INTERVIEW: What makes a good creative mentor?

Nurturing raw creative talent, no matter what background people come from, is something we are passionate about at Design Bridge. Whilst the industry still has a long way to go to address this, initiatives like D&AD’s New Blood Shift programme offer a glimmer of hope to what the future could look like. We’ve been involved with Shift, a free night school programme for creatives without a degree or formal creative education, since its inception in London a few years ago. When the program launched in New York, our NY team were also keen to support the next generation of US creative talent. For the latest Shift cohort Design Bridge New York's Jess Marie (Creative Director) and Nei Valente (Senior Designer) became mentors to two very talented NYC-based Shift-ers, so we caught up with Jess and Nei to learn more about why they got involved, what makes a good mentor (and mentee), and asked them to share the best piece of advice they’ve ever been given…

Hey Jess! First things first, why did you become a mentor for Shift?

JM: This is my second time as a mentor for Shift and diversity in the industry is something I feel very strongly about, so if there is any way that I can help to push change forwards, I try to get involved.
Shift is a great program that gives people with real raw talent an opportunity to enter the industry, and the industry is definitely better for it. We have a few team members we have hired from this program, and my mentee from last time now works at Droga5. I am a mentor to encourage and seek out new talent.

Same question to Nei…

NV: People just don’t have the same opportunities when it comes to getting their foot in the door to work in the creative industry. To really make a difference there needs to be fundamental changes made to how the industry works, but programs like D&AD Shift are a great starting point and can really make a difference to individuals who may not have had the knowledge, opportunities or even the confidence to pursue a creative career before.

JM: I agree, sometimes people don’t even know that the creative industry is a career option for them. And have no idea where to start. Having the opportunity to help people see that the creative industry can be an option for them is really important.

NV: I also have personal reasons for why I wanted to get involved and I am learning a lot in the process. Meeting these incredibly talented individuals on the program has been very inspiring for me.

What do you think makes a good mentor?
JM: I had an amazing Creative Director when I started out who really inspired me. Yes, he was super talented, but he was also a great mentor. He was encouraging, took time to review my work, and was honest and constructive with feedback. He always pushed big ideas and creative ways of bringing them to life. He really cared about great design as much as he cared about developing his team, and that has always stuck with me. When you mentor people you are talking with people who will one day be in the same position as you, maybe you’ll even be working under them!

NV: I’ve also been lucky to have been given lots of good advice from various people throughout my career as a designer. For me, the ideal mentor is the one that pushes you to improve, but who does it in a motivating way. I don’t think a mentor needs to do the same kind of creative work as you, but it’s important that they care about what you want for your future and can see the bigger picture, rather than someone who just tries to fit you into whatever they think is the “right” thing based on their experience.

And how about mentees – what makes a good mentee?
NV: Someone who is willing to learn and share things honestly with their mentor. It goes both ways, but if the mentee sees their mentor as a roadblock, or even like a client that they are trying to impress and win over, it’s not going to work. So it’s about listening, but it’s also important to find your own voice and have the confidence to challenge your mentor, too. If your mentor is good, they won’t be offended – a bit of healthy debate and discussion is always a good thing!

JM: Be a sponge. Soak up everything you can. Ask questions and get tips on how to get ahead. Be proactive and action the goals you set out together. This is your chance to use your mentor and learn as much as you can, so make the most of the person and the resources they can share with you.

With that in mind… Jess, tell us a bit about your mentee Sofie.
JM: Sofie is the youngest person in the current program but she absolutely loves illustration and has that raw talent. She’s only been introduced to the commercial creative world through Shift – she was a dog walker and applied for the program after seeing it advertised on Craigslist! So this really is the very beginning of her journey as a creative.

I’ve been impressed with the ideas and creative solutions she has come up with for the briefs set by D&AD, and I’ve already introduced her to Nina, a CGI Artist in our Studio, who talked through some of the possibilities for where you can go with illustration and how it can become a career, which is something she wouldn’t have considered before. I can’t wait for her to meet more of the team.

And Nei, how about your mentee, Juan?
NV: Juan is a really talented guy. He’s done some really interesting 3D work, he’s good at drawing, and he’s also proving to be a great conceptual thinker. He doesn’t limit himself too much, which allows him to experiment in different mediums. I think that he has a really nice path ahead and will do great in this industry!

They sound like ones to watch! And finally, what’s the best piece of advice you have received from a mentor?
NV: There are so many… but the thing that has frequently come up for me and my mentors over the years is when to let it go and how to pick your battles. It can make a huge difference to the outcome if you know when it’s the right time to put the extra effort in and try to change people’s minds, and also when to back down. I’m still working on it!

JM: The best piece of advice I’ve been given is to think about where you want to get to, then work backwards. Set smaller goals that you can achieve quickly as well as longer term goals to get you there. Think of these as manageable steps on a ladder and, little by little, you will get to where you want to be.

Solid advice for anyone. Thanks Jess and Nei, we can’t wait to see what Sofie and Juan get up to next.

You can find more about Shift on the D&AD website.