Issue 4: How do I build a good mentor/mentee relationship?

What kind of questions should I be asking? How do you build self-awareness?

Welcome, designer.

It’s been awhile. I feel 10% guilty that I lost my biweekly cadence so quickly but also 90% relieved that I gave myself the space to focus on other things for a bit. I mentioned being burnt out in my last issue and taking the extra time has been the most rewarding self-care for the past month. If you ever feel the same, I hope you take the chance to do the same.

Otherwise, I want to give a huge shoutout to Chris, who is our guest writer for this issue and had his segment written weeks in advance. But despite having done the majority of the heavylifting for me, I was still overwhelmed by other deadlines so my most ardent appreciation for his patience.

On a more celebratory note, we’re at 955 subscribers! That is wild to think about given this newsletter is only 2 months old. You have all been wonderfully supportive and I am thankful for your readership.

This week, we answer:

  • How do I build a good mentor/mentee relationship?

  • How do you work to build career self awareness as a junior designer?

Submit a question

How do I build a good mentor/mentee relationship?

What kind of questions should I be asking?

I can’t think of a better person to answer this question than Chris Ota, who is currently a Product Designer at Lyft focused on healthcare. He mentors internally at Lyft as well as outside of work with APDList and AIGA SF. He also used to be a part-time lecturer, which just perfectly rounds off his experience of bridging communication between people.

A special shout out to the folks at Amazing Design People List, which helped connect us.

There are multiple factors that contribute to building this relationship, hopefully these tidbits will help you think about the relationship with your mentor and how to effectively spend your time with them.

Coach vs. Mentor

Did you know there is a difference between a coach and mentor? I didn’t.

To begin, I think it is important to understand the difference between each role and their responsibilities to set proper expectations.

  • A Coach has a specific goal or tasks in mind, is performance driven, and has a defined ending once a skill is mastered.

  • A Mentor has an unbiased relationship which can last over a long period of time and is focused on the future and growth of their mentee, with no specific metrics of success.

Although there are overlapping qualities of both, I would have to say one thing: a coach and mentor are empathetic towards the individual they are helping.

As a mentee...

Alright, so you found someone to help you with your journey! Now what? Let’s set you up for success with these simple bits of advice.

1. Come Prepared

Show respect for yourself, your mentor, and the relationship you’ll both be building by being proactive and organized. Depending on how your relationship or program was set up, put the work in on how you want to be mentored by scheduling the meetings, arriving with questions and follow-ups, and being explicit on what you want from each interaction.

  • Create a running document: Share a document for both individuals to take notes, comment, and reflect back on. Before starting a meeting, look back on past action items and create a lightweight itinerary for discussion.

  • Establish a recurring meeting: Should you meet once a week? Bi-weekly? Once a month? Find a proper balance that works best for both individuals. Pro-tip: be sure to make the invite editable by both parties for flexible scheduling and create an agenda in advance to help prepare your mentor better.

Hold yourself accountable, create action items for yourself, and make it as easy for your mentor as possible for a continued relationship in the long-run.

2. Make it a conversation, not an interview

Be interactive with your mentor and let your curiosity drive follow-up questions, rather than move from topic to topic like an interview. Establish loose topics for each meeting, such as “case study review” or “career advice” and see where the conversation leads.

  • Use open-ended questions: Try to ask questions to drive a conversation and avoid simple yes or no type of questions. Which question do you feel will help you get a better response: “Are you hungry?” vs “What sorts of things do you like to eat for dinner?”

  • Be genuine: This mentorship may be primarily about professional growth, but it’s always nice to get to know people in a more holistic way. A question such as “What have you been up to since we last spoke?” will help both individuals discover hobbies, interests, or other things that are relatable to help build a stronger bond and level of trust between each other. This question is also general enough that people can choose how vulnerable they want to be. Take the time to share some about yourself outside of your professional life before jumping right into design or work.

3. Be comfortable with discomfort

We’ve all experienced it—the uncomfortable feedback from a peer, coworker, or even a family member or partner. Although these criticisms are meant to support you with personal growth, they can sting at first.

  • Keep an open mind: Don’t get defensive with feedback given. Mentors come from a good place and would like to see you succeed, but it sometimes requires getting out of your comfort zone to understand places you need improvement on.

  • Trust your mentor: What your mentor says at the time may not make sense, but trust their years of experience. Don’t feel intimidated to ask for clarifying answers to help you understand where they are coming from. A design mentor once recommended I take an Introduction to Improv class. “Improv? What does improv have to do with design?” However, after taking the class, I recognized I was much more comfortable facilitating meetings or presenting my work. Like your parents giving you advice when you were a teenager, it may not be applicable until years later.

Look outside of your field: Do designers know best? Of course! Just kidding. At work, I participated in our own mentorship program and was partnered with a UX Research mentee on another team. Although we have never met, it was a place for us to discuss improving gaps in our workflows, communication, and the differing promotion processes between each role. You may surprise yourself on how much you will learn from cross-functional partners about how to work better with others who aren’t designers.

4. Avoid distractions

The title says it all! During these unusual times, do your best to focus your attention on the conversation. The last thing you want to do is waste the time of you and your mentor.

  • Find somewhere private: A crowded household may be impossible to avoid during shelter-in-place, but do your best to find a private and quiet place to keep your attention on the conversation.

  • Put that phone away: I have experienced a couple of virtual meetings where individuals would have their notification sounds turned on. Trust me, Instagram “likes” can wait. Not only is it distracting for a mentor focused on a thought or the conversation, but it also leaves a negative impression, implying your attention is somewhere else.

Are there other pieces of advice that have helped you and your mentor? I am curious to hear them! My DMs are open on Twitter @chrisota or email me at

How do you work to build career self awareness as a junior designer?

From your article on the common areas of weakness among junior designers, you talk about building self awareness as a junior designer.I have read multiple articles of senior designers encouraging juniors to build self awareness but no one really explains how to do that. I would really love an in-depth on this.

I will actually be holding a 1-hour workshop on this for Creative Morning! It’ll take place on December 11th at 10am PST and totally free. Come through.

But if you can’t make it, the TL;DR is this:

  • Progressing in your career is closing the gap between what you want and what you’re good at. Self-awareness is knowing what even is in both of those categories.

  • To understand what you want, you need to understand your values are and what options there are in the industry that will allow you to live by those values.

  • To understand what you’re good at, you need to understand and align your internal perception of yourself with the external perception of how others see you.

We’ll go through a bunch of exercises during the workshop to put all of the above into practice but those are the main concepts to keep in mind.


  • Design Books by Womxn & People of Color 📚
    A very extensive library of books mentioned in Creative Mornings, Women Talk Design, InVisible Talk, and Neon Moiré.

  • Lift Her Wealth 2020 📺
    The biggest reason I’ve been AWOL: I’ve been organizing a 2-day summit for womxn to become better negotiators, investors, and overall decision-makers when it comes to money. Tickets are free. All are welcome.

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Until next time, 👋

— Lily