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Mentoring Junior Designers

Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart |09 Sep 15 |

Over the past 12 years, I’ve been in a lot of training sessions; some were company mandated, others were ones I designed and ran myself, still others were sessions I paid money to attend. For a number of years, I’ve been in charge of a design team, and that means being responsible for training and development for my team members. While they are, of course, active participants, it’s important to acknowledge that training is about the transfer of information and the building of skills. The junior members of your team do not spontaneously gain skills. Instead, you need a clear process in place to train and mentor them.

There are a number of things to consider when talking about training designers. My experience has been on an in-house team, so I’ll speak to that type of training and mentorship, but this applies to all kinds of design and development teams. OK, onward.

Your weekly or monthly check-ins with your design team are a time to catch up on how current projects are going, but you should also find out what they need help doing and what new things they want to learn. I try to match designers’ yearly performance and development goals with shorter-term goals, scaffolding them so that we constantly build toward more complex abilities and tasks.

But how to find out these things? A simple exercise often helps. As you do a wrap-up on one project, ask the designer to complete the following sentences:

  1. One thing I can do now is ______.
  2. One thing I’m still unsure about is ______.
  3. One thing I’d like to learn is ______.

You learn:

  1. They now have a fresh new skill that needs to be practiced and embedded in their workflow.
  2. They are not clear on a task or technique and need your help to understand it.
  3. After doing this project, they have an idea of where they fell short.

The second and third answers are where you can focus your training plans.

For many people, there is a temptation to just assign a big new task and “let them get on with it.” But this is only effective for the most motivated people, and actually assumes they already have the skills to complete the task. That’s not really learning anything new, is it? So, let’s look at this in a slightly different light. Assigning tasks means looking at someone’s current abilities and tailoring the assignment to match. I think of this in four levels of difficulty.

Imagine the task is to develop a pattern library for a new web app the company is working on. The development goal is for the designer to learn how to design UIs based on components, code, and systems, not full PSD layouts.

Level one

“I’d like you to develop a pattern library for our new web app. You should base it off the corporate pattern library, and build it in Sketch. We need type, button, and menu styles, and it needs to be completed by the end of the month.”

This is the lowest level, and has very little autonomy. All the variables are controlled, from the content, to the references, to the timeline. This is good for a designer who needs to get the basics down.

Level two

“I’d like you to develop a pattern library for our new web app. You should base it off the corporate pattern library, and build it in Sketch. It needs to be completed by the end of the month.”

There is still very little autonomy here, but fewer variables are controlled. The designer has the freedom to decide what UI elements will be in the pattern library. You would use this level when someone has their sea legs, and needs experience deciding what is important in their projects.

Level three

“I’d like you to develop a pattern library for our new web app. You should base it off the corporate pattern library, and it needs to be completed by the end of the month.”

Here you can see there is much more freedom to design independently. As the design lead, though, you are still controlling important factors like deadlines. The design tool, in this case Sketch, is no longer important, as the designer already has knowledge of what the project will need, and can plan accordingly.

Level four

“I’d like you to develop a pattern library for our new web app. Let me know if you have any questions.”

Wow—almost complete freedom. The company goals are still defined, but the designer is given freedom to deliver whatever they think will meet the project goals.

Whatever the designer has identified as a skill they would like to learn, or a project they would like to try, you can use these different levels to assign that project. By offering direction that acknowledges the gaps in their knowledge, you will challenge them without making it an impossible experience.

So, you have assigned a project that will develop new skills for them. They have started on their way. Regular check-ins, especially during team meetings, gives them a chance to share their progress, not only with you, but their teammates. After all, as a senior designer, it’s your job to make sure they are able to complete the task and learn specific new skills. By reviewing both the controlled factors, like deadlines and project goals, and the more creative factors, like tools and visual design, your check-ins create a measurable, achievable pathway through the project. Everyone likes pathways!

I encourage you to use a process like this to build up the skill levels of your more junior teammates. Looking out for the health of your team, and the projects you launch, means also looking out for the learning and development of your team members. This process starts with senior and junior designers working together to identify training needs. It continues with assigned work that builds, not crushes, your teammates. And finally, because few people can just spontaneously learn on their own, you act as a constant mentor through the assignment. The process standardizes the transfer of information and techniques from senior to junior designers, in a clear and understandable way, so that your team members gain the skills they need to grow as designers.