Q: I’ve never worked under an experienced creative director, and feel like my work has never been skillfully critiqued. How can I find a decent mentor?
A: It’s extremely common these days for people to graduate from design school and then start working for a startup or small team. Unfortunately, it’s rare for those startups or small teams to have senior people with a decade or more of experience under their belts. So your story isn’t all that out of the ordinary.
That’s a shame, because I think everyone needs to work with a highly-skilled hard-ass early in their career. For a time when I was a young magazine art director, I worked under an exacting man with cold grey eyes whose attention to detail and ability to just Get Things Done under pressure was phenomenal. Did I mention he was a Vietnam vet? Because he was. The guy terrified me, but he made me look at my work with a more critical eye than I did before I met him.
I respected him, and that made me respect my work. Working with him made me better.
The challenge for you is to find someone whom you respect that has enough experience to expertly critique your work. (They don’t necessarily have to be a hard-ass — different mentorship styles work for different people.) Your region’s professional association ought to run mentorship programs — in Australia (where I live and work) AGDA has a highly successful mentoring program which has been connecting young designers with crotchety old people like me since 2002.
But there’s nothing at all stopping you from sorting this out for yourself. Get out there and actually ask people to help you. You might be surprised by the response. About 8 years back, I attended a design conference and watched a presentation by someone whose work I’d long admired. After the conference, I waited patiently and spoke to them about their presentation. Later, I emailed them and asked (very very politely) if they’d have time to talk shop sometime. This person was generous enough to do that, and we kept in touch for a few years afterwards. They were honest enough to tell me what I needed to do to improve, and I respected them enough to take their advice into account. Again, my work improved.
Fortunately for you, the designers you respect are likely to be the kind of people who want to give something back to their craft. Seek them out, be respectful of their time, and you’ll be surprised how much people are willing to share with you. 💋
Ross Floate is the creative director of Floate Design Partners, a firm that creates digital products and processes that help to provide lasting benefits to clients and their customers. He’s also co-host of The Nudge, a podcast about being better designers.