Nurturing the Next Generation of Creatives Requires Designers to Be Good Teachers, Too

By Mikell Fine Iles, Executive Design Director at Hook

I always knew I would end up teaching someday–After all, I am the son of a teacher. Art and design have always been my passion since the day I started drawing and observing the world around me. This love for the visual arts has taken me on a professional journey that has spanned 18 years. Nowadays, I find myself deeply involved in mentoring young designers, and use it as a way to break barriers for creative people from underrepresented backgrounds in the industry.

Stepping into this role, I have developed a true appreciation for the work my mom did as a teacher. There are others in my family as well–grandmothers, aunts, my sister–women who have poured their hearts and souls into helping others learn. I am someone who has been baptized in the belief of service to others by the teachers in my family. It starts with compassion, and a desire to build understanding and mutual respect, regardless of age or experiences. Demonstrating that you care about their growth and the contributions they make to the world. That alone is not enough. The second part is courage. Courage to make tough decisions–to say things that may be difficult to hear. To push for change in an industry and a society that has been unwelcoming to black and brown people especially. These lessons were passed down to me from the teachers in my family.

As a young Black designer, I often felt alone, expected to be the “voice for black people,” which, among other things, is uncomfortable. I’ve wondered how much more fun and free work could be if we removed that discomfort. This journey has brought me to my current agency, where I feel comfortable speaking my mind and advocating for people and issues that I care deeply about, with the support of leadership.

I’m energized by what I see from young designers today. The lines between disciplines are blurring. Creative people are much more fluid than when I was coming up, and this leads to more interesting work. There is real power in versatility, and these new voices can electrify entire organizations. Talent can only take you so far, of course. What I try to teach, and what I look for in young designers, are these three qualities:

Grit: Have the drive and motivation to be really good. Possess a work ethic to fuel that motivation.

Curiosity: Love the craft, observe the world around you, and research what came before.

Communication: Speak your mind and be a proactive collaborator.

The work we’ve done has inspired the creation of our new external mentorship program, Sandbox.

For the last 2 years, we have developed relationships with local schools, HBCUs, faculty and students. We have tested and refined our curriculum. And now we are proud to announce our formal mentorship program–driven entirely by the people of Hook, each with a deep passion for teaching the next generation of creative individuals. Working with young people brings a different kind of joy. It’s food for the soul. Our values act as the backbone for everything we do, everything we present, and every 1:1 conversation we have:

  • Support local communities and underrepresented groups.
  • Increase the racial and gender diversity of our industry.
  • Develop emerging leaders at Hook.

For the creative industry (and advertising in particular) to better reflect society, real work must happen. There is a big opportunity to improve the talent pipeline, but that responsibility should not fall solely on recruiters. Even the best designers need to embrace their inner teacher. This is key to successfully reaching and educating up-and-coming talent. For the Sandbox program, we have designed a curriculum that exposes young people to creative projects that mimic what a typical design brief might be for working professionals. Through these exercises, our mentors break down the project into detailed steps, starting with research, and culminating in student presentations in front of a group of peers and mentors. Along the way, our mentors provide constructive feedback and suggestions for how we might tackle similar challenges. This work is supplemented by mentors who share their own project case studies and experiences.

In the Sandbox program, we impart the following lessons:

  • Establish your own voice.
  • Know your worth.
  • Go where you’re appreciated.

These words reverberate from my mom and the other teachers in my family. As a young person, searching for a creative outlet, I was fortunate to find examples of others who came before. Older men and women of color who made a living expressing themselves through the arts. This revelation was as though a secret portal had been unlocked. It is now my turn to provide some examples, and unlock portals for today’s young people.

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