Based in Melbourne, Australia, John Isaac has mentored over 35 Designlab students so far. We spoke with John about his 7-day work week, why Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are his design icons, and his most memorable student wins. Read on to learn more about this Designlab mentor.
Hey, John! Thanks for talking with me today. First things first, how did you initially become interested in design?
I remember sitting at the back of my Physics class and sketching illustrations of what the teacher was talking about. If they were talking about the distance between two trains traveling to the same destination at different speeds, I would simply sketch what that would look like.
I felt I could sketch and visualize my way out of problems.
In the 10th grade in Australia, we had to take on a 2-week work experience program and I chose a local architecture firm. At that time I was fascinated with sketching floor plans and so I thought it made sense. In my final 2 years of high school, I selected visual arts as my major while all my friends chose science, economics, legal studies, or maths.
I went on to study design, majoring in visual communication, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would since it was mostly related to illustration, graphic design, fashion design and design theory. I remember reading an editorial in either Popular Mechanics or Popular Science magazine about design thinking, and I knew it was for me.
The problem at that time was, living in Australia meant we received most things quite late compared to the U.S. For example, movies and music would always arrive at least 6 months late! We felt so far behind and it was no different to the world of design. Remember, the internet was only getting started!
I remember door knocking to see if any agencies followed a human-centered process or if they had heard of design thinking. I knocked until I found a small boutique agency who specialized in furniture design and since the founders had studied industrial design, they had heard of design thinking. That was my beginning. They were willing to take a risk and allow me to work on their digital campaigns.
These days when I teach design students, I often ask them what brought them to UX, did they choose UX or did UX choose them. It definitely chose me.
Wow! What a journey. You’ve really been studying design thinking since the beginning. Other than as a mentor for us here at Designlab, where else have you worked?
I’ve been fortunate to have been able to move around and try different things. Early on I worked for small agencies in Sydney, juggling various projects from different industries including retail, hospitality, government, health, and finance. I ended up spending time at larger financial institutions and the health department.
I spent some time working in the U.S. for a small agency where I was part of some cool projects for well-known brands including Pinkberry, Williams Sonoma, James Allen, Express, and Kiwi Collection. In that year alone I learned more than I did in the previous few years. It was a different design culture and different way of doing things.
I even took a year off to live and work in rural Canada where I was managing a chain of bars, restaurants, and small hotels. I was fortunate enough to apply design thinking to my job to help improve business.
After all of this, in 2012 I relocated to Melbourne for a life change and to take on a unique opportunity with a startup digital marketing agency who were looking for someone to build their design practice. I hadn’t done something like that before, but I met two young founders with a clear vision and they were already kicking goals and growing. I was their first hire and what was supposed to be a 12-month experiment in a new city ended up being a 4 year journey.
For this agency, I implemented processes and tools, built design teams, ran internships, won new business, and contributed to their growth. At the time of my departure, they had grown into a solid team of 15, winning many awards along the way.
I found however, during my 4 years there, most of what I was actually doing was teaching. I was educating the founders, junior designers, strategists and clients about the power and benefit of UX and design in general. I was running workshops, designing, and delivering educational material.
I would find myself animated and passionate when trying to make a point and I was constantly fighting for the process.
I knew I had a new love with education, despite my negative experiences in school.
I now work for myself as a design educator and consultant.
It sounds like mentorship is where you were always meant to end up. How did your journey bring you to Designlab?
When I moved into full-time design education, I was teaching on campus at General Assembly in Melbourne, and I became curious about the online education experience, however I wasn’t aware of a reputable bootcamp at that time.
I was also publishing content on LinkedIn, which was gaining traction, and I would receive many messages from people around the world asking me questions. One of the main questions was “Which UX school or bootcamp do you recommend?”.
So, I started researching and asking around, and finally ended up at Designlab. To be honest, I explored other bootcamps prior, and choosing to mentor with Designlab was an easy decision, considering the curriculum as well as the mentor and student support. It was a no-brainer, and once again, what was supposed to be a 12-month journey has now turned into a couple of years.
Thanks for those kind words, John. We couldn’t be happier that your journey has brought you to Designlab, you’ve been such a valuable resource for our students! Now that you’re here, what does a normal day look like for you?
My week is actually split between my classes, Designlab student sessions, and my other work. I rely heavily on my calendar, where every single hour of my day is accounted for. This even includes time blocks for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and any other personal tasks.
I have a personal assistant now who keeps me organized and prioritizes my emails also so I am not focusing on non-essential things.
So, on a day where I am teaching at GA, I make sure my lesson is prepared and I have an intro ready so I can provide students with learning objectives. After running the lesson, I then provide support to students for the rest of the day as they are working on their projects. Then a few days per week my team and I have catch ups to review the weekly schedule and any curriculum updates. This type of day typically runs from 10:30am to 6:30pm.
With Designlab, I review my calendar first thing in the morning to see which students I am catching up with and I make sure I am up to speed with their progress. I will then spend time providing feedback on the platform and email resources to students where necessary. This type of day typically runs from 8am to 10pm given the time zone differences, with breaks in between and depending on how many sessions are scheduled for each day.
