My early-stage design career was… a rollercoaster. There were some incredible people and teams that I got to work with and learn from, and there were, perhaps inevitably, the experiences that scarred me deeply.
Today I’m going to share one of these memories.
I was a few months into my UX design career, and I had joined a London-based digital agency as a junior designer. I was full of enthusiasm and excitement at having the opportunity to work there and I couldn’t wait to get started.
But on my first day, it became clear that not all was well.
The existing team was made up of senior designers and a fairly absent Head of UX. Nobody had any idea what I was meant to work on and worse, nobody cared. I spent my first day, alone, shoved at the end of someone’s desk, watching as everyone else bustled away at their work.
Things didn’t get better from there. When someone finally noticed me, I was treated like I had nothing of value to contribute and an inconvenience to the rest of the team to have to deal with. One definite low was being asked to add a box to a wireframe – my only job all week!
I didn’t last long there – about two weeks of loneliness and boredom. That particular stint sent my confidence to rock bottom and it took me a while to build it back up again in a more supportive environment.
Why am I sharing this? Aside from showing that despite unfortunate starts, things can always get better, I also want to shine a light on something that unhappily seems like a consistent truth:
There are many lead designers who have not been trained in how to care for their junior colleagues, as well as many junior designers who feel unfulfilled and undervalued in their current role.
We need to do a better job of educating our lead and senior designers about how to care for more junior members of a team and, where appropriate, for this skill to become a formal part of promotion and a key aspect of hiring senior design talent.
As a starter for ten, I’ve put together seven golden rules for caring for junior designers, written for managers and lead designers to bear in mind when working with junior designers.
Keep to these principles and your junior designers will be happy, learn new skills, and grow in their confidence. And this doesn’t just benefit them! As one senior designer recently told me, “Having someone tell me that I was a great role model or a wonderful mentor were some of the best moments I’ve had in my career.”
Seven rules for caring for junior designers:
1. Don’t treat junior designers like they’re stupid
This may sound painfully obvious, but one of the most basic mistakes that I’ve experienced first hand is senior folk treating junior members of the team like they don’t know anything. I once had a senior designer explain to me, without any prompting, what a wireframe was. It may feel like you are being helpful, but if you’re continually explaining everything to a more junior team member without any indication from them that they need an explanation, it can come across as painfully patronising.
- Make sure you’ve made it clear that if a junior team member has any questions, you’re there for them, no judgement. They should be comfortable enough to know that if they don’t know what something is, they can ask, and that there is no such thing as a stupid question.
- Whether you are a manager or a mentor for a junior designer, take the time to understand what their growth areas are, as well as which areas they feel particularly passionate about expanding their knowledge of. Work with them to understand how you can support these in a way that they will appreciate, and be sensitive to how they indicate they’d like your support.
2. Give junior designers real responsibility
There’s nothing worse than being really excited about being given an opportunity, only to find out that you’re actually being sidelined from being able to contribute to anything cool because your coworkers don’t trust your skills.
If you’re just handing a junior designer basic bits of work with no real value, they won’t be getting enough from you to really develop into a meaningful contributor to the team, and you’ll definitely not be getting enough value from them either.
- Carefully assess which projects and areas of responsibility are appropriate for a junior designer to start on, considering scope of the work, complexity of the challenge, the designer’s interests and growth areas, and crucially, what level of support will this designer have around them for this project.
- Managers, make sure to pair junior designers with supportive mentors on the design team, who can provide the scaffolding that the junior designer may require, and set expectations with that mentor about the role that they should be playing (i.e. guide, not take over)
- On any project that you’re giving to a junior designer, ensure you’ve explicitly aligned with them on clear goals and milestones. It should be crystal clear what the expectations for them are in terms of delivery, timings, as well as who and where they can get support.
3. Make time to actively mentor and support junior designers
You may sometimes think that you’re too busy to give a junior designer enough attention. Days rush past, time slips by, and sometimes you have no time for lunch, let alone to think about somebody else’s development. A common mindset I’ve seen is because there’s a tendency to give junior designers more ‘basic’ tasks, senior designers will prioritise the ‘important’ fires constantly over time with a junior team member. Not cool and not helpful.
- Schedule regular and consistent time with any junior team member that you’re responsible for, and make sure you both have aligned that this time is sacred. Show up to these slots, putting any other fires to the back of your mind, and focus for those 30 minutes on them.
