Designing design mentorship
How to grow a design mentorship program that grows designers
“Of course I can learn Framer! I’ll do it in two weeks!” I thought to myself as someone talked about the code-based prototyping tool. Not only do I have some experience with front-end coding, but I also have the kind of self-delusion that helps me do things like this. “Even better,” I pep talked to myself, “I’ll learn it all by myself!”
And I did. I took online classes, tried making a prototype, failed, got frustrated, and took more classes until I learned it, all by myself. And I was quite happy with my small victory. That is, until a colleague told me, “I’m learning Framer, too, from Ryhan, and it’s super fun.” That couldn’t be right. Satisfying? Yes. Fun? No, learning Framer wasn’t fun for me. And then it dawned on me: I had learned by myself. She was learning from someone. Being able to ask questions, be frustrated, make jokes, or get feedback is fun. Having a mentor is incredibly useful, and pretty fun, too.
That’s about the time I started thinking about mentorship. I started digging into what mentorship is, and what it means to help someone as they’re trying to grow their skills and further their career.
Why mentorship matters
Having support as you’re developing professionally is hardly a new idea, especially in what’s considered creative or craft fields. For thousands of years, going back all the way to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi or to the 13th century European Craft Guilds, people have been codifying ways of spreading knowledge from those experienced to newcomers. Hammurabi might not have cared about Framer, but he certainly cared about how young apprentices could learn from well-trained masters.
Why did people feel the need to set principles, and even make laws about this? If you zoom out enough, the answer becomes intuitive. Creating systems at scale for developing mentorship relationships can positively impact knowledge transfer, thus increasing progress velocity.
But what’s even more interesting to me is what motivates people at an individual level. What makes a person seek repeated professional guidance? Even less clear, why would someone commit to giving that guidance?
- As a mentee, this kind of relationship can be incredibly useful. The most tangible benefit is having support in developing hard skills, like prototyping, visual or interaction design. But there’s so much more to mentorship. A great mentor can help clarify long-term goals and develop plans for advancing your career, or train you on soft skills.
- As a mentor, this relationship can be rewarding, too. Humans are hard-wired to work together, so supporting someone can be intrinsically fulfilling. Mentoring, therefore, is as much a selfless act as it is self-serving. Through mentorship, mentors can develop critical skills, like providing guidance and teaching, or grow close professional relationships with more people.
So creating a good setup for mentorship simply makes sense (Turns out Hammurabi knew a thing or two!). In an organization like Dropbox, mentorship can happen naturally as people get to know each other. But, after I realized how impactful mentorship can be, I and Sara Lin, one of my work friends, decided to create a formal design mentorship program at Dropbox.
Mentorship in organizations
Actually, it wasn’t as simple as we decided and then it just happened. Before creating the program, we decided to talk to people at Dropbox to understand if (and when) they needed mentorship.
Wait, but… what is mentorship?
As we kicked off our research, I was interviewing a fellow designer, when I got blindsided with the most basic question: “What is mentorship? Is it teaching? Is it like managing? Does being a mentor mean being a role model? Is it advising someone?”
I had no clue how to answer. And with good reason — turns out there is no straightforward answer. The concept of “mentor” has a pretty complicated history, with origins in the work of the Greek author Homer. In The Odyssey, Mentor was a trusted friend of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca. Mentor was the one who advised Odysseus’s son, training him to take over family responsibilities. So, broadly speaking, mentorship can be defined as a sustained process of teaching, advising, and helping a less-experienced person, so that they make progress towards their goals.
Mentorship-related problems in organizations
After we interviewed designers, researchers, and writers about their mentorship experiences, we uncovered several pain points, both for mentors and mentees.
- Lack of transparency: it was unclear who wanted to mentor or be mentored, and there were no clear guidelines for developing mentorship relationships.
- No agency in the matching process: some people used our internal mentor-finding system, or asked their manager to find them mentors. But they didn’t understand why a specific person was suggested, and didn’t feel like they participated in choosing their mentor.
- Being matched with someone felt like a big, important commitment. If the mentorship relationship didn’t work out, people mentioned feeling awkward around their proposed mentor or mentee.
Principles for mentorship
As we were synthesizing our research, it became clear that mentorship grows like any other meaningful relationship. So good mentorship programs should follow three core principles:
- Effective mentorship develops in the confines of an open, transparent setup. It’s about a relationship that matches both the interests of the mentee and the mentor
- It should start with low commitment dates …
- … until both mentor and mentee feel there’s chemistry to commit to a deeper relationship
A good setup for a mentorship program
While both Sara and I are super excited about mentorship, when time came to actually do the program, we found ourselves sitting in a meeting room thinking, “OK, now what?” Here are a few practical aspects that made a difference for us in creating a successful mentorship program.
Work with a clear, shared framework
One of the most important things in a mentorship program is having everyone speak the same language when it comes to what they want to learn or teach. Defining a framework up front is incredibly important and will make everything easier down the line:
- Matching mentors and mentees will be more seamless
- Participants won’t have misaligned expectations around what they can learn/ teach
- Participants will know how to set up their relationship, and what to ask for
How do you define a shared framework?
- Your company’s career framework is a great tool to use. We use the Dropbox design career framework. We have categories you can mentor on, like prototyping or product thinking. Since your company’s framework is available for everyone to see, it ensures consistency and transparency.
- If you don’t yet have a career framework, take some time to define 3–5 areas of mentorship. And get very specific about what they mean. For example, people can understand different things when they say “visual design.” Does a mentee want to learn about typography? Or about color theory? Make sure participants have access to definitions for what they want mentorship on.
