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Retaining and getting the best out of Junior Designers

Focus less on graduation certificates and more on hiring people for their curiosity, ability to think critically and artistic flair.

UX/UI Design
·
5 minute read

A few years ago, we hired a few junior designers to join our team. They all left within 2 years of joining and one was already looking for a new role 6 months in. Why did things go so badly? How can you ensure that you’re more intentional than my team in getting the best out of your junior designers?

Don’t discard boot camp graduates or self-taught designers

I think we’re fortunate to live in a time where people can transition into different careers via boot camps or YouTube videos. I didn’t go down that route but I have transitioned from a software engineering career into product design. I know how important it is to see the value in people that have had other careers or other routes into the design world.

Someone who goes through a boot camp or teaches themselves design is very likely to be highly motivated and a self-starter. They also have different perspectives on design than someone who might have been lectured for years. I know architects, civil engineers and psychologists that have very interesting ways of dissecting design problems that stem from their unique perspectives.

If you focus less on graduation certificates and more on hiring people for their curiosity, ability to think critically, artistic/storytelling flair or how they have successfully communicated how their personal experience supports their designer qualities, they could be incredibly valuable members of your team.

Create an environment for juniors to learn

A junior designer is not an experienced designer. That should be obvious. However, many employers make the mistake of assuming that junior designers will be creating deliverables 100% of the time. At Triptease, we’ve codified a one-day-a-week learning time for associates in product engineering. Our associate designers spend time learning best practices, design principles, and various methodologies as part of their job descriptions.

Creating this supportive environment means they have safety and autonomy in how they learn without working overtime or feeling guilty about ‘under-producing’ compared to their more seasoned colleagues. It’s also crucial for helping people to get a feel for the ideal version of a technique/methodology before they put it into practice.

Make time to be a mentor

One of the junior designers I referenced in the opening paragraph didn’t feel supported by her senior. He forgot how to be or wasn’t equipped to be a mentor.

If you hire a junior designer, you must make time to help them grow. It should seem incredibly obvious, but in my experience, many teams that hire junior designers forget to create a process around their mentoring. Mentoring is part of your role as a senior/lead.

As a more experienced designer, I ensure to block out time in my calendar so I can perform tasks related to their role. This is in addition to ad-hoc meetings or check-ins that we have. Things that I’ve put in as part of our process include:

  • 1:1 slots where we discuss career-adjacent topics- how work is going and any opportunities for improvement or celebration
  • Design practice where we run through practical design - perhaps to reinforce a principle that we should adhere to or run through a specific task/technique. One thing that I demonstrated recently was using auto-layout.
  • Design crit to review work in flight. This is an opportunity for all designers (including juniors) to learn how to give and receive feedback.

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Create a safe environment to allow mistakes

I’ve worked with many different junior designers and one universally true thing is that if I provide safety, they will knock things out of the park. I’ve had designers working on mission-critical stuff within 4 weeks of joining the team. In one instance, this was at odds with other senior designers in the business who didn’t let the juniors on their team do any important work.

To make this work, I usually have a chat with the product teams (and the junior designers) to let them know that if anything goes wrong, I am responsible, never the junior designer. If things go right, however, the junior designer gets the credit.

We also set guidelines around when they need to speak to me about their work:

  • greenfield product or feature - when things are being defined, I sit in on the conversation to ensure that the requirements are clear
  • improvement or iteration - I review documentation and deliverables to ensure that they are OK
  • small page or layout changes - cursory review required or none at all if a design system and/or patterns are in use

Finally…

By using these methods you should find that the addition of junior designers to your team is a very positive thing. Juniors have different skills, fantastic perspectives and a desire/motivation to be productive. There’s also potentially more longevity for them in a particular company since there are more growth opportunities than for most seniors or leads.

If you already work with junior designers, what changes are you going to make to your processes? If you don’t already work with junior designers then make sure to consider them for your next hire.