An Interview with the Mentor Lead Team
Hey Team! It’s really great to be able to get to know you all better. So let’s start at the beginning of your journeys. How did you first get into the field of design?
James: As far as I can remember, I’ve been interested in the intersection between art, science, and technology: driven by the idea of developing tools for positive behavioural change. Starting out at university, I unknowingly teetered around Digital Product Design, started a degree in Architecture, before pivoting to Software Engineering, and then settling on Web & Graphic Design.
Starting out in the most isolated city in the world, Perth, Australia, I’ve had the good fortune of being exposed to a wide variety of industries, problems, and work environments in a relatively short amount of time. From a design team of one at a local tech startup, to a specialist recruiter at a remote enterprise, and from UX strategy at boutique agencies, to freelance design curriculum development.
Guido: Both my parents were architects and did a lot of industrial/product design during their careers, so design is part of my family history. I initially tried to emulate them and become an architect myself. Not long after graduating from architecture school, though, I realized that my true interest lay in design. So, I moved to Paris and got a proper visual design education in one of the best schools there.
As school ended, I decided to go back to Italy and took my first job as a visual designer at McCann. After a short time in the Milan office, I moved to Rome and joined the very first "digital" studio the agency created for its clients.
In those years, the web was literally exploding, so I took the chance to embrace the new and began working as one of the very first digital designers. One of our first clients was the Illy coffee brand and, while working on that account, I was asked to do a brief stint in the New York office. I moved to the U.S. shortly after — and ended up staying for more than 20 years!
During my first few years in the U.S., I worked agency side and participated in design development for Adidas, iRobot, Nokia, Philips, and Reebok. Later, I transitioned into designing products in-house, building, and leading product and brand design teams at Tripadvisor and Samsung Electronics America.
Crystal: I have never not been holding a pencil, chewing a felt-tip, or spilling ink everywhere. I studied in Cape Town, South Africa on a fantastic grad course that allowed me to explore multimedia art and design, from gouache painted typography to the art of branding. It was a million years before digital design was a thing, so I only started on a computer in my 4th year.
I started as a visual designer at a creative agency, working in a three story house with an attic where the copywriter had a desk with a view. If you needed a line, you had to climb the stairs for it. A couple years later I spent some time at Fabrica, the Benetton Research Center in Italy, and followed that with a Masters at Central Saint Martins in London.
After that, I worked as an experience designer at various agencies in London. I took a year off to complete an MBA at Nova and MIT Sloan, and then surprised myself by specialising in fintech and financial product innovation as a consultant. My most rewarding role to date was working in the UK Government as a Head of Service Design, building teams as part of the ongoing digital transformation. Along the way I’ve learnt that my driving passion is focussed on people and teams, and embedding design thinking and human-centered processes.
You all have such diverse and fascinating origin stories. So where did you work just before Designlab?
Crystal: Design Sprint Facilitator / Coach at Barclays Bank, where I worked to embed design-led and service design ways of thinking and working into the bank.
James: Lead Matchmaker for an elite remote freelancer marketplace where I got to support a global network of the very best in UI/UX design.
Guido: Chief Design Officer at Fjord/Accenture Interactive in Amsterdam, where I managed the design practice and mentored a team of 20+ service, product, and business designers.
And when/where did your journey with Designlab start?
Guido: After so many years building and managing design teams in a variety of businesses, I wanted to find a way to share my luck and knowledge with a new generation of aspiring designers. While exploring teaching opportunities, I discovered the mentor lead job posting from Designlab and quickly decided to apply.
Crystal: Is it crazy to say googling Design+Mentoring+Remote? I knew for quite some time that my passion was people and sharing my design experiences, I just wasn’t quite so sure how it would manifest. When I came across the mentorship opportunity from Designlab, I was intrigued, and told myself to give it a shot. I set out mentoring one student a week, and within a couple of weeks had stepped up to a couple of students a day!
James: I joined Designlab in 2018 to pursue an interest in creative education. I had a great time mentoring on/off for nearly 3 years, and while on the hunt for my next career challenge, I reached out to the company I knew best and learned of this opportunity!
However you got to Designlab, we’re really happy you’re here! I’m curious, what does a design mentor mean to you?
James: A more experienced version of yourself. Someone who has attained an outcome you desire and openly shares their recipe for success for your development.
Crystal: A design mentor is enthusiastic and inspiring, but always realistic, and is there to gently empower and cheer from the sidelines, nudging and encouraging along the way.
Guido: A design mentor is someone who has had a great deal of professional design experience and who shares the recipes of their successes and failures with upcoming designers. Mentors help reduce barriers of access to the industry, ease new designers’ burdens and anxieties, and guide them to achieve their aspirations with steadfast purpose.
Thanks for those insightful responses. Similarly, why do you think having a mentor is so important as you start to learn UI/UX Design?
