Kawandeep Virdee is a designer and artist whose skills defy easy definition: He’s created murals in Meta’s office lobby, a robot creative coach built on GPT-3, and a book of illustrations called Feeling Great About My Butt. When he struggles in his unconventional career path, he always turns to his mentors. “We go out and we just get a drink or have a meal and then I’ll leave that feeling more hopeful—like there’s more possibility,” he says.
Massive layoffs across industries mean that designers are feeling the stress in their own careers, whether they still have a full-time job or juggle a number of freelance projects. Finding a mentor can help.
I spoke with game designer Dave Grossman, creator of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle; Sarah Klearman, Senior Product Designer at Disney Streaming; Michael McWatters, Senior Director of Product Design at HBO Max; and Virdee about how mentors can help guide you through your design career. And whether you’re looking to find a mentor or be a better mentor yourself, these designers agreed that it’s a worthwhile endeavor, as long as you follow a few basic guidelines.
Respect your mentor’s time.
The one thing these four designers had in common was a lack of free time. “People in the game industry tend to be overwhelmed most of the time,” says Grossman, who started his career as a designer at LucasArts in 1989.
To respect his mentors’ time, Virdee assumes responsibility to keep the relationship going. “In terms of the dynamic, it’s mostly on me to reach out,” he says.
Respecting a mentor’s time can also mean not meeting in person at all. “I have net negative free time,” says McWatters. “So I’m grateful for people who are willing to be ‘pen pals.’ It’s much easier for me to find a spare moment to write a few words than to have a video call, much less a coffee.” McWatters also sees his online writing as a kind of mentorship. “I love storytelling,” he tells me. “One of my sons often says, ‘Can’t you answer a question without telling a story?’ Apparently, I can’t.”
McWatters concedes that there’s still a time and place for face-to-face mentoring. “I absolutely do try to connect in person with a few people, especially if they’re peers or close to it.”
“Know what you’re hoping to achieve.”
Whether you plan to meet in person or exchange emails, it’s important to know why you’re looking for a mentor in the first place.
In addition to her design work at Disney, Klearman is currently producing a short film. Still, she says she’s always excited about being approached about design mentorships and has been mentoring another designer for over two years. “It’s important to approach design mentorships with a clear sense of what you’re looking for and why,” Klearman says. But, she adds, “if you don’t know what you’re looking for, that’s ok—acknowledge that. Now, the design mentor can help guide your journey.”
“Know what you’re hoping to achieve,” says McWatters. “Come with specific questions, concerns, or topics of interest. Don’t reach out to somebody hoping they’re just gonna do a brain dump. Their time is valuable, and they’re there to help you navigate specific issues.”
Klearman agrees. “It’s important to be aware of your motivation for wanting to establish a design career. Some people are attracted to UX design because it’s trendy or lucrative. Others are motivated by making an impact or are interested in creative problem-solving. When I’m approached about design, it’s helpful to understand upfront what’s motivating individuals to learn more.”
In her experience, Klearman says mentorship is key to augmenting skills that designers are unlikely to learn elsewhere, specifically the “soft skills” that are difficult to teach in any formal way. Klearman lists communication as one of these skills as well as “knowing your audience when presenting work, understanding aspects of organizational processes, and managing expectations with your stakeholders.”
While both Grossman and McWatters enjoy mentoring, both say they’re often approached by designers who clearly just want to use the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder. Grossman says he’s less likely to enter into a mentoring relationship with someone who reaches out cold to ask him to look at their game, or someone just looking for him to tweet about their project.
“What matters most to me is that whoever is approaching me is doing so in a spirit of genuine curiosity and a desire to learn and grow,” McWatters says. “If I sense someone is hitting me up in hopes that I might be able to connect them to an opportunity or otherwise more directly help them in their career, I’m a lot less interested in helping.”
“Find someone to tell you what you don’t want to hear.”
It’s important to find a mentor who will give you hard feedback. That’s why one-off advice or just picking someone’s brain can be less effective without a long-term mentoring relationship in place. “What’s most challenging is finding someone who will say what you don’t want to hear,” says Virdee.
Grossman says his most impactful mentors were the directors on his first game design projects. One of those was Ron Gilbert, who Grossman said was always open about his process. “If there was something he didn’t want, he would always tell you why,” says Grossman.
“So much of what makes an effective designer is mastering the art of receiving and offering feedback,” says Klearman. “I’ve found it helpful to create a sense of psychological safety so the relationship starts with a foundation built on trust.”
Just do it.
Sometimes mentoring isn’t about soft skills or specific guidance at all. Grossman says it can be as simple as just giving basic advice. He offers this advice to any designer: “Don’t wait for someone to hire you. Just make stuff.”
Easier said than done, right? In addition to mentors, Virdee also has an “accountability buddy.” He and his buddy meet regularly to discuss the different creative projects they’re working on. “I don’t tell my accountability buddy what to do. They don’t tell me what to do. Instead, we just commit to certain things by a certain time next week.”
Virdee says the relationship with his accountability buddy is sometimes just as important as the relationships he has with his mentors. “That’s the hardest part about being creative,” says Virdee. “Like, just doing it.”