As a teenager growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Carbon Five Senior Product Designer Gintel Gee taught herself the basics of design by creating graphics on her computer and connecting with a community of peers on online message boards. Looking back, Gintel wishes she had had a mentor to answer her questions and direct her toward a career path in design. In our third post in a series celebrating 21 years of mentorship in honor of Carbon Five’s 21st anniversary, Gintel discusses why she’s passionate about encouraging the next generation of designers — and especially those from backgrounds similar to hers — to consider jobs in tech through her work with AIGA LA.
What is AIGA LA and why did you decide to get involved with this organization?
AIGA LA is the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) organization. They bring together designers in Los Angeles, and they do different outreach activities in the community, including portfolio reviews. A friend of mine is the co-vice president, and she told me about an opportunity for designers to speak to high schoolers in LA public schools about their experience working in the industry, and I knew that it was something I wanted to take part in.
My friend and I grew up in South Central LA, and we didn’t go to the big design schools. We also didn’t have big, well-resourced art programs in our schools, so we know that it’s extremely important to tell kids about all of the different opportunities available to them if they are interested in art. A lot of high schoolers might know that they love to draw, for example, but may not realize that there are a lot of opportunities for them to work in tech, to increase the diversity of the industry, and to help build products that are accessible for a wide range of users.
Can you tell me more about your experience as an aspiring designer growing up in South Central LA?
I learned how to design when I was 13 by teaching myself how to make graphics. User experience (UX) wasn’t a thing when I was growing up, and there wasn’t anyone around to direct me on a career path — I had to figure that out for myself. I want to close that information gap for people like me that are in high school now, so that they don’t have to figure it out themselves. These kids have the skills and the talent to excel in UX, and I want them to see it as a viable career option.
“User experience (UX) wasn’t a thing when I was growing up, and there wasn’t anyone around to direct me on a career path — I had to figure that out for myself. I want to close that information gap for people like me that are in high school now, so that they don’t have to figure it out themselves.”
What else do you love about mentoring younger designers?
A lot of the younger people I talk to have so much potential, and I admire the perspective that they bring to the table. Young people are really pushing the conversation forward when it comes to making sure that we’re considering a wider range of perspectives when we design things, which is the way we should be thinking in order to build products that are more accessible.
I’m very interested in talking to and creating a community with all different kinds of designers. I also got involved in a mentorship program through LinkedIn. It was pretty informal — people would message me on LinkedIn and basically say, “Hey, I’m at this level. How can I sharpen my skills? What areas should I focus on improving?” And interestingly, some of those people are older than I am, and they can talk about design from a totally different perspective, which I love.
It sounds like mentorship is a pretty important part of your professional life. Why?
Ha, I do have moments where I am talking to a lot of people at once. I think that because I’ve been designing for a while, I have some long-time friends who I’m always discussing the industry and trading notes with. I try to remain as open as possible and I’m quick to respond to new people who reach out because I think these kinds of conversations are valuable.
Do you currently have a mentor?
I think it’s always important to have somebody that you can talk to who is a couple of steps above you, or who has had more years of experience than you do. I would consider my friend Paola to be a mentor to me, and I ask her for advice on lots of different things — we talk about ethics, and whether we should be designing in a certain way, and how we should be approaching the process of design. She’s only a few years older than I am, and I consider her to be both a friend and a mentor.
What kinds of issues or questions are you hearing from designers who are starting out in tech today? Are they different from the kinds of issues and questions that you had when you were beginning your career?
A lot of people are able to demonstrate that they’re talented, but because designers are creatively minded, we don’t always think about the process aspect. I give a lot of people advice around what agreements I have, what contracts I have, and what I put in those contracts, for example.
I’m part of a Facebook group for African American designers, and I see a lot of younger people there who say things like, “I have this client, and they’re asking me to do this extra thing that’s not really a part of my service. How do I communicate about that?” I sometimes end up answering a lot of questions that are outside of the creative realm, but are still very valuable things that designers need to know, especially if they’re trying to design as a service.
Why should other people consider becoming mentors?
I had such a wavy path in terms of getting to where I am today professionally. You get to a certain point where there’s some perceived goal that you’ve achieved, and I think it’s always good to reach back or to offer some breadcrumbs. And I’m somebody that needed people to tell me these things. My friends Paola and sarah huny young were able to break things down and have one-on-one conversations with me, which was incredibly beneficial. I don’t even think I would be a UX designer today if I didn’t have certain conversations with them.
I also think about the lack of diversity in our field and how there’s a lot of really good people out there — really exceptional designers — who just need somebody to give them direction. I feel good when I’m offering that type of value to other people, especially people that either come from a similar background, or people who have had other hardships that I can relate to. I love to do that and even out the playing field.