Guido: Behind every design success story is a great design mentor. While the academic world can provide a high level of education for designers, mentors’ work helps refine it and gives designers a much more realistic perspective on the latest practices and methodologies.
As everything around us constantly changes, designers are among the professionals that are consistently asked to predict the future and build new products to make it easier and better. This constant pressure for improvement and innovation can be extremely challenging, so having mentors to help designers embark on their journeys and find their path to success is absolutely crucial.
Crystal: Because it takes a village. We are a great big community of practice, and we need mentors to share out their experiences and to extend a hand.
James: Mentors are a fantastic accelerator of learning; offering personalized guidance, real-world perspective, and grounding objectivity to sherpa you on what could otherwise be a very confusing, and lonely quest.
Mentors are undoubtedly crucial in learning a new skill, like UI/UX Design. What do you think the most important qualities of a good design mentor are?
Crystal: A good design mentor has overcome design, life, and career challenges and so can relate, empathetically, to the hurdles and fears of starting out.
- Patience: the learning process tests both teacher and student, so hang in there.
- Humility: learners are vulnerable, so mentors should keep the balance of power.
- Positivity: championing the belief in the relationship that while obstacles are inevitable, they can ultimately be overcome.
- Willingness to share skills, knowledge, and industry experience
- Extraordinary levels of patience and a positive attitude
- Views challenges as new opportunities
- Personal interest in the success and well being of each designer
- Provides guidance and constructive feedback with humility and understanding
- Thinks of themselves as an experienced beginner, always ready to learn something new
Speaking of those fears of starting out, what advice would you give to someone hoping to break into the field of UI/UX Design?
James: Don’t wait for the experience you need, create it! It’s not enough to aspire, you also have to perspire.
Guido: This is, without a doubt, the best time to become a product designer, as so much of our lives are being challenged: how we buy things, how we travel, how we spend time with others… the list goes on. We have the chance to truly redefine our lives and the products that help us prosper. Just jump into it head-on. There’s a new world to be built, and, as designers, you will be the ones tasked with reinventing it.
Crystal: As a designer you have the awesome ability to affect the lives and behaviours of others through the products and services you design,, so please, understand this and take that responsibility seriously.
You’ve all helped quite a few students make that journey into UI/UX Design. What is a memorable experience you’ve had mentoring students?
Guido: Two moments come to mind. The first was when a student sent me an incredibly heartwarming email to thank me for my help during her portfolio review. The second was when one of my students came up with a great product idea while we talked through an exercise. Both were humbling experiences and reminded me of the importance of the work we do every day.
James: When an ex-mentee wrote to me, thanking me for my mentorship, and shared they landed their dream job earning a sum healthier than my own! A funny, and very rewarding experience.
Crystal: For me, it’s more of a cumulative feedback loop. When students share their curiosity of design, I am awakened and energized. When students share their designs, I am intrigued and inspired. When students share their struggles, I am motivated to look for solutions alongside them. I always hope to give back as much as I receive!
Outside of leading our team of expert mentors, what do you like to do with your free time?
Crystal: Oh lots of things, I am happiest when I have a large variety of passion projects on the go, though mostly, I am an advocate for slow living. So I like to take my time to consciously do small things, like being with my family, daydreaming, watercoloring, fermenting, and watching plants grow.
James: I’m a keen traveller, and have lived in 12 different countries the last 12 months! In my free time, you can find me hitting up the local hiking trails.
Guido: I am addicted to sailing and try to spend as much time on my sailboat as the wind allows. I also love skiing and being outdoors. At home you can find me next to the wood stove with a good book in my hands, or rolling on the floor while playing with Pepe, my beloved sausage dog.
Hiking, sailing, watercoloring...love it! Final question, have you ever had a mentor? What was that experience like?
Crystal: I do, I did, I’ve had a few. They have been incredibly influential in my life, sharing so much more than design, infusing their ethos and perspectives into mine. The impact of my mentors has definitely defined many of the choices I’ve made.
James: Not currently. However, I’ve built and run Mastermind groups in the past that serve as peer-to-peer mentorship, and have gained a lot of value from these: namely hearing objective, and diverse perspectives.
Guido: I feel truly blessed to have had several foundational mentors in my life, and it would be difficult to choose just one. However, I will never forget my boss at McCann, who not only gave me my first job out of design school, but who also shaped how I view the design industry today.
The Designlab team is elated to have this new Mentor Lead Team onboard to help lead mentor growth, reinvent our curriculum with a fresh industry perspective, create stronger design leadership programs, and generate new ways to collaborate with our students. We can't wait to see what they achieve and how they'll help improve our mentor experience, and thus our students’ success.
If you’re interested in becoming a UI/UX design mentor, we encourage you to apply here.