It’s tough to learn design on your own.
Without an experienced designer to offer guidance and feedback, it’s easy to get stuck on a problem, and then demotivated from learning entirely. Indeed, some stats for solo online courses put completion rates as low as 15%.
To address this problem, we introduced an online 1-on-1 mentoring model for all Designlab’s courses. This provides accountability, structure, and support for students, helping people to maintain momentum and get the most from the curriculum.
We’re delighted whenever we see students excelling through great mentorship. Carmen Plumb and Luuk Hartsema’s story represents just one of these successes. They first came together when Carmen enrolled on the 4-week Branding course—but that was just the beginning!
Introducing Carmen and Luuk!
When Carmen signed up for the Branding course back in 2016, she was just coming to the end of a contract working as an Interaction Designer for a tech startup, creating their training materials and product manuals.
“I took the course as I wanted to be more valuable in my current job, and also to prepare for future roles,” she explains. “As a designer, it’s always good to be constantly building on your knowledge and keeping your skills sharp.”
Carmen—who’s from the UK—has always been passionate about design and finding a path into the industry. “When I was growing up, it was always the line of work I wanted to excel in. I just love the creativity of it, and I get enjoyment from creating new iconography and workflows.”
So, why the interest in branding? “Working on rebrands is fun! I wanted to explore branding more, as it’s fascinating to me how today’s brands can have such an impact. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”
That’s an enthusiasm shared by Luuk Hartsema, Carmen’s mentor during the Branding course. A designer with 16 years’ experience in the industry, Luuk spent several years working at a branding agency in Cape Town, South Africa. “We did several cool branding jobs for various companies,” Luuk explains. “One time I was driving and a truck went by with the branding we created. I felt ecstatic!”
Luuk—who’s now based in Groningen, in the Netherlands—has been a Designlab mentor since 2016. In that time he has worked with over 30 students. “As a mentor I'm guiding students from all over the world to achieve their learning goals,” he explains. “Those goals are primarily about gaining design knowledge and how to create engaging user experiences.”
“My aim is to help students to achieve success—in their careers as well as in the course—by discussing coursework and sharing my experience. I also learn valuable lessons myself, by explaining to others how design problems can be approached.”
Developing a brand concept: URSA
During the Branding course, Carmen worked with Luuk to create a concept for a company and then design a brand identity for that organisation.
“We went from the basics of writing an elevator pitch and marketing strategy, through to designing the brand’s visuals and voice. It was a really fulfilling process—at the end of it, I’d created a brand concept that I was passionate about, and that I felt was good enough to actually be seen on the high street.”
The brand concept that Carmen created was called URSA. “It’s a brand for customers who want stylish, affordable, but—most importantly—durable clothing and equipment that can survive harsh polar climates.”
Part of the work of building a new brand is establishing a mission statement and back story for the company. So Carmen crafted a motto for the company: Committed to Saving Our Polar Regions.
Another part of URSA’s brand back story is that for every purchase, the company makes a donation to research and charitable work protecting polar landscapes. Finally, the company uses 100% biodegradable packaging, and their clothing and equipment is made from recycled materials.
As well as learning about the overall brand creation process, another of Carmen’s takeaways was how to manage the balancing act between making something that would visually stand out from the competition, as well as feeling an authentic part of the market.
“I never thought I would be spending my spare time contemplating how important fonts and colors are when it comes to creating something that feels ‘right’ for the product. I learned that successfully branding your company depends a lot on your initial market research—this shapes a lot of the choices you need to make further down the line.”
Reflecting on the experience of mentoring Carmen during the Branding course, Luuk emphasises that enthusiasm and commitment to the learning process can lead to great—and rapid—results.
“Carmen might have been slightly insecure about her own abilities during our first conversations, but she always had a very clear picture in her mind about what she wanted to accomplish.”
“With this project, she showed perseverance, guts and a true desire to accomplish what she had in mind. She approached the course with a very open mindset, and a willingness to learn from anybody. Carmen celebrates learning—a key trait for any designer at any stage of their career—and I hope she will continue to do so.”
Good mentors give feedback, good students commit
This wasn’t Carmen’s first experience learning with a mentor, having taken the Interaction Design course previously. Nevertheless, she explains that there are always nerves when meeting a new mentor.