- Build in multiple places for support. Whether thats having a couple of ‘buddies’ on different types of topics, or regularly scheduled design team time for critique or discussion – build in enough slack so that nothing falls over if you’re unable to be there.
- Remember that you’re not there to be the one person who holds the answers. Connect your junior team member to other folks across the company, or to resources that are helpful.
4. Build in opportunities for junior designers to wade out of their comfort zone
I believe that an important part of your role in supporting a junior designer is to push them a bit further out of their comfort zone than they would be willing to put themselves.
One design director I know gives his team weekly challenges designed to test a variety of skills and explore problems that they may not have come across before. Another design lead I worked directly with as a junior designer always asked everyone to present our work at each team meeting, whether you were comfortable to do so or not. This started off nerve-wracking, but I learned a lot about presenting our design decisions and giving (and receiving) useful critiques.
Engineering situations like these as well as having a keen eye on how much to push people, can be important catalysts for growth.
- Pay attention to skills that the junior designer is practicing regularly and make note of those that they haven’t had the chance to explore or that you feel they are less comfortable with. Design a session, workshop, or exercise where they can practice those skills in a safe environment.
- Encourage them to attend hack-a-thons, conference workshops, and meetups where they can be introduced to different types of processes and activities.
- Regroup with your junior designer after they’ve pushed themselves to reflect on the experience. Discuss how they found it, if they learned anything about themselves, how they felt before compared to now. Pay attention to how they took this experience and feed this back into how you’re approaching their career development.
- Come to terms with the fact that sometimes your junior designer might fail, or mess up. The intention should never be perfection and as a developing designer, there will be mistakes along the way. Give them grace and focus on the learning moments inherent in each failure.
5. Remember that its a two-way street: you can learn from junior designers too!
In my experience, one of the best things about working with less experienced members of the team is that they often bring the fresh insights and perspective the rest of the team may lack, and/or skills that the rest of the team don’t have. Given a psychologically safe environment, you may find that your junior designer questions the accepted way of doing things, allowing your team some introspection and a chance to change it up.
- It should be evident, but actually listening properly to what the junior designer is saying always helps! Keep an open mind to any suggestions or ideas and respond authentically.
- Reflecting on their passion areas or particular areas for strengths, think about what you could learn from them. Be bold and let them know – this can really help building a feeling of camaraderie and teamwork.
- Ask regularly for feedback from them (and not just the other way round) and take their thoughts humbly. Think about constructive ways you could improve as a mentor based on their feedback.
6. Don’t mould junior designers in your own image
It’s a very human trait to believe that we are the perfect representation of our field, that we are the shining example of what a successful designer should be, but funnily enough, this is just not the case.
In actuality, design is a broad field, and each designer will develop their own interests and specialties… even you.
When working with early stage designers, its important to keep this in mind. The ideal end result is not that you create a carbon copy of yourself, but that you have deeply explored how they can develop uniquely in accordance with their passions, skills, and experiences.
- Have a ‘career conversation’, an informal chat that takes you both out of the day-to-day project work and zooms out, so that you can reflect more broadly on their overall career trajectory. Ask questions about what motivates them, where they see themselves in 1, 5, 10 years, what they want to learn, and most importantly, how you can help set some goals with them to ensure they are intentionally on the path they picture.
- It’s helpful to formalise their growth trajectories into a set of goals and milestones, and to regularly review together so that you both feel like they are on track.
7. Manage expectations of others
Part of caring for a junior designer is to make sure you have their back, including making sure that a) they’re not put under undue pressure or expectation by the people they are working with, or b) they aren’t being undervalued by others.
- Make sure you have spent time to align with the junior designer’s cross-functional partners on the expectations you have for them on any project. For example, it can be helpful to align with the product manager on perhaps allowing for extra time on projects compared to what they may be used to work working with senior designers.
- Make sure you’re building space for the junior designer to show up independently with their product team, if there is an expectation that they are owning a project. Resist the urge to become a ‘helicopter parent’ and give them space.
Caring effectively for junior designers is not an easy job, nor should it be. You are holding people’s development carefully in your hands, and this is definitely a big responsibility. That said, don’t forget to enjoy it! Effectively mentoring someone is incredibly rewarding – having the opportunity to make a real difference and pass down your expertise to someone else is one of the best bits of mastering a craft.
What are your tips for mentoring junior members of the design team? Share in the comments!