I’ve seen this question asked online a number of times. When you’re starting out in the design industry, do you need a graphic design mentor? The answer isn’t all that clear. I believe that while having a graphic design mentor can be incredibly helpful to your career, it is not an absolute necessity because of the online resources we have today.
That being said, it is important to have people you can learn from, regardless of if you consider them a true graphic design mentor or not. You can learn a tremendous amount of information online, from courses, other designers, videos, and social media. However, there is a big learning curve for new designers full of things you just can’t find online, so it’s always a good idea to find people you can learn from, because learning so vital to your success as a designer.
My First Design Job
My very first design job was not a great atmosphere for a new designer. It was a very small company and I was the only fully trained designer there. I made mistakes constantly and had so many questions with no one to answer them. I ended up Googling a lot of things, but answers were few and far between. This was well before Dribble, YouTube, or social media of any kind, and it was hard to find qualified design advice online. What I needed was a graphic design mentor, or just someone to point me in a better direction, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
I eventually left that company because I was just so frustrated by design. My schooling wasn’t enough to completely prepare me to jump into a full time design job without a way to learn on the job at a faster pace. I also lived in a small town at the time, which meant there weren’t many other design job options. Eventually I got a different job that sounded great on paper, but once again, I ended up being the only designer there for a long time. The job itself gave me more time to figure things out, but there are still plenty of things I did incorrectly. It was stressful.
When I left there I moved to a dramatically bigger city with a lot of job opportunities, but design had burned me out so I got a job in tech. Unfortunately, I spent much of that job mentally criticizing their processes and the absurd ways they actually functioned and treated their employees. That job ended up being more stressful than anything I could imagine so I went back to design.
My First Mentor
I got a new job quickly after that tech job, at a proper design agency, and it was a night and day difference from any of my previous design jobs. I was suddenly surrounded by people who knew what they were doing, had proper organization systems in place for files and clients, and were willing and able to help me learn. I feel like I learned more there than in all of design school because I had other designers to learn from, a skilled creative director who had the patience to teach me, and a great example of a well run design studio. It made all the difference.
I didn’t have a single mentor here; instead I considered the entire place my mentor. I learned from every single person on staff, including the sales people and the owners, simply because communication was so strong and everything was so well organized.
A few years later I had moved once again and found myself in another big city filled with opportunity. I got a job at a small company in the downtown core and was the only designer there for months. This time, I didn’t feel so overwhelmed because I actually knew what I was doing. The company eventually grew and we hired more design staff, including a brand manager who took the mentor role upon himself right away and took the time to teach all the designers there about branding and its role in design. Once again, I found myself learning so many new things and this renewed my love for design.
Find An Online Mentor
An option I didn’t have early in my design career, that you have today, is to learn from the internet. There are so many talented designers who share their knowledge every single day on a variety of online platforms. You don’t ever have to meet or communicate with them, but you can learn things from them that will definitively make you a better designer. I’m not saying the internet will entirely replace your need for an actual mentor, but you’ll be far better off learning certain things online than not having a mentor at all.
There are some designers I’ve learned a lot from over the last few years on YouTube, and I wish these resources had existed early in my design career. Here are two of my favorites:
Michael Janda is one of my favorite designers online that really focuses on the day-to-day running of an agency, dealing with clients, pricing, and all the things you don’t learn in design school. If you ever want to start your own design firm or just want to freelance, he is an invaluable resource.
Check out his YouTube channel here.
The Futur / Chris Do
The Futur is another of my favorite design resources online, not only in the courses offered on their website, but on YouTube where they share info all about the business of design, how to market yourself, and how to improve your technical design skills. The Futur is led by Chris Do, who actually has a few great videos on mentorship.
Of course there are also resources like Skillshare and LinkedIn Learning, where individual designers share their skills and knowledge to help you become a better designer and grow your technical skills.
Let’s also not forget about social media in general. Take advantage of the social part of social media. If you have a question, ask the design community. You might get your answer, you could find inspiration, or you might even find a new graphic design mentor.
Being a Mentor
At some point, later in your design career, you might have the option to be a graphic design mentor to younger designers. Try to remember how intimidating and difficult design can be when you’re starting out, and be patient. Every skilled designer has to start at the bottom and learn their way up to mastery.
Also, don’t be to proud to learn from new designers too. Technology and design methods change all the time and the things you learned when you were a new designer might completely evolve into something else by the time you’re a senior designer. Brand new designers learn things in school that simply didn’t exist when you were first learning design.
No matter how much design experience someone has, they might still be able to teach you something.
Do You Need A Graphic Design Mentor – In Summary
I don’t want you to think that you suddenly need to panic now and reach out to find a graphic design mentor. Learning graphic design is hard, even if you’re already gone through design school, and there is still so much to know in a professional design environment. I still learn new things every day, but I try to keep at it so it doesn’t overwhelm me. Luckily, we live in an era where design resources are abundant online and you can ask almost any question and receive an adequate answer.
The best advice I can give for new designers is to avoid working on your own at first. Find somewhere filled with other designers and professionals you can learn from.