Based in Nashville, Tennessee, Jess Nelson has been mentoring with us for just over a year now. We talked to her about her work, what she finds rewarding about mentoring Designlab students, and her advice for those just starting out!
Hey Jess! What does an ordinary day look like for you at work?
At a high level I split my time between tactical design working with a feature squad, managing other designers, and providing high level design vision for part of our product.
Tactical design work with a squad looks like collaborating with engineers and product managers on a specific feature by bringing in my knowledge of user research and design best practices. I will sometimes be creating UI or user testing, but the squad level is focused specifically on a feature area. I manage a team of 3 designers who are all embedded in their own squads.
I spend time with them consistently focusing on clearing roadblocks for them and providing feedback on their designs. I also spend time working with a product lead and engineering lead focused on creating a broader vision for the squads that report to us. This means reviewing or generating high level research, discussing how the strategy fits into the high level company vision, and reviewing other teams’ work.
What attracted you to becoming a mentor?
I wanted to help more junior designers become more confident in their skills and pass on some of my real world experience. I was lucky enough to have a few people mentoring me when I made the transition from graphic design to UX, and I wanted to be able to help others through their own career transitions.
What do you find most rewarding about mentoring?
I love being able to provide tactical, actionable feedback, and then seeing the results in student work. There’s something so great about being able to identify patterns and behaviors that are holding someone back, letting your mentee know about them, and then seeing their growth.
What has been your top student win so far?
A student worked with me in the Design 101 short course, and a few months later, I ended up being her Career Coach at the end of UX Academy! I knew she had a lot of potential, but seeing her progress in just a few months was super exciting. When she ended up getting a job, it was a nice full circle moment.
[Read more about our students’ wins on our Success Stories page!]
What do you think makes a good mentor?
It’s about addressing more than just the design tweaks. I try to take time to get to know my mentees as much as I can, and to address some of their concerns and any negative patterns.
Particularly in Career Services, it’s so much more about soft skills, communication, and confidence. If I notice a student selling themselves short, or overthinking designs, I try to help them adopt healthier creative behaviors, rather than “just” addressing the design.
Also, by noticing these patterns with my students, I’ve adjusted my own way of thinking and talking about the design projects I work on.
What do you think the future holds for the design industry?
There is so much exciting work to be done in the years ahead. I’m particularly excited about AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality). There are huge opportunities to use these new technologies to bring people together.
What’s your most important tip for students who are just starting out in design?
The best piece of advice I can give is something I typically steal from Ira Glass. It’s long-ish but worth the read:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap.
For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.
Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met.
It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
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