How to get better design advice
Tips for designers who want to get the best out of their mentors
Mentors are a blessing. Having one is a great way to boost your confidence and your skills. For designers, there’s never been a greater time to look for one. Platforms like ADPList make finding mentors easy. There are also plenty of great design communities for people at all stages of their career.
But how do you interact with mentors? What do you ask them? It can be overwhelming to know what to focus on. And getting the right kinds of feedback can be difficult too.
Here is my advice for designers who want to make the most of their mentorships.
Talk to the right people
We all know of the professionals in our field who’ve “made it to the top”. These are experts we all look up to and aspire to be like. But if you’re just starting out, asking for advice from people with decades more experience might not be the best move. They’re at a level much higher, so they can’t understand what you’re going through.
As an example, I’ve been in my industry for years, so I don’t know what it’s like to be applying for my first job in 2021. I can tell you what I’d be looking for if I was hiring, but it’s hard to remember what it feels like to be taking those first steps. I can give you my perspective, but some junior-specific advice is out of my area of expertise.
To get the most suitable advice, talk to people who can understand where you are right now. Find someone that’s a year further into their career than you. They’ve recently been through what you’re experiencing so will have some great and relevant advice.
Or if you’re looking to get hired, ask recruiters to go through your portfolio and practice interviews. They aren’t designers themselves, but they have great insights on what you can do to stand out from other candidates.
Be clear about what you need
When someone approaches me with “review my portfolio please”, I always ask for more clarification. If I don’t know what you’re unsure about I can’t give you helpful advice. But the most frustrating thing I can get back is a vague direction. Something like “everything” or “how it looks”.
Odds are that if I’m asked to review everything, the points I’ll find won’t be that helpful. I may even miss out on something you wanted clarification on. Being vague ends up wasting time for both the designer and the person trying to give them advice.
To get the most out of a mentor, you need to tell them what you want. Be specific. If you were working with a personal trainer, you’d expect them to work closely with you and give you tailored advice. Design mentors have the same expectations.
Here are some example questions you can use to make your conversations more productive:
- I’m working on my design portfolio. In the research phase of this case study, have I made my results clear enough?
- From looking at my portfolio, what would you say my strengths and weaknesses as a designer are?
- I’m trying to improve my presentation skills. Would you mind if I presented some work to you, and you could give me some advice on how I did?
- I’m unsure about how to organise my files in Figma. Could you give me some pointers that have worked for you in the past?
Knowing what you want to grow and improve makes things easier for everyone. Be specific with your questions, and you’ll get great quality feedback in return.
Be kind and considerate
Your first impression counts. The way you conduct yourself will stick with people, even years after you first meet them. And the last thing you want is for that memory to be a bad one.
During the past year I’ve reviewed tens of portfolios from designers. Honestly, I wouldn’t know what any of their portfolios looked like now, but I remember how talking to each of them made me feel.
Your mentor isn’t only there to give you advice. They’re a connection, and one you may want to lean on again in the future. Treat your mentors with respect. They’re people too, and talking to them in the right way will make all the difference.
These are some things I’d recommend doing to make speaking with your mentor a great experience for both of you:
- Build a relationship. Introduce yourself. Learn about each other and your stories. Not only is this polite, but it leads to better feedback. The most helpful reviews I’ve had are with people I got to know first.
- Be respectful. If you book in a meeting with them, show up on time and prepared. Stay focused and engaged. Keep your session brief and don’t overrun into their other appointments.
- Listen and keep an open mind. When someone gives you feedback, listen. Even if you don’t agree with it. Arguing with someone who’s trying to help you will make things more difficult for both of you.
- Ask follow-up questions. Once you’ve gotten your feedback, feel free to talk with them some more. It shows that you’ve taken on their advice and they’ve made a difference. At the very least, thank them for their time.
- Stay in touch. Nothing makes me happier than learning that someone I’ve helped has reached their goals. If someone’s help pushed you towards your new job, let them know. You’ll make their day I promise!
Whoever you’re asking for help may be a colleague of yours in the future, and your first impression sticks. Kindness costs nothing. Putting in the time to be polite will always pay off in the long term.
As our field grows bigger, we’ll see more juniors coming in and senior designers stepping in to help them. It’s up to us to make sure these talks are happy and helpful, and empower juniors in the ways they need.
Make sure you’re asking the right people for the right kind of advice. Be prepared and polite when the review comes around, and use your time wisely. The way you treat people says a lot about you. More so than your design ability ever will.