Based in Long Island, New York, Anthony Faria has mentored 12 Designlab students in both Design 101 and UX Academy. He’s currently a visiting lecturer at Pratt Institute, where he teaches UI Visual Design and Prototyping. We talked about his experience working at companies like AOL and Time Warner, and he gave his tips for students who are just starting out in design!
Hey, Anthony! So what does an ordinary working day look like for you?
I don’t have an ordinary day exactly, but I do have routines to ground me.
Typically I start the morning early, with a run. The rest of my time, depending on the day, is split between designing, teaching, mentoring, and being with family.
I have a home office I work out of, and a painting studio in the backyard. Each sector of my life has a committed space for it, and none of them are too far apart—this is a relatively recent development, and has really helped me balance everything.
What class do you teach as a visiting lecturer at Pratt Institute?
Right now I’m teaching UI Visual Design and Prototyping, where I walk students through designing and developing a mobile prototype. It’s the final class in a series of UX/UI design courses at Pratt, built to provide each student with a comprehensive tool kit they can use to kick start their design career.
I only have 8 weeks with my students, so I spend most of it teaching fundamentals and software, the tools they’ll use to realize their ideas. The final few classes are made up mostly of one-on-one sessions with students, where we address any problems they’ve had with their prototypes.
Of the many design projects you’ve worked on, which are you most proud of?
Every team I’ve worked with and every project we’ve made is vital to the designer I’ve become. I’m especially proud of what my team and I accomplished at Viggle, an entertainment app that rewards its users for “checking in” to TV shows.
We were designing a mobile app that treated the phone as a second screen, paving new ground at a company that was still in the midst of building itself. I was able to drive product design, have a say in the company’s direction, and curate a talented team that worked fast and collaborated exceptionally well.
Every day we were trying new ideas and failing and trying again.
At Viggle, the rule book hadn’t been entirely written yet. My designers and myself were given the space and autonomy to experiment and grow, and trusted enough that we could innovate freely.
I took the management philosophy I’d developed during my time at AOL and directly applied it to this entirely new project, learning from the results, shaping my approach. The level to which we were allowed to be creative and have fun is evident, I think, in the work we produced during that time.
AOL—one of the internet’s OGs! Tell us about your experience working there.
I got to work at AOL because a creative director I’d reported to at Time Warner moved there, and asked if I would join him.
The experience was exciting from the start. Day one as a senior designer, I was tasked with designing a website for one of our properties. The culture at AOL was heavily collaborative and inclusive, which made it easier for me to work with a variety of departments, meet people and familiarize myself with how the whole ship was run. I had some great managers; thanks to their encouragement, I started managing designers for the first time myself.
When I look back on my time at AOL, I think of it all as a proto-design management bootcamp. The lessons I learned there shaped my approach to management at every company I’ve worked for since, and to mentorship as a whole.
While I was at AOL, the company went through tremendous changes (17,000 employees when I entered, 4,000 when I left). In a less-than-consistent environment, I learned to adapt to every new situation that presented itself.
As much as this posed a challenge, it forced my designers and I to be creative with our problem-solving, and sharpened our insight.
Exciting stuff indeed. Changing tack—where do you call home these days?
I live in Long Island with my wife, an artist as well. We were both raised here, but we lived in Manhattan throughout our twenties and thirties. We’ve always loved the energy of the city, there’s no comparison to just walking through it. Even in the years since we’ve moved, there are still so many galleries and outlets for art; we return as often as we can.
My wife and I moved to Long Island when our son was born, to be in a quieter environment, closer to nature. Galleries aside, the beaches are an easy trade for Manhattan’s sheer noise level.
The biggest challenge has been the three-hour round-trip work commute, and using that time to catch up on reading has been my saving grace.
What else do you like to do in your free time?
I love to run, hike, and ski when I can. I’m also a painter. I built a studio where I live, which doubles as a great change of environment when I feel burnout creeping in. Often after drawing or painting, I’ll return to my design work with a new perspective.
As a borderline workaholic, I’m always looking for ways to optimize my time, but I’ve found this doesn’t have to mean actually working all the time. The time I spend resting my brain or engaging it at a museum does wonders for me later, when I put my brain to work.
What products do you especially appreciate (give the borderline workaholism)?
When I think of products that are designed exceptionally well, I think of products used to make designs. And it’s hard to pick just one.
The slate of tools available today are more advanced in helping the designer design and prototype than they’ve ever been, and each appeal to a different approach.
When it comes to working in digital, Sketch, Figma, XD and others have all simplified my processes, expedited workflow, and helped me develop aesthetic consistency across my work.
In the past everyone was using Photoshop to design web and mobile screens, which is crazy when you think about it. With the new digital design software I’ve been consistently impressed by just how good all of these programs are at predicting my needs and delivering.
How’ve you found the experience of mentoring Designlab students?
I’ve worked with 12 students in the past, and currently mentor nine, five of whom are in the Design 101 course. I teach them the fundamentals of the design field, and usually we’ll spend time picking each other’s brains about our experiences around design and what motivates us.
I work with my other four mentees in Career Services, where we use whatever resources they’ve built up to this point to land them their first UX position. This involves a lot of resume and portfolio prep, reviewing applications or positions they’ve been offered, even mock interviews.
