By Stewart McCoy

On design, soccer, and mentorship

Becoming a better designer is a lot like becoming a better soccer player. You have to play a lot. If you don’t play you don’t gain experience, you don’t train your muscle memory, and you don’t get better. But you can only go so far on your own. Young players who become excellent get better from playing and being coached. Becoming a better designer requires you to work with clients and be mentored along the way.

Have you ever watched a peewee soccer game? All the kids swarm and chase the ball around the field. Sometimes one of them will get the ball and kick it to the other end of the field and score, though this doesn’t happen very often. Most of the time it’s just swarming and kicking. And it’s not just kids. Go to a park and watch an adult pickup game. Half the time I can’t tell if the game being played is soccer or kickball. They may play a lot and have fun, but they don’t play well, and they’re aren’t improving.

If you watch an organized match, however, you see a different quality of play. Each player has a position and role on the team. They are often more confident dribbling and passing the ball. Some players even distribute the ball—they have the foresight to get the ball to a teammate in a strategic position rather than the first pair of free feet they see. Offensive players stay spread out. Defensive players try to stay close together. These are the sorts of game details that only experienced players know about. These “details” are easy to understand, but it takes years for a good player to begin anticipating the play of the game. It’s only through coaching and studying that players know in which situations it’s better to dribble, pass, shoot, attack, or possess.

Design also takes years to understand and get good at. Much as young players need to learn dribbling, passing, set pieces, and formations, young designers need to learn the core techniques of design—typography, grids, color theory, symbols, systems, and software. In design school the emphasis is on the how. When you finish school and get into the business of design, you’re essentially promoted to the upper division. That’s when you have to start figuring out why.

Matt Brown reminds us why design isn’t easy:

It’s a labor that requires far more than just producing great deliverables. Really, it’s about strategy, process, communication, and designing more than just webpages. As professionals, we have to be equally concerned with our clients’ business strategy and their internal structure as we are with the design comps we pass them.

Strategy, process, and communication are how to get to why—this is what you learn when you get to the first division. And like the lower divisions, you will still need a coach. You need a Pep Guardiola. You need a mentor who has successfully worked on challenging, relevant projects. You need somebody who can give you critical feedback after you present to a client, who can pull you aside and provide you with quick insights before you go five hours down the wrong path, who can sit in an hour-and-a-half work session and has the vision to give you high-level feedback that will keep you focused on design goals and on schedule. You need somebody who recognizes your talent, willingness to work hard and to heed advice, and who sees your potential. You need somebody who will invest in you, passing along their refined understanding of not only how but why they do the work they do.

A mentor doesn’t just advise, but listens. You have problems you’re struggling to overcome. Insights of your own you’re trying to articulate. A mentor will hear you and reframe those problems and insights so that they’re comprehensible. A good mentor, like a good coach, won’t force their philosophy on you but will have the confidence and experience to realize you can win with your own talents and intelligence—you only need to be pointed in the right direction.

The best place to find a mentor is within your own firm. They can advise you on expectations for internal and client communication, as well as industry best practices and professional development resources (that might be outside your discipline, but still applicable). The other way to meet potential mentors is to go to meetups, design talks, or attend events of local chapters of professional associations like the Information Architecture Institute, Interaction Design Association, and AIGA, the professional association for design. These are only some options. The key is to talk to as many people as you can and ask them about what they do, their interests and aspirations, their past experiences. Ask for business cards and then vet potential mentors by looking up their websites, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles. Be friendly. Straight up say you’re looking for a mentor. You’ll be surprised how often people will be willing to help.

Over the years as you continue playing the game, you’ll begin calling out to other players, telling them where to go on the field. And they’ll pay attention because you yell in a strong, confident voice; they trust you because you demonstrate leadership, which comes from experience, from knowing what works, from winning. You’ll become a mentor.

Originally posted on Mule Design Studio’s Blog: On Design, Soccer, and Mentorship

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