Firm Advice from Design Mentors

We talk with three pairs of designers and students from the recently launched NYSID Alumni Mentorship Program to uncover advice from both ends of the professional spectrum.

by Erika Templeton

There is no doubt that design professionals and design students approach their work from very different perspectives—not only because of their experience levels, but also the basic, parametric differences between educational and “real-world” environments. We checked in with some of the participants in NYSID’s new Alumni Mentorship program to see exactly what those differences look like, and what we can learn from them.

“We structured the program for alumni to help students set priorities, coaching them on specific classes and portfolio development to help support the whole student,” said NYSID Dean of Students Karen Higginbotham. “This is not an internship or work situation; it is a personal and professional growth opportunity for both students and alumni.”

For the 2013-14 year, 8 out of 30 student applicants were selected for the program based on essays and personal interviews, and then carefully paired with the appropriate alum. As the pairs met six to eight times over the course of the semester, it became clear that both mentor and student have something to teach and to learn.

Here’s what three of those pairs had to say about their mentorship experience:

Shannon Andrews
Class of 2011
Interior Designer
Cannon Design
Rebecca Snell
Master of Professional
Studies in Healthcare
Interior Design (MPS-H)


Interiors & Sources: What originally spurred you to become involved in mentoring young designers, and what do you hope to provide for your student?

Shannon Andrews: I was fortunate to have a fantastic experience in design school—full of mentors including professors, industry professionals, and an extremely supportive group of colleagues. As a mentor, I hope to carry on that tradition of support, and to help inspire and inform new designers. I think investing in those who will be the future of our industry can only strengthen our professional ties to one another, keep us all responsible to one another, and enhance our collective knowledge base.

I&S: What is the most critical bit of wisdom you’ve tried to impart on Rebecca, based on your own experiences so far?

SA: Document everything. On large projects, information can be coming in from all directions, and you often need to be able to follow a trail of breadcrumbs back through mountains of meeting minutes and correspondence in order to figure out the rationale for a given decision. 

I&S: What common misconception or attitude among young designers would you most like to change?

SA: I think any time you are dealing with the pressure of deadlines, there is always the thought: “If I had more time I could have . . .” We all have a limited amount of time, whether it is for a hypothetical or real-world project, and the trick is bringing your best to every task as efficiently as you can, then letting it go and moving on to the next. I think most designers want perfection in everything we do—and I include myself in this group—but pressure, stress, and anxiety are the enemies of creativity and inspiration. If you are always focused on fighting against the clock, you will never be able to find the creative solution.

I&S: Why is it important for you to have a design mentor, and what qualities do you seek in him or her?

Rebecca Snell: Having a design mentor is important for me, because learning how to be an exceptional interior designer requires more than classroom learning. There is a lot to be learned through one’s experiences in the field, particularly in healthcare design, because it is a fairly new field of formalized study.  Having the opportunity to discuss the transition from being a student to becoming a design professional working in one of the top architecture and design firms in the country has been invaluable.

I&S: What is the most important thing you have learned from Shannon so far?

RS: I suppose most importantly, I’ve learned that designing healthcare environments involves many specialized requirements, limitations, and implications. I’ve learned how important it is to learn about the users of the spaces you design, along with the perspectives and needs of the patients, staff, and visitors, through asking questions and doing research and site visits. I have also been lucky enough to attend a site visit with Shannon and other industry professionals, which has enabled me to understand what to look for and what types of questions to ask. 

I&S: What have you been able to teach Shannon during your time together?

RS: I’ve been able to share with her all of the new research and information that I am learning in my classes. Since the Master of Professional Studies in Healthcare Interior Design program didn’t exist when she was at NYSID, we’ve been able to discuss emerging ideas in the field with regard to lighting, LEED, products, and materials—bringing everything back to the concept of evidence-based design.

I&S: How has your mentoring experience balanced or supplemented the concepts you’ve learned over the course of your design education?

RS: As design students, we are always taught to “think outside the box.” Of course, it is vital to learn how to think creatively and develop the skills to become an innovator, however, real-world design always has parameters, and it is rare for a designer to be able to completely “go wild” on a project. Through my own professional experience following my undergraduate studies, as well as my current internship, I have learned firsthand how important it is to be able to produce a creative and unique concept that still fits within the project’s limitations and satisfies the client’s needs in terms of functionality, budget, and time frame. The ability to solve these more complex design problems creatively and beautifully is what makes a great designer.

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