The biggest risk of your design career? Not having a mentor
By Ram Castillo September 20, 2013
The biggest risk of your design career? Not having a mentor
By Ram Castillo September 20, 2013
The biggest risk of your design career? Not having a mentor
By Ram Castillo September 20, 2013

Ed. note: A version of this article was originally published on Giant Thinkers. The perspective expressed is solely that of the author. AIGA encourages commentary, discussion and debate among members—share your thoughts in the comments.

If you were a child who had severe asthma but absolutely loved soccer, and found it “too hard” to play a full game, would you give up and just play FIFA 2013 on Xbox? (Don’t answer that. It’s actually really addictive.) Honestly, would you think it was impossible to become a professional soccer player with such a terrible respiratory condition? Well, David Beckham didn’t. Arguably one of the greatest soccer players in the world, Beckham still has asthma and has suffered with it since he was a young boy. 

This didn’t stop him from playing 65 games a season for more than 20 years, winning countless world-class trophies. Bobby Charlton was his mentor. A former English football player, Charlton is regarded as one of the greatest midfielders of all time and is considered the greatest English player of all time. In recent times, one can point not only to David Beckham, but Richard Branson, Michael Jackson, Roger Federer, Eminem and Nelson Mandela as notable icons who benefitted from the investment of a mentor.

A career mentor is a person that acts as an adviser, motivator, counselor and guiding force in your career. This person would have relevant industry experience—a professional whom you can talk openly with and from whom you can expect to receive sound, unbiased career advice. Traditionally, mentoring is something that you would not purchase and would not require a monetary exchange. The relationship between a mentor and a person being mentored is far higher than what money can buy.

How does this affect my design career?

Take a look at these positive statistics:


  • 77 percent of companies report that mentoring programs were effective in increasing retention
  • Turnover reductions of 20 percent with mentoring
  • 35 percent of employees who do not receive regular mentoring look for another job within 12 months


  • 75 percent of executives point to mentoring as having played a key role in their careers
  • 70 percent of women of color who had a mentor received a promotion
  • The more mentors a woman had, the faster she moved up the corporate ladder


  • Managerial productivity increased by 88 percent when mentoring was involved (versus a 24 percent increase with training alone)
  • 95 percent of mentoring participants said the experience motivated them to do their very best

Personal and professional development

  • More than 60 percent of college and graduate students listed mentoring as a criterion for selecting an employer after graduation
  • 35 percent of CFOs said the single greatest benefit of working with a mentor was having a confidant and advisor
  • Professionals who have had mentors earn between $5,610 and $22,450 more annually than those who have not

What are the benefits of having a career mentor?

  • Individual recognition, encouragement and support 
  • Increased self-esteem and confidence when dealing with professionals
  • Confidence to challenge oneself to achieve new goals and explore alternatives
  • A realistic perspective of the workplace
  • Advice on how to balance work and other responsibilities and set priorities
  • Knowledge of workplace “dos” and “don’ts”
  • Experience in networking
  • Increased technical knowledge
  • Greater career potential
  • Personal development

A good career mentor is…

  • Able to provide relevant industry-related perspectives
  • Committed to the mentoring relationship
  • Respectful of individuals and alternate lifestyles
  • A good listener
  • Non-judgmental
  • Sensitive to another person’s struggles
  • Stable and flexible
  • Honest, patient and trustworthy

Sweet! How do I find a good career mentor?

  • Define the attributes and characteristics of the designer you want to be
  • Find experts who are what you ultimately want to become
  • Look local and global (It could be your businessman father or the creative director of your favorite design studio. Find a way to get the conversation going.)
  • Use whatever means necessary: phone, email, Google, LinkedIn, Behance, Twitter, Facebook (anything and everything)
  • Once you have made friendly contact, explain your objectives. If they are interested, discuss what arrangement would work for them. Face-to-face would be ideal, but not required. It could be a simple conversation once a week over the phone for an agreed upon amount of time. It could happen over email. It could even be a set Skype meeting.
  • Don’t limit yourself to one or two mentors. You should have as many mentors as you think will benefit you. Some mentors will be great for certain areas and others may offer a broader perspective.

What do mentors get out of it?

  • The satisfaction of helping a student reach his or her academic and professional goals
  • Recognition at work for participation in a job-related activity
  • An expanded network of professional colleagues
  • Recognition for service to the community
  • Increased self-esteem, self-confidence and affirmation of professional competence

Not having a good mentor is costing you dearly. Without their guidance and experience, you are going to have to start at the very beginning and make all the mistakes yourself.—Jonny Gibaud, designer and entrepreneur

You wouldn’t go swimming alone with sharks, so don’t do it in the work force. You would do your research first, right? And no matter how much research you do, you’ll soon find out that the best way to do something is to speak to someone who has done it before. Ideally someone with quality experience and someone who can provide you advice on the best approaches for what you are looking to achieve.

For more, pick up a copy of Castillo's internationally and industry-acclaimed book How to Get a Job as a Designer, Guaranteed.

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