Danielle Malik on mentoring the next generation of designers

The O’Reilly Design Podcast: Design education, mentoring, and what design skills matter the most.

By Mary Treseler
October 27, 2016
David Hockney Mentor Piece - Cherry Blossom Tree. David Hockney Mentor Piece - Cherry Blossom Tree. (source: Amanda Niekamp on Flickr)

In this week’s Design Podcast, I sit down with Danielle Malik, designer, owner, and mentor at Design Equation. We talk about mentoring the next generation of designers, what she is learning from recent design grads, and the role fear can play in our work.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

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Design Equation: Bridging the experience gap between design education and a job

Most people who teach will tell you it’s a great way to reexamine what you believe about a given topic, since you have to explain it and repackage it for others.

I started Design Equation to address a couple of problems that I’d been seeing in my career. The first issue is basically around the cost of design. Very often in my career, there’d be a client that I wanted to work with. They had a really cool product or a really great mission, but the economics of it just didn’t work, and there’s only so much pro bono and discounted work that you can do.

… The second issue that I was trying to solve—I became more aware of ‘the other shoe drops’ after General Assembly for me because I was finding that some of my students who I thought were very driven and very talented, really poised for success, were having trouble landing a job in the field. Very often, they’re hearing that they need more real-world work in their portfolios, and having been a hiring manager, I totally get it. People don’t want to be the first one to take a gamble on a new designer. Designers are really hard to evaluate, the junior ones, because all their portfolios tend to look the same. They work in group projects, so you’re never entirely sure what work is theirs. They don’t have references related to design work. All this makes it a challenge to hire junior designers and definitely creates a wall that they’re bumping up against when they try to get out in the field.

Working with General Assembly grads

The things I’m finding about junior designers—I was getting inklings of these things at General Assembly, but my work here at Design Equations really confirmed it. First of all, they’re really capable of a lot. General Assembly is a 10-week program. You could realistically have very low expectations for these people, but they do fantastic work, and the thing I try to impress upon them, too, is the ability to explore. In that, I have high expectations for them. I do find that when you have high expectations, people will rise to meet them.

Another thing I’m noticing about them is that they really value direct feedback. Not all of my designers are millennials, but I think about that millennial stereotype where everyone gets a trophy, and don’t say anything mean or they’ll get mad, and that’s not true at all. The people that I work with, they really want direct feedback. They really want me to give it to them unfiltered and uncensored. They’re here to grow. They understand that I’m here to help them, and they also understand that I’m doing it from a place of love. That’s another misconception I think people have about these junior designers, that they should be coddled; I’m really finding the opposite is true.

The last common thing that I’m finding about junior designers—and, frankly, this could apply to any of us at any age—is the role that fear is playing in their lives. They’re especially vulnerable because they’ve taken a big risk on this new career. No promise of a job at the end of it. They come in and the fear could really sabotage them. It could really sink the work they do to be consumed by the self doubt, to be insecure, to worry about their abilities and also the qualities of their ideas, but I always address it very directly. We talk about it when it’s coming up, and I also try to give them a space where they feel safe to take risks, and to try things and actually fail if they need to, within a safety net that I provide because I feel like we talk a lot about how failure is good, fail fast, all this, but then when they actually get in the workplace, it’s like, ‘No, no. You put on your game face. You fake it till you make it. You cover up your mistakes.’ I try and provide a different experience around fear that hopefully helps them manage it better.

The balance of what to learn

UX is an incredible shapeshifting profession. I still feel like in my 15 years, the core of what I do has remained the same. I’m hired to be a critical thinker and a problem solver, and that really hasn’t changed over the years, but in my time as a designer, UX has not only come to me and the full stack of UX activities from research to design to testing and prototyping, but these job descriptions more and more are including visual design, very often including code. Designers really need to be familiar with data and analytics now. Underlying all of this through my whole career has been our drive and our fight for strategic influencing companies. That, too, has a set of skills that are required, increasing your business acumen, being able to understand market opportunities, things like that.

There’s already so much that we could theoretically be responsible for knowing. Then on the horizon, we have gestural products, IOT, robotics, there’s AI. All of these things are pulling from different fields, fields that we’ll be collaborating with. For some reason, UX is like this blob. Anything we touch, we have to assimilate and say, ‘I really ought to know how to do that, or I ought to be more familiar with those tools and tricks.’ I fear that we just keep growing and keep pulling in more of these skills as being required. I hope that we stay grounded in our roles as critical thinkers and problem solvers at the core, but this growth and this continuous requirement of new skills, I think, is a detriment to us.

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