In my closing keynote at Interactions 09, I spoke about some of the challenges facing interaction design as a profession, perhaps the most important of which is a shortage of designers just when the world is starting to demand what we do. Increasing numbers of college and university programs will help, but the fact is that interaction design—or any kind of design, really—is a craft that takes time to master regardless of one’s educational background. If you believe the 10,000 hour rule recently popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, that mastery should take something along the lines of five years doing nothing but design.
In my experience, people get more out of those hours when they’re not working in isolation, but are surrounded by more experienced people who can challenge, support, and advise them. Consultancies and large in-house design organizations often have some kind of coaching built into their structures and processes, and good managers are often good coaches. However, it can be hard to see your manager as approachable because, regardless of his personal qualities, he controls your career track and compensation. Sometimes, a senior person who isn’t responsible for your career is easier to get advice from. This is why everyone at Cooper with “senior” in her job title is explicitly expected to mentor others.
Unfortunately, not all companies have this kind of mentoring built in, and many young designers (or not-so-young PMs and engineers who want to be designers) work in environments without experienced design leaders. This is one reason the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) has decided to create a mentorship program to hook up people who’d like a little career coaching with those experienced practitioners who are willing to coach. As you might expect, so far the program has attracted more people looking for mentors than people willing to mentor.
So here’s my pitch to all of you potential mentors out there. First, mentoring isn’t a one-way transaction. As a friend of mine who recently earned his black belt in Aikido told me, a black belt isn’t a sign that you’re a master; instead, it’s a sign that you’re ready to become a true student. Teaching others will make you far more conscious of your own craft. Also, consider this: you, yourself, can only design so many products and services that make the world better. The people you mentor will go on to design many more. Finally, mentoring doesn’t need to be a huge time commitment; just an hour or two here and there can make a big difference.