Firm Advice from Design Mentors

April 17, 2014

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.

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:

Mentor:Shannon Andrews IIDA, LEED GA Class of 2011 Interior Designer Cannon Design
Student: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.

Mentor:Elizabeth Battin Class of 2012 Interior Designer Marie Aiello Design Studio
Student:Kerri Rappaport Bachelor of Fine Arts Interior Design

Interiors & Sources: Why was it important for you to become involved with NYSID’s mentorship program?

Elizabeth Battin: I’m a huge supporter of giving back when it comes to educational experiences. Providing students with an “outreach” program allows them to build partnerships with people in the workforce they will soon be joining—a connection that is often difficult to accomplish, especially in such a large city. Having recently gone through school and the job search process, this relationship can offer additional resources to the student and help guide them through the transition; as a mentor, it keeps things fresh and it is a constant way to reinforce my passion for the field.

I&S: What is the most critical bit of wisdom you’ve tried to impart on Kerri?

EB: Take risks. I find that you learn so much more when you take design risks in school; it creates conversation that wouldn’t otherwise happen. One of the biggest things I learned in school and have reinforced in my career is to make one bold move and allow that move to guide your decision-making process. I cannot tell you the number of times I have told Kerri, “I like that, but make it a bigger gesture.” As a student, you get so caught up in the small changes you are making that you forget about the big picture. Interior design can be extremely detail oriented, which is part of what makes it so beautiful, but taking a risk often forces a designer to think on a range of scales and make a statement that can be read across that range.

I&S: What’s a common mistake or misconception that you’re trying to help young designers avoid?

EB: Having completed an undergraduate and graduate degree in design, too often I find myself working on something alone. So much of design in the real world is collaboration. I sometimes feel that school can put you in a competitive “I don’t want to give my ideas away” mode as you work on individual projects, and you often miss out on the opportunity to be a part of a team and discover all the wonderful and beautiful ideas that come out of taking a new perspective.

I&S: What’s the most important thing you have learned from Kerri during your time together?

EB: I see a lot of myself in Kerri as a designer; we both have a tendency to be overly critical of our work and put ourselves into panic mode. While it is valuable to be your biggest critic, you need to be able to be confident in your design and ideas. Seeing Kerri be so successful in school and her projects is a constant reminder that if you believe in your design you will thrive.

I&S: Why is it important for you to have a design mentor, and how has Elizabeth influenced your view of the design process?

Kerri Rappaport: It is important for me to have a design mentor because it is someone that has new and different ideas. Elizabeth and I can relate because she has recently been through the same process, but she can also share real-life experiences that I haven’t experienced yet. It is always important to get as many opinions as possible, because one idea may steer you in the right direction for your project.

I&S: What is the most important thing you have learned from Elizabeth?

KR: One of the most important things I have learned is to be confident in what I do. Many times I have come to our meetings stressed out about a project and feeling trapped. Elizabeth has helped me realize that by taking a step back and looking at the project as a big picture, you can come up with a new idea. I have always been very technical and logical, but through spending time with Elizabeth, I have come to understand the importance of creating a single design concept that will guide every decision.

I&S: What have you taught Elizabeth over the course of your relationship?

KR: Whenever I need to meet and go over a project, Elizabeth is always there to help in any way she can. She sees my dedication to my schoolwork and my thirst for design, and I believe that ignites a passion for her design work, as well.

I&S: What common misconceptions or attitudes do you find among more experienced designers, and what can they learn from young designers like yourself?

KR: Designers, especially those that have worked in the field for a long time, get caught in doing the same designs over and over again. It is important as creative individuals to continually engage in all aspects of the design world and constantly seek inspiration. Inspiration can come from anywhere; by taking an abstract idea and implementing it into a design, it can be a refreshing change.

Mentor:Nick Domitrovich Class of 2012 Interior Designer ICRAVE
Student:Evgenya (Jane) Epelbaum Master of Fine Arts Interior Design (MFA-1)

Interiors & Sources: As a relatively recent graduate yourself, how do you approach the mentoring relationship?

Nick Domitrovich: For me, mentoring is easy. I just think about what stage she is at in the program and think back to my own experience, recalling what I wish I would have known then. Like Jane, I was changing careers when I decided to enroll in NYSID’s MFA Post-Professional program. I was leaving the world of sales and training to pursue interior design, with no real exposure to the field. There was a lot of uncertainty and it would have been extremely helpful to have a source to guide me through the process.

I&S: What is the most critical bit of wisdom you’ve tried to impart on Jane, based on your experience as a professional interior designer?

ND: There are three pieces of advice that I always circle back to. First, learn and master the basic skills as quickly as possible. By pushing yourself, especially in the beginning, you achieve a solid footing that allows you to really explore your true talents. Once you’ve mastered these basic skills, target what you want your few areas of specialty to be and become an expert. The design industry is extremely multi-faceted, almost to a fault. If you attempt to master everything, you will be overwhelmed and, in the end, only mediocre across the board. By focusing on a few certain skills, you set yourself apart from the pack.

Finally, there is what I call the 90/100 rule. Designers, for better or for worse, are always striving for perfection. However, the simple fact is that a project can always be better. Designers need to understand when to stop exploring and when to start executing. I would rather be 90 percent happy with an idea and execute it 100 percent, than be 100 percent happy with an idea and only have the time and/or money to execute it at 70 percent.

I&S: What’s the most common misconception you’ve encountered among young designers?

ND: I think a lot of young designers come into this field thinking that it will be easier than it is. There is so much more depth to design than what the general public sees, so we think, how hard can it be? I went to a top undergraduate business school and it was probably half, maybe a third of the workload of my graduate design degree. I work just as many hours now as I did when I was in sales and trading, perhaps more.

I&S: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from the mentoring process so far?

ND: When you mentor or teach someone, it forces you to stop and reflect on your own journey so that you can give the best possible advice. By doing that, it reminds you to follow your own guidance, because you can easily get bogged down in the daily grind and forget the principles or lessons that you’ve learned along the way. For example, Jane and I were talking about critiques and I was explaining how important it is to listen as objectively as possible and to remove yourself from the project for that moment. It is a very difficult thing to do, because you put so much of yourself into the work. In the end, it will almost always make you a better designer. After I said it, I thought about a critical critique I had received earlier that week and how I took it too personally. Even if I disagreed with the critique, I owed it to myself to at least explore the comments. In the end, as is often the case, the project was better for it.

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

Evgenya (Jane) Epelbaum: I have always believed that in order to succeed in anything, it is instrumental to consult those who came before. The most practical knowledge usually comes from those who have experienced the same or a similar challenge. Particularly, it is imperative to learn from their mistakes while acquiring invaluable knowledge based on their experiences. As such, I think it is essential that the mentor feels successful in his or her field. Furthermore, I think it is important that the mentor feels driven to help others.

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

JE: While I genuinely always feel reenergized and inspired after our meetings, probably the most important thing I have learned is how to focus on what is important. Sometimes it can be easy to get caught up in all of the work and minutia of the day-to-day, but Nick encourages me to always think about the greater goal and what is absolutely critical in order to achieve that goal. While he tailored the advice specifically to my program, I think it translates to any and all challenges in life: time management and understanding your goals is absolutely vital.

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