September 23, 2021

Eli Gancena

Design Mentorship 101

September 23, 2021

Mentorship programs are originally designed to connect professionals and give them space to ask questions and share insights they've learned while working in the design industry. In this interview with an experienced design and tech specialist, Eli Gancena, we explore the opportunities that design mentorship provides to mentors and mentees, discover how to find a mentor and what it takes to become one.

Eli Gancena, Director of Technology at Playground Inc.

Eli carries out both traditional training in design and software and has spent his career leading award-winning agency teams who have delivered projects for companies such as Rogers, Air Canada, Nissan, Apple, Mozilla, BMW and Nike. Eli has previously led technology teams at Critical Mass and ICF Next and is currently the Director of Technology at Playground Inc., a Toronto-based design agency.

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Eli, how did your journey in design originally begin?

My story begins in high school. Back then I was convinced I wanted to make a living as a painter or an illustrator. I attended a non-traditional high school where I was enrolled in a visual arts program. Nearly half of my courses were art classes. I studied traditional painting and drawing, the styles of Monet and Van Gogh, the concepts of color-theory and visual rhythm.


Fast forward a few years and I found myself caught between wanting to pursue a career in art and the pressure from parents to become an engineer. While I thought a career in architecture would be a great compromise, I found myself falling in love with graphic design and writing software instead.


To my surprise, my background in traditional visual arts gave me an upper hand in graphic design and building web experiences. Since then, I've overseen many technology teams that build online experiences for enterprise clients.


Most recently, I've picked up mentoring, and now I have the ability to give back to the design and technology community that helped me become the person I am today.

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Who is a design mentor?

A design mentor proactively invests in other designers by giving them guidance and sharing professional knowledge and experience.

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They don't know what they don't know yet
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What inspired you to become a design mentor?

When I look back at the start of my career as a wannabe illustrator and designer, the most profound, career-changing and motivating experiences I’ve had were actually those I shared with my team leaders, managers, peers and professors.


Once I realized that it’s other peoples' time and generosity that made me a good specialist, I felt like it’s my time to give something back to the community.

Eli recommends these books:

  • Drive: The Suprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink
  • The Manager's Path by Camille Fournier
  • Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
  • Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Part 1. Mentorship as a program

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What are the primary responsibilities of a design mentor?

If I had to describe the work of a design mentor in three sentences, it’d be:


  1. To see people as they are
  2. To understand people’s needs and frustrations
  3. To do your best to provide people with resources, help them work out a direction in career and life and just be honest with them. 


From there, a design mentor is only limited to how much you are willing to give.

Eli's Top-3 tools for productive work:


We take the data-driven design approach on all of the experiences we build at Playground Inc. FlowMapp is the perfect tool for the UX research phase for projects as we're able to quickly collaborate on site maps, user flows, user personas and journey maps.


Once we've defined the preliminary UX requirements, we carry over all the technical documentation, UML diagrams, API request diagrams and map them to their respective user flows in Miro.


All our work then gets documented and organized in Notion to ensure we have a single source of truth when working through our projects.

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What can a mentor help with?

I'm sure a lot of people can relate to the feeling of being new to something and not knowing what is best to do next. Mentors help fill that void with wisdom that you can only get from experience. I remember completing my college program and not knowing what to do with my degree.

"Do I become an illustrator? Do I start a website? Do I start applying for jobs? Where do I go? What do I do?"

It was through the help of a mentor that I was able to define what my goals were and map out what my next moves should look like.


I'm part of the ADPList mentor community, and a lot of the meeting requests that I get are from designers who are going through the exact same experience. They've just completed their bootcamp or their college program — or want to switch to a career in design from a different field. They don't know what they don't know yet. I believe it's my responsibility as someone who has benefited from my own mentors, to give back and help others through sharing my own experience.

ADPList Community page

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How does a mentor decide it’s time to finish the mentorship program?

Communication is the key. I often help mentees define what their goals are during our first meetings, after which we work on achieving them with each follow-up. Sometimes they'll feel like they no longer need the guidance and can take care of the rest on their own. At other times they'll ask for more meetings to help them with something else.


Part 2. Becoming a mentor

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Why do you like being involved in mentorship programs?

As a mentor, I find fulfillment in helping others get closer to their career goals or figure out their career path. Being a mentor reminds me of where I started and allows me to break up my busy days.

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No matter where you are in your career, you will definitely benefit from a mentoring relationship
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Which skills are essential for a good design mentor?

Anyone can be a design mentor. It’s not about being experienced enough, but having a unique experience that may be helpful for someone else.


Design is a global language. So whatever industry you come from — film, customer service, healthcare, real estate, etc. — I'm confident that you have some valuable experiences to share with others.

FlowMapp recommends

Checking out these mentorship programs:

Part 3. Q&A

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Do you think every junior web designer needs a mentor? 

I believe that everyone needs a mentor regardless of their title or position. Mentorship provides experiential knowledge that education can never provide. No matter where you are in your career, you will definitely benefit from a mentoring relationship.

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What advice would you give to young designers who want to make a career in the design industry?

Sign up for a mentorship program, like ADPList, hear out as many people’s stories as you can and do your best to learn from your own experience.

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And finally, how do you think the design industry will evolve in the next 10 years?

I think the line between a designer and a developer will be even more blurred — and we’ll see the demand for new professionals who will combine the roles of both. 

We're already starting to see jobs such as 'Creative Technologist' emerge out of leading agencies and dev shops. More and more designers have coding skills while developers are getting better at design, so I believe this trend is just getting started.

To learn more:

Check out the interview with Joseph Brust, Senior Design Technologist at Amazon, who recently spoke with us on the specifics of his job and how the intersection between design and development will continue to evolve in the next years.


Read our interview with UX Designer at KPMG, another ADPList mentor, to learn about the creative process and its possible issues that might arise along the way.