With both courses, my goal is for the student to leave feeling so empowered that they follow through on the momentum we’ve built together.
What made you want to become a design mentor?
I wanted to be a mentor because of the great mentors I’ve had.
They all taught me to listen, remain positive and value others’ opinions. They all lead by example. When I first started managing others, my own manager set goals for me. Each time I accomplished a goal, I had more of the skills and confidence I needed to fully transition into management.
So much in the design industry can be learned only through experience, but that experience can be directed. As a mentor, you can see your mentee’s experiences from a lived perspective, and guide them to the most productive solution.
You can convey to them their own experience in ways you wish had been conveyed to you. Articulating to someone your approach to work inevitably teaches you about the way you work, and why you work the way you do.
As always, it’s deeply gratifying to share this all with someone who’s excited to learn.
What do you find most rewarding about working with students?
I learned through managing teams that I get a lot out of helping others grow. It feels good, it’s good for me, and I genuinely learn something each time.
Many of my mentees at Designlab are transitioning careers, and their experience in whatever career they’re leaving informs their unique approach to entering the design field. Adapting our approach to each individual’s background keeps things exciting, and I always leave with a wider perspective.
There’s great pride to be had in watching someone learn how to tell their story with confidence, or create something based on the experience you’ve shared with them. Often I’m surprised by how quickly my students can apply what they’ve learned.
What do you think makes a good mentor?
A good mentor is as skilled as they are socially intelligent and compassionate. Technical craftsmanship is important, but can also be taught in school; good mentors teach their students how to communicate, collaborate and motivate themselves and others positively. The student learns to be a role model for others, which is its own kind of mentor.
Constructive critique is essential. In my mind, a good mentor provides critical insight while encouraging a student’s effort, drawing attention to the good in the work, explaining why they might need to work on a specific area, or what changes could improve their efforts. Every person has their own level of experience and works at a different pace.
A good mentor will take these variables into consideration, and use this information to try bringing out the best in their students. Often this leads me to asking leading questions of the people I mentor; I’m always trying to get them to articulate their thoughts and tell their story.
And how about what makes a good student?
A good student is willing to fail. To that end, they’re as eager to experiment and take risks as they are receptive to feedback.
As a junior designer, I found I excelled when I applied whatever feedback I was given to my next project. The hardest thing for me was remembering to experiment; it’s often easy to get safe with your design. Stability in your process is important, but not at the expense of discovering a potential improvement to how you design.
I always recommend to students that they observe the work of those around them: their peers, directors, other designers in the field. As a teacher, I have to observe my students’ work every day - and it’s taught me a lot. Each designer has an approach unique to their level of experience and personal history. This is the best part of design, the human element, and it shows itself in ways large and subtle.
What’s your top tip for students who are just starting out in design?
As with every art, practice is essential to design. The more time you spend physically designing, the more fluent you become in modes of thinking that enhance your craft. Starting out in design is a time consuming process, that’s one of the things that makes it rewarding.
My biggest advice is to design every day. This can mean jotting down layouts in a notebook, building logos using vector software. Often I encourage my students to participate in the Daily UI design challenge (dailyui.co). It’s a great way to improve your design aesthetic and add to your portfolio. Take any opportunity you can to experiment, play, and develop your own style.
When you’re not actively working at it, start carrying around a sketchbook. Start a Pinterest board or make a folder on your desktop, collect websites, apps, .jpegs of designs that challenge you. This can all seriously be of great use further down the line.
On the web, there are infinite resources to expand your understanding of design. Websites like UX Collective, Inside Design or Interaction Design Foundation,Ted talks and YouTube tutorials can fill you in on the array of terminology, methods, and myriad approaches to design thinking.
If you’re not caught up on the latest software and can’t afford every program just yet, consider downloading trial versions of the Adobe suite, Sketch, Invision and Figma. Set aside some time to practice using them and watching tutorial videos. There’s no excuse to not have experience in every software listed on your resume.
What do you think the future holds for the design industry?
My career began around the same time as the internet, and I like to think we both have found modest success. Because of the web, I’ve seen countless changes in not just the tools designers use, but in the areas of life and the devices to which these tools are applied.
Tasks that required five designers twenty years ago can today be accomplished by one designer and a program on their laptop. The advances in software have leveled the playing field; newer, smaller companies can compete with their well-funded predecessors.
The make-or-break factor now, for companies big or small, is their ability to communicate, collaborate, and solve problems as a single well-oiled unit. This will only become more integral to the success of individual design teams and companies at large.
The future of design holds success for those who collaborate and innovate quickly. Talent and taste are still important, but an aptitude for problem solving will continue to grow as the designer’s biggest asset.
Finally, do you have any personal goals for 2020?
I plan on continuing to mentor and look for ways I can improve my mentorship. I’m teaching a course at Pratt over the summer called Design Leadership. This will be the first course I’ve written; I first had the idea to run a leadership course for current/aspiring managers in the design field a few years ago, and after some time researching and workshopping the course I’m excited to set these plans in motion.
In the fall I’ll be running a class on Human Centered Design. And I’d love to try surfing again, maybe I’ll start with stand up paddle boarding.
Thanks for sharing your insights with us, Anthony! You can connect with him on LinkedIn.
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