- Finally, allow people to support each other in non-traditional areas that aren’t usually covered in career frameworks. For example, negotiating your salary is a super valuable skill to have, but it’s unlikely you’ll find it in any career framework.
Match people based on growth areas and strengths
With a clear, shared framework, it should be fairly straightforward to get signal on who wants mentorship on what. In our program, we send out a survey and ask about mentees’ areas of growth and mentors’ strengths.
Based on the survey responses, we match each participant with potential mentors or mentees. How do we do it? If someone says they need mentorship in product thinking, we match them with mentors who identified product thinking as one of their top strengths.
Allow people to get to know each other
One of our core principles for the program is that a mentorship relationship should start with a broad search and with low-commitment, get-to-know-each-other meetings. So, each participant gets three potential mentors or mentees.
We instruct people to do coffee chats with their matches and have lightweight conversations. The goal is to allow participants to get signal on whether or not they feel like they can connect with the other person, and eventually develop a relationship with them.
Once the third coffee chat is done, people either make a commitment to continue meeting with one of their mentors or mentees, or decide they’ll continue the search. When people do make a commitment to a specific person, it’s their responsibility to develop the relationship further.
Best practices for mentors and mentees
Having run the program at Dropbox for a year now, it has become increasingly clear that mentorship is a relationship, and it requires commitment and trust from both sides. Practically, that means that as a mentor or mentee:
- You should always keep confidential what the other person tells you. A good relationship is a trusting one.
- Once you agree on a level of commitment, you should follow through with it. A good relationship is a reliable one.
- You should advise what’s best for the other person. A good relationship can last a lifetime.
Best practices for mentors
When I started mentoring, I’d spend all my time thinking how I can help my mentee and if he was reaching his goals. Then, one day, he asked me, “Why are you doing this? What’s in it for you?” I didn’t have an answer for him. Not because I didn’t have a motivation, but simply because I hadn’t spent any time clarifying my own objectives.
As a mentor, even before you meet your mentee(s), you should answer these questions:
- What do you want to get out of mentoring?
- What are your goals?
- What does success look like for you?
Then, think about your strengths and how you can help someone. Are you thinking of giving mostly verbal advice? Are you planning on using any coaching frameworks? Do you have any resources you might point your mentee to? Or any opportunities you might suggest?
With all of that in mind, you’re ready for the first meeting. This is a great opportunity to get to know your mentee and see if there’s good rapport between the two of you. In the meeting:
- Find out where the mentee is in their career and what’s their background
- Ask about the mentee’s career goals and their goals as a designer
- Give them some context about yourself and why you’re interested in mentoring
- Ask why they want a mentor and how you can help
- Discuss some ways you could help the mentee if you’ll continue meeting
After the first meeting is over, take some time to reflect on the meeting. If you feel that you had good rapport with your mentee and you can provide support, those are great signs that you should continue meeting!
Best practices for mentees
As a mentee, it’s super-important to understand what you’re looking to get out of your mentorship. Before you meet with your mentor, think about your career objectives, development needs, and interest areas. You can ask your manager what they think your areas of improvement are, or look through feedback you’re received in the past to find areas of growth.
Once you’re clear on that, in your first meeting you can focus on understanding if your mentor can help you grow, and if you’re excited to learn from them.
- Give the mentor context about your background and where you are now in your career
- Discuss about your career goals and your goals as a designer
- Chat about the guidance you’d need to get from where you are now to the next level in your career
- Discuss each of your motivations for establishing a mentorship relationship
- Discuss the mentor’s strengths and if they fit your areas of growth
- Chat about expectations you may have for the ongoing mentorship relationship. For example, if you want feedback on your design work, high-level conversations about interpersonal matters, or brainstorming time for projects
After the first meeting, decide if you’d like to continue meeting or not. If you’re excited about building a relationship with your mentor, reach out and set up a recurring meeting with them.
If you do decide to establish a mentorship relationship, at the beginning of the relationship, both mentors and mentees should discuss the shape of the commitment you’re making.
Mentorship can take many shapes and expand over various timelines. It can have no structure or be highly structured. And it can be short-term and focused or long-term and open-ended.
For designers, craft mentorship tends to be more structured and with a specific duration — for example, improving visual design, with a focus on color and typography, for 6 months. Career mentorship, on the other hand, can be more open-ended and expand over an unlimited amount of time — for example, getting advice on navigating the organization, indefinitely.
“Of course I can learn FramerX! I’ll do it in two weeks!” I thought to myself as the Framer team was giving a presentation about the updated version of the prototyping tool at Dropbox.
But this time I knew better than to learn by myself. I reached out to people who were also interested in learning, and set up a recurring meeting where we could all sit together and learn. And I also talked about it with one my mentors who’s great at prototyping. Having gone through it again, I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt: Yes. It’s fun to learn FramerX. It’s fun and rewarding when you learn it from others, with others.
After having run the design mentorship program at Dropbox for over a year, and seeing dozens of mentorship relationships taking shape, I’m more convinced than ever that there’s so much we can teach and learn from each other. And having a robust mentorship setup in the company helps people improve their skills and advance their careers. Designers who participated in our program told us time and time again how impactful it has been for their growth as designers, and as people.
And, as they’re developing mentorship relationships, when they’re lucky, they don’t end up just with good teachers. But also with great friends.
Thanks to Michelle Morrison, Andrea Drugay, John Saito, and Kate Apostolou for their feedback. A special thanks to Sara Lin, for being an incredible partner in getting the Dropbox design mentorship program off the ground, as well as Angela Gorden and Jane Davis for being great partners in running the program.