January 30, 2013

Thoughts on Mentorship by Designer Jason Early, Mentor at The Starter League

Jason Early is the Founder and Designer of gruntmonkey, a small creative studio in Chicago. He’s also a regular attendee of CreativeMornings, where we met. At the last CreativeMornings Chicago of 2012, he shared that he’s a mentor at The Starter League, where people go to “Learn how to code, design, & ship web apps.” Here, Jason shares his thoughts on mentorship:

How did you two find out about The Starter League?
It was at the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center’s Startup Forecast event in December of 2011 when I met Neal Sales-Griffin, Co-Founder of then Code Academy, now The Starter League. Neal was on a panel towards the end of the three-hour event, and he was the first person, during that time, who used the word “Design” in the same sentence as “Startups” and “Entrepreneurship.” After the event, I introduced myself, and mentioned that I caught the inclusion of “Design” in his panel answers.

I was invited to come by their first office that Groupon had donated, and that’s where I met Mike McGee, also a Co-Founder of The Starter League. The first class was heads down and cranking on their first Demo Night presentations, which was a week or so away. We talked about what their plans were for The Starter League,  where they saw themselves going, and about the growing education space for programming. The guys told me about their plans to include a UX design course the next term, and the opportunity to be a Mentor was presented sometime after.

What’s special about The Starter League?
I think it’s that The Starter League is a community. It’s not just a educational program you attend and then move on. By gaining admission to the program, students receive a support network of peers and professionals that is unparalleled in more traditional learning environments.

Why and how did you become a mentor at The Starter League?
When I first met Neal and Mike, I had already been mentoring emerging designers through an organization called Creative Go-Round, whose mission is to bridge the transition from being a design student to being a design professional.

I felt the opportunity to mentor at The Starter League provided a way to show the importance of Design in the creation of something, in this case, a service or product, that had been traditionally built upon foundations of Technology and Business. I felt it was an opportunity to advocate the importance of design at a foundational level.

How did you two get together at The Starter League?
In each term at The Starter League, students are paired with Mentors if they wish. It’s opt-in and the student’s decision.

What is mentorship and why is it important?
Mentorship is a practice in guiding a student through the process of learning something new. It’s a powerful relationship that can help put new ideas into perspective and can increase the speed of understanding.

How did you both engage the mentorship relationship?
What’s the process?
There wasn’t really a process. The practice of design relies on collaborative communication and individual practice. So I focus on the collaborative communication. We’d meet and talk. We’d have conversations about projects for the week, and talk about the ideas of practicing design as a business, how it can benefit a client, or how it can improve the world.

What are the must-dont’s in the student-mentor relationship?
I think it’s something that can’t be forced. It has to be wanted. A Student wants to learn, and the Mentor wants to share. It has to be a two-way communication.

Was there a part of your student-and-mentor relationship 
that was particularly trying and how did you deal with it?
Not really, no. I keep things pretty relaxed. We’d meet at a coffee shop and just talk.

How does The Starter League’s space encourage 
and stimulate learning and collaborating?
1871 (above) and other effective co-working spaces, in Chicago, cultivate spontaneous interaction. You do your work, but if you hit a road block, you have access to assistance from the people around you. You have an idea, and you may learn that someone else is already exploring the same idea. The encouragement and stimulation comes from the possibility of someone accomplishing or fulfilling an idea. Being given the resources to answer “What if...?” is a powerful thing.

What tools do you use and recommend to work on your ideas 
and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?
There are so many resources for people now to prototype and explore an idea. The majority of my work lives in my sketchbooks (top and bottom), which I have three kinds:
  1. My always in-my-pocket standard is Field Notes. I find myself using them for more written notes, thoughts and quick sketches.
  2. I have a couple extra-large kraft brown Moleskine books for a larger work area.
  3. And then I utilize Penultimate on my iPad for a digital version.
I can design anything with a pencil and a notebook. To execute those ideas when they’re ready, I have a number of options in my toolkit. If it’s print-based, I use Illustrator or InDesign. If it’s digitally-based, I have a foundation of front-end development (HTML, CSS, and some Javascript), and can prototype things pretty quickly. If I want to save even more time, I can use HTML5 Boilerplate or Twitter Bootstrap for web prototypes. If I want to explore an app idea, I use Ratchet. I’m not a developer, but I know enough of the tools to know how things work, and to build out an idea to show to people. In today’s industry, it’s really important for designers to be able to build out an idea. So learn to code (at least the front-end)!

How do you stay creative?
Through research, exploration, and travel—the acts of, not necessarily the subject matter of. It’s all about the process, and allowing the mind to wander and to capture the path as it develops.

What are some of your sources of inspiration/motivation?
My biggest sources of inspiration are seeing what friends are interested in. Seeing what they are attempting to alter in society, or in their own communities. or lives, or seeing the focus and time that gets put into their own personal projects. I’m a firm believer that anyone can do anything they want, as long as they are willing to put in the time. And with that mindset, nothing is impossible. And that’s amazing.

What is your advice to someone aspiring to become 
a student at The Starter League?
Be ready to work hard, and don’t be afraid to fail. Persistence is key to learning.

What is your advice to someone aspiring to become a mentor?
You don’t have to have all the answers, you just have to be willing to share what you know.

How does Chicago contribute to your work? And what
makes it special for startups, business, creativity-at-large?
Chicago is such a hard-working city. It’s energy shapes the attitude. It’s a no-nonsense approach. We work hard. It’s our job. We want to be the best we can at what we do.

For startups, it’s still a very young community. I feel that we still haven’t had the execution of that big idea. On the coasts, I see communities attempting to tackle ideas like how we interact as people, how we communicate and connect through technology, and how device and software advances are applied to our daily routines. Here, we’re still growing. There’s a foundation being built that allows for possibility. The community can build things, I just don’t see it going after the big ideas just yet. Give it another year or two, and I’d bet that will have changed.

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Photos of 1871 and Chicago by Nate Burgos. All other images courtesy of Jason Early.

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Typeface of quotations is Cooper Black (1922) designed by Oswald Bruce Cooper in Chicago.

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Related to Chicago’s startup scene: Belated Response to PandoDaily Reporter Trevor Gilbert’s Article about the “Midwest Mentality”

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.

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