How to train your design dragon

Design dragon

A new designer joined our team recently, and we onboarded her through Google Hangouts. Whenever a new designer joins us, I feel a certain rush of excitement. The sparkle in their eyes; the glitter of enthusiasm with a hint of nervousness, makes my heart splutter as it reminds me of the days when I had begun my career in design.

Prior to being a designer, I worked as a developer for nearly a decade. I found the design career fascinating so I decided to pursue it.

Lucky for me, I got a leader who supported me immensely throughout my journey. I survived because I got the right direction and motivation to pursue my dream of becoming a designer.

I am still a work-in-progress. But I owe my growth and development to my mentor. I learned some great leadership lessons from him on how to be a good design leader. He not only helped me understand design leadership, but also helped me carve a niche for myself.

Thanks to him, I am a better designer than I was 5 years ago. This blog is my humble attempt to pass on my learnings on how design leaders can help their mentees become better.

Help them understand the value of design

Help them understand the value of design

One of the things that helped me wade through the transition from being a developer to a designer is perspective. A lot of people opt for design as a career because it is a fad. But they don’t understand that fads begin to fade if you don’t understand what makes them unique.

My leader helped me see design not as a profession, rather as a way to solve problems. He helped me see how design is in everyday life and how we can make our lives better by designing better solutions.

So if you are a design leader, help your mentees see design beyond projects. Ignite their curiosity and help them develop their problem-solving skills before learning any design-skills.

Give them challenging problems to solve

Give them challenging problems to solve

Beginnings are always scary. When I worked on my first project, I worried about doing all the right things. I didn’t want to appear stupid or as someone who lacked design caliber. It was at that time that my mentor told me- “Don’t worry about designing a pretty UI. Good design solves problems. Just focus on that.”

He gave me challenging problems that were neither too hard nor too easy for me. He pushed me to think through problems as an engineer would think through the optimal data structures, and algorithms.

If you’re a design leader mentoring junior designers, assign work to new designers by matching their current skill set to the task. Don’t try to push them off the edge by assigning difficult assignments. Similarly, don’t give them ‘too-easy-to-handle’ work as it might demotivate them. Tailor the assignment so that it makes them think beyond their horizon and helps them learn a new thing about design.

Point them to the right courses

Point them to the right courses

It can be overwhelming for new designers to make their way through the maze of different aspects of design- visual design, interaction design, graphic design, motion design, UX research and so on.

So help your mentees understand the design landscape and what they can expect to learn in each role. Guide them to take the right courses and learn new skills. It’s true that you learn most of the things in design ‘by doing’, but it’s equally important to learn the process before jumping to work on real-life projects.

I gained a lot of theoretical and practical knowledge by doing courses on Interaction Design Foundation (IDF) that was pointed out by my leader. And I make it a point to pass on the same guidance to my mentees as well.

Motivate them to iterate more

Motivate them to iterate more

Whenever I got stuck in the quality v/s quantity conundrum, my leader would remind me of an age old parable. I’ve heard this story so many times that it’s now ingrained in me. Here’s the story (I’m sure you would have heard it in one form or the other)-

On the first day of the pottery class, a Professor divided the students in two groups. He directed the first half to focus on creating as many pots as possible. He directed the other half to focus on creating one flawless pot.

After the assignment, everyone was surprised to see that the flawless quality pot came from the group which was asked to only focus on creating as many pots as possible.

At first, this result is counterintuitive but it makes sense if you were to reflect deeply on it. Perhaps, the burden of creating one masterpiece paralyzed the group who were asked to create a flawless outcome. On the other hand, the group that was focusing on creating multiple pots only had one thing in mind- quantity. So even if they made some truly awful pots in the beginning, they learned quickly from their mistakes, and improvised in their next creation.

I share this story with my mentees as well. The story keeps them motivated to focus on approaching design iteratively to create the right outcomes. The old adage, practice makes you perfect, is true in every sense. Only when you create more, you can learn more.

Share feedback frequently and in a timely manner

Share feedback frequently and in a timely manner

I can’t stress enough on why continuous feedback is essential for the growth of a designer. Timely and actionable feedback helps designers see where they’re doing good and where they need to improve.

An example could be– a new designer creates pretty designs and follows the latest UI trends. As a result the designs look aesthetically pleasing. But they don’t conform to the usability heuristics. In this case, the designer needs guidance on the process– what can s(he) do better to be more empathetic, how can s(he) improve accessibility in designs, or what can s(he) do to make the UI more engaging.

Share your feedback to guide new designers in the right direction. Help them see the merit in designing user-centric interfaces. Enlighten them that a good design solves users’ problems and every design decision must be backed with user research. Do a regular check-in to see if they understand and agree with your feedback, or if they need any other help.

If you are a new leader, you might also want to read on how you can help your team members succeed in their role.

The reason why I chose to write on this topic is because I feel that every designer should be aligned with the values of the team/organization. Aligning the new designers is especially important because when new designers join the team they come from different backgrounds. And hence, they have a different mindset of how things work.

Training them to become better at their craft not only helps the organization but also helps their career progression. If you wish to build a strong design team with the right ethics, build your foundation strong. Train your designers with the right ethics. Empower them with the right knowledge.

And then watch them soar new heights.

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