It’s clear your knowledge is in high-demand. What parts of being a mentor do you find most fulfilling?
The connections. When I first moved into design education, I didn’t know what to expect. I quickly realized that the more you teach, the more you learn and, the more you actually learn about yourself. I found I was giving myself to others by building relationships with students, sharing knowledge and experiences, and contributing what I could to their learning journey.
I love seeing my students active on LinkedIn, connecting with one another, publishing content and eventually, finding a job. It’s great watching student’s movements and where they end up.
I love seeing people take a risk, make a decision to try something new regardless of their age and background. I have been so fortunate with Designlab as I’m able to talk to amazing people everyday and hear their stories.
I have a saying: “It’s not a career change. It’s a life change.”
You’ve helped a lot of students make both that career and life change which I’m sure is very rewarding! What has been the ultimate student win throughout your mentor experience?
Too many to list of course.
I remember one student who worked full-time and his wife worked full-time as well, only she worked the night shift. They had a young child, who I would see sleeping in the background during our sessions, which were typically around 11pm for the student. It was a studio apartment, which was always dark, and the student would show up to every single session and do the work. It also kept me going.
I also had another student who would travel 3 hours per day between home and the campus. They were a theatre actor and had no previous design experience. They were the first there and the last to leave every day, and while on the train, would read, take notes, and reflect on their work and the design process. They were also the first to land a job after completing the course.
These are the wins where I see how much it means to people and how dedicated they are.
I’m inspired just hearing those stories and I’m sure you, as their mentor, played a key role in their success. On that note, what do you think makes a good mentor?
Being respectful, approachable, and honest. I say this because from my experience I have met so many people from different backgrounds and experiences, as well as different beliefs, opinions, and views.
I respect that. I find common ground with the person so we can establish an aligned way of thinking, and I build momentum from there. I get personal but never cross the line. I try and make them feel at home and comfortable, like they have a friend on their side who will do their best to help them along their journey.
I also never tell students what they want to hear. If they ask me a question, I give them an honest answer and then back it up with my “why”.
This, I have found, is what helps create a healthy relationship.
I agree. Similarly, what do you think makes a good student?
For any two-way relationship to work and prosper, there needs to be common ground and aligned understanding.
A good student asks questions and understands there are no silly questions at that, but they seek feedback and they listen to the feedback. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to implement all of the feedback, but they listen and process.
A good student is someone who regularly reflects, so they can celebrate the small wins. If you don’t reflect, you forget where you came from.
A good student also understands that you don’t have to know everything or have all of the answers. There is so much information out there, that it is impossible to know or read everything. So a good student is flexible to go with the flow and sometimes this is the best approach, because you never know where UX can take you.
A good student respects the process.
⚡️ Lightning Round ⚡️
What do you like to do in your free time?
You’ve probably realized from the above that I don’t have much spare time! I have a 7-day schedule so my spare time is limited. I do however love listening to music and reading. I don’t watch TV and rarely watch Netflix. So I spend time relaxing with music or a book.
I just received delivery of a Sony PS5 console. So I need to find time!
What people in design do you look up to?
It may sound predictable but I was a big fan of Steve Jobs. I was a fan of his dedication and passion. He saw a vision and went for it and wasn't afraid to cause controversy along the way. Design is controversial.
Likewise, Elon Musk. If you read his bio from the age of 17 and follow his travels, you’ll appreciate where he is today. Like Jobs, he is also dedicated and passionate, at the same time setting vision and also causing controversy along the way.
What is design if it doesn’t spark conversation and sometimes, debate?
What’s a favorite design or designed product of yours?
I’m a fan of Dieter Rams’ timeless Braun products, as well as his furniture pieces. They’re a great example of how simple design can be (or should be).
I’m also a big fan of Tesla of course. I’ve taken a few of them for a test drive but they’re just out of my budget!
Are there any tragically designed products or services that you think could use a revamp?
The obvious answer would be to pick on government services, but here in Australia, we’re fortunate to have certain government departments implement design thinking or service design to improve their offering.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My mother told me: “You can tell a lot about a man by looking at his shoes”.
What is the best piece of advice you have to give someone entering the world of design?
Fall in love with the process. That’s it. All that matters is the process. The process doesn’t change. Tools and software always change. Ultimately, knowledge of the process will save you in sticky situations.
Remember, the process is what makes certain startups and companies successful. Process is what makes certain athletes successful. They have a routine and they stick to it.
“Hard work will always beat talent when talent doesn’t work hard enough.”
What predictions do you have for product design in 2021 and beyond?
We have new problems to solve. 2020 was supposed to be the year of voice design and advancing AI. I still feel this to be true but I also feel retail will change in 2021 thanks to COVID-19 as retailers try to open up again, companies go remote, and people move around the country.
The U.S in particular is already seeing a shift in people relocating interstate and this will result in new opportunities in certain cities.
My focus is still on education and finding a balance between the way it is delivered and more importantly, the standard and quality of curriculum.
If you’re interested in learning UX/UI design with a mentor like John, we invite you to explore our UX Academy program. If you’re interested in becoming a mentor with Designlab, we encourage you to apply here.