Designing in the Dust

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This morning I was following my standard routine of absent staring into my twitter feed when I noticed Mark Boulton fire out a tweet commending Sarah Parmenter for deciding to hire on two apprentices. Mark goes on to mention that a similar action on his part was one of the best decisions they made at his design firm. I remember back when Mark had decided to take that endeavor, he published posts and content about it and a lot of members of this design community of ours commended him on this move. All of this leads me to wonder why we didn’t and still don’t see more of this behavior.

This sort of opportunity (to learn directly under these people) has always had a particular interest to me. Not just because I’ve had a certain interest or passion for design since I was quite young but also because it was an opportunity largely unobtainable to me. While the state of Indiana does have some very talented and incredibly smart designers, it doesn’t provide the honeypot of design and technology related opportunities boasted by either coast of the US and plenty of other areas worldwide. This was especially true in the town of Evansville, where I grew up.

I knew then as I still know now that having a mentor in my field would provide a ridiculous amount of value in what I could learn from another designer who had years of experience and a wealth of talent that I did (and do) not possess. But what’s a young Hoosier to do? When I was 17 I stumbled into an internship opportunity with a local agency that provided design, hosting, and commercial production services for some businesses in the area. I was very excited for this, the people I got to work with were great and it was my first professional experience playing the role of a designer for a company. I got to work with clients and solve problems, it was great. However, I was disappointed to a degree when it quickly became apparent that the existing design skills of the company did not exceed those I had already generated on my own (which wasn’t much).

Through high school and college I worked my way into freelance gigs that paid the weak ass bills I had at the time and allowed me to put a little cash in the bank. During college I had a few part-time jobs that placed me in designer positions. Both were great in that they were fantastic work places and I had a surprising level of creative and personal freedom for a part-time employee. But alas, the same problem remained. No opportunity to work directly with people who clearly knew a whole lot more about what I was doing than I did.

While I am no old man I do know that I could be a lot better at what I do today if I had an opportunity for that experience. I also know it’s something I could still grow a heck of a lot from today. It wouldn’t take more than a few minutes for me to come up with a list of 50 or maybe 100 designers that I know produce good work, have smart thoughts on our industry, and blow my mind with their creativity. I want to work with these people, but here I am, still in Indiana and not complaining about the fact that I have a yard (with grass and trees and stuff) and that the mortgage on my house is probably half of what my rent in an NYC apartment would be.

But is my dream dead? I think not. When I look at what I would value out of an apprenticeship it’s not the sound of someone else’s mouse and keyboard clicking away. It’s their feedback on the decisions I make, it’s the eye-opening experience of someone explaining to you that you are totally wrong and here’s why. I know this kind of interaction when I see it. I’ve had the opportunity to look like a total fool and grow from it in a lot of areas in life, some more related to my profession than others. I think this type of Jedi-to-Padawan relationship can be established digitally. Because all it really takes is some time to provide feedback, answer some emails and have an occasional chat about a project or idea. I have no doubt there are plenty of experience designers out there that could even pass off some minor parts of a project they are working on or give an intern/apprentice the opportunity to execute a job that you would otherwise not have the time to take on.

Asking someone for their time is easier said than done. Everyone’s time is valuable and I can imagine that most of the designers that I could expect to learn the most from are busy as-is without the inclusion of one or two young designers in their inner-circle. There has to be an interest there; one of investing into the future of design and passing along what you learn to those eager to accept it. I know this interest exists. I see it from simple blog posts idea all the way to things like Summer Camp that involves a direct financial contribution into the design community.

So I ask those who certainly know more about all of this than I. Do you, or have you, taken time to mentor the generation behind you? If not what prevents you from making that leap or taking that time? I am certain that I do not stand alone in what the individual young designer stands to learn and what the community as a whole stands to gain. We certainly don’t want to be left in the dust.

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