Irene Alegre | How to onboard a Junior Designer


Onboarding new people is hard. Onboarding new people who are also new to the job is even harder. Gerren Lamson from Creative Market wrote a great blog post about their new onboarding process where he covers the basics, such as making sure several team members have met the new designer during the interview process, being open about team KPIs and strategy or telling them about the team’s core values.

But I wanted to talk about onboarding Junior Designers specifically because I think the industry needs to talk more about this – especially now that UX/UI designers are in high demand and, at the same time, design bootcamps are churning out new designers every three months (including myself).

Like most things in life, hiring a Junior Designer has its pros and cons.

The pros of hiring a Junior Designer

For starters, they are cheaper – let’s just get that one out of the way. They also tend to be younger, and therefore have more stamina, energy and time on their hands than senior designers who will have the commitments that tend to come with age. And they have not been spoiled, meaning they haven’t spent the last five years of their life doing something the wrong way – and being clueless about it. They will also probably be more humble, more open to ideas and more eager to learn.

The cons of hiring a Junior Designer

The cons, however, are that they will need your time and support a lot more often than a more senior designer. They will be less autonomous, and they will (usually) require going through more iterations before they reach a design solution they (and others) are happy with.

All of these, of course, are subject to their personality, overall work and life experience, and self-confidence. Do very bright, very independent designer grads who get things right on the first, maybe second, maybe third round exist? Yes! Do they abound? Probably not.

Here are some things you should be doing if you are thinking of hiring a Junior Designer.

Get everyone on the team onboard

Ok, maybe not everyone, but at least most of the team. Explore the idea of having a Junior Designer join the team before you even post that job spec. Ask the rest of the team how they feel about having someone with little or no experience come in. Is it the right time? Why are we doing it? Are we ready?

This is important because if most of the team is against hiring a Junior Designer there is no point in looking for one. They will be needing support and none of the more senior designers in your team will be willing to give it to them. You need buy in from your team.

This is how we do things here

Have some sort of infrastructure and set of guidelines in place. Or be ready to create one alongside your first – first – Junior Designer’s onboarding month. They will have a lot of questions – make sure you write them down and answer them with lots of care and detail. In writing. And then share them with the rest of the team. And stick to those answers.

I will repeat.

Stick to those answers.

  • How do we structure sketch files? Well, here we do it like this.
  • How do you hand over to the developers? Well, here we do it this way.
  • How do we document things?
  • How do we stick to the style guide? Where is the style guide, anyway?
  • How do we keep a healthy design system?
  • How do we work collaboratively?
  • How do we communicate our work to stakeholders?
  • How do we communicate our work to the rest of the product team?

You get the idea. And if the design team has more than 3 people in it, all of these should be happening anyways, regardless of whether a Junior Designer is thrown into the mix.

Yes, I know, Tommy has done things this way his whole life, and Julia prefers to work in this other way and it works for her. But wait until Julia has to take over Tommy’s work and can’t understand how the sketch file is laid out, and Tommy is in Hawaii for the whole month. Or wait until Tommy, who has been working here for three years, leaves, and then Julia starts working with Tommy’s cross-functional team and we discover that Tommy and Julia have different ways of documenting, handing over and communicating their designs, so the developers have to learn the system all over again.

And now imagine a Junior Designer trying to understand how to do all of these things, because they have never done them before. So they ask Tommy, and then they ask Julia, and the result is the hybrid of two systems that don’t mix well together.

Which is why I say, ‘Stick to those answers’. I remember teaching 5 year-old kids many years ago and learning how the mind of someone new to the world functions. They understand If this then that very well. They don’t understand If this then that except for when this then maybe that or maybe nobody knows the answer so well. Which is why you have to set a few clear and very simple rules for them and then stick to them (unless something extreme happens, like the house being on fire or them having to desperately go to the bathroom).

Am I saying Junior Designers are like 5 year-old kids who can’t think for themselves and can’t understand complex scenarios? No. But do we want to reduce complexity to the extent that is possible? Yes. And I would argue we should all strive for that, regardless of age or experience.

Note

Needless to say, rules and processes can change as needed, but in order to do that they need to be assessed – potentially discussed – and eventually communicated.

Have something meaningful for them to do

This one would seem obvious, but I’ve actually seen Junior Designers getting frustrated because they either have nothing to do or have something to do that is (in their perception) below their capabilities. This in turn builds resentment towards the more senior designers, and may start eroding their self-confidence.

While you might not trust your Junior Designer to tackle the bigger projects on their own, they are more than capable of contributing to them and giving support to the more experienced designers. This is, in fact, how they are going to learn!

Have the bandwidth

Remember the point about getting everyone onboard? If you managed to do that, now is the time to find at least one person within the group of supporters and ask them if they would like to be the Junior Designer’s mentor. Ok, mentor is a strong word; let’s just call them the team member that will help the new designer thrive. If they say yes, thank them genuinely and celebrate the fact that you have a generous, helpful and supportive team.

And then give them the bandwidth to be generous, helpful and supportive.

It doesn’t matter how great and supportive someone wants to be if they are under stress. If they are anxious, if there is a lot of pressure on them, all that willingness goes out the window. You don’t want the mentor to feel like the Junior Designer is a burden that doesn’t allow them to get on with their work. You want them to understand that mentoring the Junior Designer is part of their job. And if that person works a 40 hour-week and the Junior Designer needs 10 hours of support a week, that means the mentor only has 30 hours every week to work on delivering output.

The mentoring is not something they should do on top of everything else – it’s something they should be doing alongside everything else.

To conclude

A Junior Designer can be a breath of fresh air, especially to a team that has become a little bit stale. They bring eagerness and enthusiasm, and for those who enjoy giving others support and mentoring – and that’s not everyone – they can be a source of motivation and inspiration.

Just be mindful of whether you can afford a Junior Designer. And whether they can afford to work with you.