This past year was the year I started teaching, it was the year I learned more about myself than ever before and it was a time I learned more about others and their situations, their cultures, and their problems.

I’ve spoken to people from Dubai, to San Francisco to Leeds and more and the lessons I’ve learned have been one of the best in my career and personally. But this post isn’t about me, that’s for another time - what I wanted to share was my process of teaching and how I learned to talk to a room of designers and make everyone feel like they were the only one, or how I empowered them to feel at ease at feeling silly, asking that question without the preface “this is probably a silly question..” and feel confident in presenting work.

I cheered for the designer.

It all started back in 2010, working in America - I was the lead designer of a company, and enjoying it - I had more work than I could handle, the work I was doing was interesting and helped companies and people provide a service. BUT I needed help, I was working on 3 companies all within a parent company - whilst they weren’t 100%, they needed some love and care. This is where it all changed for me, my line manager came up with the idea of hiring 1-2 students to work alongside me, as well as promote internally a person to work as a junior designer, this would serve two purposes - one to help work “get done”, and secondary - it would grow my skill set managing and the students. And it did!

Whilst I learned more than I could write in one blog post within those three years, I worked hard on giving these new designers confidence, we would work together on understanding briefs, working out how to get more out of the stakeholders to allow us to replay the vision and problem back - we worked harder on presenting back our findings and early completed work to gain more of an insight into if we were going in the right direction (user research, etc).

The one huge thing I did learn and have remembered from my own harsh experience is to never expose a designer.

Never call a designer (or anyone for that matter) out in front of the team, never ridicule, if the design or the presentation isn’t a smooth one, or a good one, as a design lead I must use this as a learning tool to help grow that missing skillset. Exposing a designer in front of a crowd can lead to many things - loss of confidence, embarrassment, loss of the support of a colleague/team member, and with that a potential issue with the team environment.

In the past, I have been exposed many times by self-titled design leaders, passing comments such as “No, don’t do that yet - you need to ask me first”, or “No, this isn’t any good, that’s not what we do here” or a personal favourite “What Mikey is trying to say but for some reason isn’t…” - I wish I had never experienced these moments, and I wish it never happened in public in front of my team, but to take these negatives and turn them into a positive is the only thing I can do and I will not allow anyone on my team to feel the way I did during those moments.

How do you stop exposing a designer?
Let’s pick a scenario, you are a design team manager, and one of your team is about to present their work back to the company - this, if it goes right makes your team look brilliant, makes the person look brilliant but also allows the design process to show its value. The presentation goes bad, the person loses their way, rushes through and doesn’t mention anything about the process, and shows work off in a bad light - what do you do? Calling them out would ruin their confidence to ever-present work again (which is in the top 3 skills I look for in a good designer), it would also cheapen the trust in the team - is there the possibility that you could ask questions that help open the conversation to allow the designer to “fill the gaps”, something along the lines of “can you share more about the design process at the start of the project as I know you did some really good work with the team?”.

This approach will completely change your team’s ways of working, it will bring a different way of critiquing the teams and completely build trust amongst the wider business, it also allows you to take the designer aside (1:1’s) and help grow their skills privately, whether as a manager or (even better) as a leader.

The more we empower other designers, the more they can pass it on and make our jobs a lot easier by making other designers around us better and feel more confident and safe to “just” design.

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Life update 2021