This month we’re turning our mentor spotlight on Erika Harano, a freelance designer and design educator based in St. Louis, Missouri.

She spoke to us about her experience mentoring short course students, the social responsibility of designers to create products that are ethical and accessible, and how mentors can learn from the lived experiences of their students as well.

What does an ordinary day at work look like for you?

Every day is a little bit different, but I typically have some combination of client meetings, short course student mentor sessions, and independent, deep-dive work time for design projects. 

Aside from design, I’m in a farming collective and a dance company, so sometimes I have farming in the mornings, design meetings in the afternoons, dance rehearsals in the evenings, and then tunnel in on independent design work in the late evening hours.

What project are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the website design I did for Blue Turtle Bodywork. Blue Turtle Bodywork is a bodywork service in Chicago that centers the healing and wellness of queer and trans people of color (QTPOC). As someone who is part of that community, it meant a lot to be able to partner with a business that specifically prioritizes QTPOCs.

What attracted you to becoming a mentor?

I care deeply about education, and to me, how people learn about, think about, and relate to design is more important than what people design.

What has been the biggest challenge for you as a mentor?

One of the biggest challenges has been figuring out how to best support students in learning a lot of content in just four weeks. “Real-world” UX research and strategy projects can easily take more than four weeks, and to work with students as they learn to plan, conduct, and analyze research in way less time can be tricky.

What do you find most exciting or rewarding in mentoring?

The most rewarding aspect of mentoring is getting to meet, work with, learn from, and support students from all over the world as they grow in their paths as designers—and hearing from students months after working with them to learn about how they’ve transitioned roles or careers to be in more alignment with their commitments to design.

What has surprised you most about the students you've worked with?

The range of students I’ve worked with, in terms of where they are in their professional journeys always surprises me. I’ve worked with students who’ve recently graduated college, and with older students who are shifting out of careers and industries they’ve been a part of for decades.

User flow for Goalful, a productivity app design.

What has been your ultimate “student win” throughout your mentoring experience?

One of my former mentees from the UX Research & Strategy and Interaction Design courses is now a Designlab mentor in the Branding course! Her background is in both graphic design and marketing, and I’m glad she enjoyed her Designlab experience so much that she applied to be a mentor, too.

Have there been any surprising gains through mentoring for you as a design professional?

I’ve had a number of UX Academy students reach out to connect about shared interests in using design to challenge dominant systems of power. We’re forming a network of sorts, and it's exciting for me to see and know that there are other UX designers who are just as committed to reshaping design and the roles we play in society.

What do you think makes a good mentor?

I think the qualities of good mentorship include honesty and transparency; humility; effective and direct communication; warmth, care, and approachability; willingness to learn and grow; specific attentiveness to each student’s unique learning goals, needs, and styles; critical perspectives on power dynamics; and willingness to embrace both giving and receiving critique and feedback.

High-fidelity mockups from Erika’s Goalful project.

What do you think makes a good student?

If I can reframe the question a bit, I think students who seem to do well in courses are honest and transparent about their goals, needs, and expectations for their learning; communicative about these needs; curious and open-minded; willing to challenge the status quo and to challenge what they think they know; and willing to embrace both giving and receiving critique and feedback.

What do you think the future holds for the design industry?

What a big question! I think about design as being part of literally every industry, because everything is design(ed). Design is decision-making, and decision-making happens everywhere. 

I think the “design industry”—especially folks working in “Design with a capital D” (in product design, UX design, app design, in tech broadly)—have a lot of power and access to a lot of information about everyday people, and a lot of influence on the behaviors, goals, needs, and desires of people. 

I think the “design industry”—and people who identify with being part of that—have a major responsibility in figuring out how to make sure people are able to engage with products, services, and experiences safely and with their full consent, and that we break down the barriers that limit who can access products, services, and experiences. We need to consider the impacts and consequences of products, services, and experiences on the ecosystem and the natural world and prioritize measuring the success of products outside of profitability.

How would you like to see the industry develop in the next few years?

I’d like to see more emphasis on consensual design, accessible design, and inclusive design, not just within product design teams and companies, but within design education programs. 

We need to prioritize these aspects of design not for profitability, but because it’s our responsibility as people who are supposed to shape “good” and “better” design experiences. I’d also like to see a big shift away from the term “user,” which is objectifying and disempowering, and would like to see the industry move towards alternatives. (I think “people” is quite simple and direct.)

Erika dancing. Photo credit: Dave Moore Photography

What is your most important tip for students who are just starting out in design?

I don’t have a single most important tip—you can probably see that I don’t really believe in superlatives! One tip I do tend to share is to question assumptions and ask questions fiercely and consistently—assumptions and biases are everywhere, and as designers we have to be mindful of the assumptions and biases we (individually and collectively) hold, so that we know how to work with them and actively address them as we design. I also think it makes us sharper, more critical, and ultimately more innovative designers and team players.

What is the most important tip for designers who want to become mentors?

I think it’s important for people in mentorship roles to remember that there aren’t black-and-white, single-answer solutions or single ways to approach design challenges. I always keep a “yes, and…” approach when working with and coaching students, and my responses to questions often start with “it depends”. 

It’s also important to critique the idea of expertise: while mentors may have experience that some consider to be expertise, we must also remember that our students bring immense expertise through their lived experiences, too. I think successful mentoring is comprised of reciprocal relationships in which mentors learn and grow with students just as much as students learn and grow with mentors.

Thanks Erika! You can also check out Erika’s portfolio and writing.

Interested in becoming a mentor? Find out more

Enjoyed this article? Try another!

More from the Designlab Blog

Go to blog homepage