COVID-19 has brought with it many changes and challenges, and the design world is far from immune — the effect for some designers just entering the field has been a great deal of confusion and despair, especially among graduating students who are preparing to enter the industry. Mentorship and guidance have never been more important than they are at this moment. They are the antidote to much of the anxiety many young designers feel as they attempt to break into the industry at this tricky time.
Fortunately, at Amazon, we've been able to help — partnering with other companies, such as Adobe, to put programs into place like with the College + Amazon Design Creative Jam. Here's how we're approaching mentorship, and why it matters so much right now.
Mentorship is an incredibly powerful tool, not just for mentees who get guidance (how to survive and thrive working in design), but for mentors, as well. When you have to explain how something works to somebody else, it causes you to reevaluate how you got to the solution yourself, and it helps crystallize your thinking. This is no different than here at Amazon Design.
The Amazon Design team has put together internal mentorship programs designed to help junior designers find other designers with the knowledge needed to advance.
At Amazon, there are many designers in every corner of the company. You have visual designers, motion designers, full-stack UX designers, researchers, UX writers, and on and on and on. There are many disciplines of designers, and they're all working on different things inside of a very large company. This can make it tricky for junior designers and new hires to find the right people that can help them develop career skills.
This actually turns senior level designers into better problem solvers; explaining something succinctly to somebody is evidence that you understand the concept thoroughly. Sometimes, you have to force yourself to reevaluate a decision and bring it into more common and approachable terms, which is a very Amazon thing to do. I’ve seen how this helps junior and mid-level designers, myself included, to hone their skills and become more confident. At Amazon, we sought new ways to bring these same opportunities to new designers outside of our organization, too.
The Amazon Design team started working with the Adobe education team for the College + Amazon Design Creative Jam before the pandemic. Even then, we were throwing around ideas of what we could do and what this event could be. As COVID-19 set in, it became clear that we needed to bring something extra to the table. One of our goals at Amazon is to bring attention to design as a career.
When we were planning this event with the Adobe Creative Jam and education teams, we knew it was important to open up the design challenge and learning experience to students from various different majors. We didn't want to limit this to just design students or design schools because there are so many ways to get into the work we do. My colleague Corey Dangel, executive producer and Amazon Design community leader, wanted to make sure we emphasized the various paths that one can take to design and show what design looks like in a company like Amazon. This is when mentorship really started to become a major component of this Creative Jam.
When I first started mentoring for the Jam, I was nervous. My first set of students had no background in User Experience (UX) design. This created quite a challenge for me. I had to try to think of a design concept in the simplest form so that I could explain it to them and they could get to where they needed to go. As I continued to work with them in these sessions, I could see that their skill level just kept growing and growing. The conversations evolved, and began to feel like a chat with colleagues where you could (virtually) turn to the side and bounce ideas off one another.
This year’s Creative Jam was a learning opportunity for everyone involved. A design challenge of this magnitude in the middle of a pandemic made mentorship even more powerful for the people who were participating. There were designers from around the globe working together remotely, and that can be challenging even at the best of times.
Joseph Paul Ernest James of London South Bank University touched on this when asked to reflect on his experience at the Jam: “As a team, we had to work remotely, apart from each other — this made it harder to get feedback from others during the design process. However, with the help of our Amazon Design mentor, we were exposed to industry feedback that ensured our app was cohesive and told a clear and compelling story.”
Creative Jam Host with design judges from Adobe and Amazon
At this Creative Jam, we didn’t want to just highlight the diverse roles that fall under the umbrella of design. We also wanted to uplift Black, Latinx, and Native American designers at Amazon. As senior program manager of design education and diversity, Kass Escalera, reminded me, “We have the unique opportunity to connect designers from across Amazon with students and support them on their own design journeys.” This puts us in a position to educate and inform students about who designers are and what they can do.
An event like the Jam gives us the opportunity to showcase Amazon designers from all paths. It creates this moment for people from different backgrounds to be seen, to be heard, and to connect with others in their community. It also gives our team the chance to help with some of the access problems for students and people that don’t traditionally have a direct route into technology companies. This is an ethos that is very close to my heart.
"As a Black woman, I feel like it's my responsibility to make sure that I open doors for people behind me. I want to make sure, especially for Black and Brown folks, that they have the tools they need and that they understand the methods that can get them in the door."
As a Black woman, I feel like it's my responsibility to make sure that I open doors for people behind me. Honestly, the things that you learn in design programs, whether it's at the undergraduate or at the Master's level, are not properly equipping you if you want to be at these larger tech companies. I want to make sure, especially for Black and Brown folks, that they have the tools they need and that they understand the methods that can get them in the door. Part of Amazon Design’s purpose is to open doors and create opportunities.
Luke Kingham, a product design student at London South Bank University, had this to say when asked about his experience at the Creative Jam: “All too often a disparity exists between education and industry, with a lack of opportunity to receive guidance and experience from those within the industries we aspire toward most. With the impacts of COVID-19 only serving to perpetuate this barrier. I would encourage everyone to take advantage of opportunities, such as this Amazon Creative Jam, whenever possible — it has furthered a whole spectrum of my design-related skills and the outcome is a great asset to my portfolio!” Right on, Luke.
My mentorship is aimed more at junior designers, because I know the trials and hardships it took for me to get where I am. My method is simple and personal. I like to meet one-on-one and get to know the person in a low pressure, conversational manner. Then I do portfolio reviews and help them find ways to better represent their talents. Then comes the most important part, I introduce them to other folks in the industry and, essentially, connect them to my network.
This is so important. I'd say the number one thing most students and junior designers need to learn is how to communicate and build relationships. Networking and being plugged into the community is an absolutely essential piece of the design puzzle. The role of a designer is about 40% actual design work and the rest is all about relationship building. Getting to know key stakeholders and rallying people behind your designs. That's a huge part of what I try to teach in my work as a mentor.
Another essential component is understanding how we communicate in tech circles. We really do have our own language and that can be intimidating for people who are new to the field. Until you learn the language and the nuances of how to use it, you can feel out of place or you might even have difficulty speaking up for yourself. It becomes infinitely easier to navigate the industry once you can talk the talk. Learning to communicate goes way beyond language and gets into how we go about communicating as well. New designers also have to learn about the cultural norms of the industry and their specific company. Those things need to be taught.
Amazon Design is working hard to mentor young designers and design students, both inside the organization and outside of it. We’ve done our best to create partnerships with other industry leaders, like Adobe, so that we can bring these episodic mentorship opportunities to Amazon’s design community as well as students and new designers.
It’s no light commitment. Mentorship and community building takes constant outreach and effort to do it right and in a meaningful way. It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding. Not only does it allow us to foster relationships in the broader design community, it also gives our designers the opportunity to better understand their own processes. A win-win for us, and the next generation of talented designers just getting started.