wants to help members of the LGBTQIA community, and Italian-born Luca Orio, a product designer at Netflix who would like to share his immigration story with other designers looking to move to the United States.
Designed.org is the brainchild of David Simpson, a Boston area–based UX designer who saw a gaping need that had to be filled. “For UX design and product design, everyone will tell you there is no single path,” he says. “We keep hearing that tech jobs are going through the roof—talk to any product-design team in Boston, and they’ll tell you they’re way understaffed—but no one’s helping the next generation [come up through the ranks].”
The response has been positive. Simpson says nearly 2,000 people have joined the online community, and the site averages 75 new sign-ups a week. In addition to helping designers find long-term mentoring relationships, Simpson would also like to assist those in search of quick answers to one-off questions.
“We keep hearing over and over, ‘I don’t have anyone to talk to,’ so we’re looking at ways to connect people who just want to bounce an idea off of someone, or who need help negotiating a salary or stock options at a startup,” Simpson says. “You can’t always get answers from YouTube or Google—sometimes you need to talk to someone who’s done it firsthand.”
In spite of very legitimate concerns about seeking mentorship from your own supervisor—justifiable concerns about being too forthcoming and conflicting interests around salary and promotions—with the right boss, it just might be ideal. When Judy Kirpich launched design agency Grafik in Virginia in 1978, she made mentoring a primary goal—one she continues to pursue, even though she retired in 2015.
“Mentoring is part of our professional responsibility, period,” she says. “Most agency owners don’t really want to give away the keys to the kingdom because they’re afraid people are going to leave with their proprietary info, but I always felt that design requires a combination of right-brain and left-brain skills to be successful, and most schools only teach one side of it.”
At Grafik, Kirpich offered to meet any member of her staff for breakfast outside the office to discuss big-picture topics, like professional development, going so far as to open her books to those interested in budgeting and finance. Plenty of her employees went on to start their own agencies, essentially becoming competitors, but she considered each one a success.
Kirpich has even helped her employees present their best case for a raise—though it meant cutting into her own long-term profit. “Young men would come into my office and have no problem asking for money, and women in the same position wouldn’t ask for the same salary,” she says. “You might say that was a great opportunity for me [to save money], but I started my agency as a feminist, so that approach didn’t get me where I wanted to go.”
“If I’ve mentored people in [just] one area, it’s how to run a humane organization that isn’t solely focused on profit,” says Kirpich. “Money was never as important to me as the day-to-day experience and the people, and so much of mentoring is about sharing those values, discussing how you make decisions and what’s most important in life.” ca