“You are always slightly nervous at the start. It reminds you of school in a way—at the start of term, you don’t know what type of teacher you’re going to get, or what their exact style will be.”
“The big lesson I’ve taken from working with mentors is that feedback is great! This individual is offering you their time, experience, and knowledge to help you learn. Getting feedback on your own work is initially daunting, but once you get used to that conversation, it just turns into exciting, collaborative design work.”
So, given this experience of different mentors, what makes a good mentor? “For me, a mentor needs to be patient, to make the learning process fun, and to be a source of inspiration.”
“They also need to give the kind of feedback that will enable the student to go back to the drawing board and come up with something they wouldn’t have believed was possible for them to create at the start of the process.”
And what about the other side of this equation—what makes a good student? Luuk emphasises commitment to the learning process above all.
“My core belief is that you can’t be a good mentor if you don’t have a good student. And by that, I mean that a student needs to be eager, and needs to be willing to do the work and needs to be willing to learn. Otherwise, no matter how much energy I put into the process as a mentor, the student won’t see results.”
“I wasn’t a very good student myself. People wanted to teach me things I couldn’t be bothered with. Nevertheless, there were a few teachers who knew how to stimulate my interest, rather than dictating what I needed to learn. Those teachers sparked a passion within me that still drives me forward autonomously today. I hope to be that kind of mentor.”
Keeping in touch, and getting involved with Startup Weekend
One of the most exciting things for us as educators at Designlab is when students and mentors keep in touch after the course, and even find new opportunities to collaborate. Carmen and Luuk stayed in contact, and last year Luuk invited Carmen over to the Netherlands to take part in a Startup Weekend in Groningen.
Startup Weekend is a 54-hour event that sees a group of individuals get together and build a business from an idea pitch. Luuk is the lead organizer of the event, and Carmen participated with a group of other attendees who she’s now connected with.
“It was a great opportunity,” Carmen explains, “so I happily packed my suitcase last November and flew over to take part!”
“At the event, I was part of a team called Waitless, and we worked together to create an app for the hospitality industry. It focused on improving the flow of interactions between a customer and the waiting staff—from ordering or asking for help, through to paying the bill.”
“I was put in charge of working on the user interface workflows, and the company’s branding. It was an exhilarating experience, and I highly recommend any design student to take part if they get the chance!”
Carmen also explains that what she took away from her first Startup Weekend was much more than just the project they worked on for those 2 days.
“Since meeting Luuk, I’ve been able to build on that partnership. I’ve networked more, and in doing so, have found myself forging new and deep friendships. It’s also encouraged me to focus on getting more day-to-day mentoring from colleagues in the industry, as I’ve learned how valuable it can be.”
“I’ve even started learning some Dutch in preparation for my next Startup Weekend!”
Luuk explains that events like Startup Weekend—which is like a supercharged design sprint—can be a valuable for anyone with an interest in creativity and problem-solving, even if they’re not especially interested in business or design.
But they’re particularly good, Luuk explains, for helping designers to understand how design can help to solve business challenges and meet business needs. “Designers help business owners to overcome challenges through design, and participating in these kinds of event help us to get a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by entrepreneurs.”
Taking your design work to the next level—and landing a job
After adding skills in interaction design and branding to her resume, Carmen landed an awesome new job as a UI Designer at a leading company in the games industry.
“I am loving every minute of it! I love my job and I look forward to what the future holds for me. Every day is a thrill—whether it’s creating mockups, or seeing the final product working on screen. There is never a dull day!”
And how about tips for others who are looking to begin a career as a professional designer, or take their career to the next level?
At a Startup Weekend. Photo credit: Joost Nuijten
“Above all,” Carmen explains, “understand that feedback is hugely important, and you cannot put a price on it.”
“Second, take ownership of your design work—believe in your abilities, and defend your design choices. You came up with these ideas to begin with. Of course they will need developing, but a little self-belief in explaining and defending your vision definitely goes a long way.”
“Third—can you draw that logo from memory? You never realise how challenging it is to make a good logo until you have to design one! And finally, don’t give up! Keep studying hard and stay connected with the passion that got you started.”
Want to try learning with a mentor?
New Designlab courses start each month. Check out what we offer, and supercharge your learning!