Amazon Creative Jam gives future designers a lift through mentorship

Amazon Logo and Amazon design on orange background.

As the leader for the Amazon Design Community, I have the amazing opportunity to dive deep and follow my passion for developing new talent in the industry. This often means exploring new ways to meet with and mentor students and emerging designers all over the world. As the events of this past year played out, myself and many others at Amazon knew we had to do more to support and encourage up and coming designers as the gaps in access and awareness only get bigger and bigger.

COVID-19 has brought with it many changes in education, and the effect has been a great deal of confusion and despair, especially among students who are preparing to enter the industry. Mentorship and guidance have never been more important. They are the antidote to the anxiety many young designers feel as they attempt to break into the industry at this tricky time. One of the ways we focus on mentorship is through collaboration with partner organizations, such as Adobe, to create unique opportunities like the College +Amazon Design Creative Jam.

Connecting in the first place — often the hardest part of mentorship

At Amazon, there are designers in almost every corner of the company. You have visual designers, motion designers, full stack User Experience (UX) designers, researchers, UX writers, and on and on and on — all working on different things, all on teams of varying sizes and levels of design maturity, and all within a very large and fast-moving company. This can make it difficult for junior designers and new hires to find the right people that can help them ramp up on what they need to know about design at such a massive scale.

To help forge these relationships, we’ve started multiple mentorship programs within Amazon to help people connect. Mentorship is an incredibly powerful tool, not just for mentees who gain guidance on how to survive and thrive in a design workplace, but for mentors, as well. When they have the opportunity to explain how something works to somebody else, it causes them to reevaluate how they arrived at the solution in the first place, and bring it into more common and approachable terms, which is a very Amazon thing to do. And it actually sharpens their toolkit as they’re giving back. It’s a virtuous flywheel.

We’ve seen how this helps all levels of designers succeed, encouraging them to hone their skills. But at Amazon, everything is about operating at scale. Scaling your impact, your influence, your efficacy. We’re always seeking new ways to keep these opportunities going and growing.

College + Amazon Design Creative Jam: Open to more than just design students

We started working with the Adobe education team for the College + Amazon Design Creative Jam before the pandemic, throwing around ideas of what we could do and what this event could be. Rachel Elnar, senior product marketing manager, said, “Typically, Adobe hosts Creative Jams to help college students bridge the gap between their current studies and their future careers. Teams of students participate in this fast-paced tournament complete with real-world parameters and prizes, to build the best solution with Adobe digital tools.”

As COVID-19 set in, it became clear that we needed to bring something extra to the table. One of our goals at Amazon is to bring attention to design as a career, especially for Black and Brown designers who are traditionally under-represented in this field. Even though everything was in a state of turmoil, it seemed like the perfect time to focus on something positive like building career skills and giving back to the broader design community.

When we were talking to the Adobe Creative Jam and education teams, we made it clear we wanted to open up this design challenge and learning experience to students from different majors rather than limiting it to just design students or design schools because there are so many ways to get into the work we do. We wanted to emphasize the various paths that lead to design and what design looks like in a company like Amazon. This is what spurred the idea of adding the mentorship component to the Jam.

There’s a basic framework around our engagements, especially with an event like a Creative Jam. At the heart of that framework is the goal of creating opportunities for our designers to connect with the community. It’s not just about creating more visibility for the types of design roles that are possible, it is also about giving visibility to the actual designers doing the work.

In the current environment where everything is remote, we can expand our reach. We aren’t limited to just connecting with designers in Seattle, where my team is based. We can bring together designers and students from around the world. Students can bring their work to a professional and get critique and advice in a one-on-one, albeit virtual, environment. What they learn in these moments can be applied to their work for years to come.

“The opportunity to receive the support and input of Divya, a UX Designer at Amazon, provided the incomparable privilege of input from an expert in their field. Her firsthand knowledge of the ways in which we all interact with technology had a major impact on the outcome of our app,” says Luke Kingham, product design student at London South Bank University.

Kingham adds, “All too often a disparity exists between education and industry, with a lack of opportunity to receive guidance and experience from those within the industries we aspire toward most — with the impacts of COVID-19 only serving to perpetuate this barrier. I would encourage everyone to take advantage of opportunities, such as this Amazon Creative Jam, whenever possible — it has furthered a whole spectrum of my design-related skills and the outcome is a great asset to my portfolio!”

Creative Jams portfolio on Behance

Creating opportunities for diversity and inclusion

At this Creative Jam, we didn’t just want to highlight the many roles that fall under the umbrella of design but also uplift the Black, Latinx, and Native American or Indigenous designers doing excellent work at Amazon. As senior program manager of design education and diversity, Kass Escalera points out, “We have the unique opportunity to connect designers from across Amazon with students and support them on their own design journeys.” This puts us in a position to educate and inform students about who designers are and what they can do.

Amazon is a big mystery. People see all of our products and services out there in the world, but nobody knows anything about how the work gets done or what went into building a product. A Creative Jam gives us the opportunity to showcase designers from all paths. It creates this moment for people from all kinds of backgrounds to be seen, to be heard, and to connect with others in the community.

This also gives our team the chance to help with some of the access problems for students and programs that haven’t yet established a direct route into technology companies. We can share how we got to where we are, and advise students about how they can shape their work and tell their story. On the other side of these conversations, students gain a network that they’re plugged into. They become part of the design community, some for the first time.

One of our most devoted mentors from this Creative Jam and other mentoring activities is UX Designer, Ashley Glover. She is adamant about creating a network of opportunities and opening doors for those behind her. When asked why she feels mentorship is so important, she says, “It’s been a long path for me so I want to make sure that I’m equipping students with the right tools so that they can succeed.”

Glover says, “Honestly, the things that you learn in design programs, whether it’s undergraduate or at the Master’s level, are not properly equipping you if you want to be at these larger tech companies. I want to make sure, especially for Black and Brown folks, that they have the tools they need and that they understand the methods that can get them in the door.” This idea of opening doors and creating opportunities runs deep within Amazon Design.

One example of a team project: Watch the final ten teams present their brilliant ideas and climb their way to glory in the Amazon Design Jam!

Amazon’s ongoing commitment to fostering community

We’re working hard to mentor young designers and design students, both inside the organization and outside of it. We’ve done our best to create partnerships with other industry leaders, like Adobe, so that we can bring these episodic mentorship opportunities to our designers, as well as students and new designers.

We don’t take this challenge lightly. Committing to mentorship and community building in a meaningful way takes constant outreach and effort. It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding. Not only does it allow us to foster relationships in the broader design community, but it gives our designers an opportunity to see and be seen. A win-win for us, and the next generation of talented designers just getting started.