Change your life, get a mentor

  • Inquiry Remains A Vital Part Of The Learning Experience by Jonathan Baldock (Pai

Robin Levien, a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) at the RSA, works in ceramics and glass. His work is so popular that it's estimated he and his colleague Dave Tilbury designed around 15% of the bathroom suites sold in the UK. Robin is also well known for his beautiful and robust tableware designs. He is a keen advocate of mentoring, and we're very happy that he's involved in the RDI Mentoring Programme offered by FuelRCA.

Royal Designers including Robin and illustrator George Hardie will be visiting the final show on Tuesday 26 June to meet graduating RCA students and discuss the RDI Mentoring Programme with them. In the meantime, Robin spoke to Fuel to share some of his thoughts on mentoring, graduating, and making important choices early on in your career. 

You developed the RDI Mentoring scheme with FuelRCA, which matches RCA students and recent graduates with appropriate Royal Designer mentors, all with very impressive careers. What can a mentoring relationship, like the ones offered through the RDI scheme, offer to an artist, designer, curator or writer at the early stage of their career?
The obvious thing is that to be an RDI you have to have achieved sustained excellence as a designer, by implication you have to have been successful in design for quite a long time. So, by default, you have a lot of experience. And, experience can be very useful to pass on to somebody at the beginning of their career. I don’t know what the average age of the RDIs is but it’s probably 45 or even higher, so you’ve got this tremendous wealth of experience and knowledge. And there’s also an understanding among most Royal Designers that people helped them at the early stages of their careers with advice, whether it was a tutor or somebody else, and there’s a strong feeling of wanting to give something back. That’s the underlying theme. There’s also an interesting idea that the RDI offers a professional experienced designer with a clean slate as far as any previous relationship with your work is concerned, as opposed to a relationship with a tutor that might have been going on for a number of years and that might have worked out in any number of ways. The RDI mentor is a person who can come to your work with a clean slate.

Do you think there’s always a value in mentoring?
We can all look back at people who might be described as a mentor, perhaps in a teaching capacity but they go a little bit further and give you something extra. It could be just a sentence that changes your whole life. I remember a visiting tutor who I had three 20 minute tutorials with, so only an hour in total, and in the last tutorial something he said made me completely change direction from art to design – and this person was a sculptural ceramicist! There are always people outside of your normal sphere of work or education that can be absolutely crucial in helping you in some way.

Do mentees have to know what they need?
It's always easier to help someone if they have an identifiable issue or a problem to solve or if they know where they want to get to. If they have a direction and an ambition, it’s much easier to help somebody. But of course the common mentoring relationship is actually that the person doesn’t really know what they want to do, hasn’t really made their mind up. That’s a very common dilemma, especially in what you might call the applied arts. Our education system is amazing when it comes to the applied arts – people graduating from textiles and ceramics courses and so on have an incredible skill at making things, and really the fundamental decision that they have to make is whether to be a designer/maker and realise the dream of having a little workshop and making things and selling them to shops, or being a designer and having somebody else make your things. That doesn’t sound like a massive choice but it is. Very often you’ll talk to people who have an ambition to do both. Occasionally that can happen but I often say to people that this is a big decision you have to make. Unless you’re a genius, and not many of us are, you have to make your mind up and get focused, and recognise the differences between being a designer/maker and being a designer, offering a service or offering products. That’s more often than not a big part of the conversation that I have when I meet people who are graduating or have recently graduated. They have to focus and put all their effort into one thing, rather than thinking they can do a bit of this and a bit of that and a bit of the other and still be successful. There are exceptions but usually you have to choose.

Just before and after graduation is a time when many RCA students will be coming into contact with people who could help them develop their ideas and expand their practice. How should they approach these interactions?
It’s clearly a point of need. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s acceptable that while you’re at college you put your focus into creativity and developing your work, and then this massive learning curve arrives when someone’s offering to buy your design, buy your painting, commission you to do something, and you find yourself in the commercial world not the world of education. Going back to mentoring, I would say, don’t make any quick decisions, and talk to people who can help you make the right decision. It’s really as simple as that. Because the network that you have as a graduate from the RCA, whether you realise it or not, is incredible. There are many people who can help you, even if they just refer you on to somebody else. From a design point of view, a product designer will usually have a file somewhere with about 20 or 30 royalty contracts in. Somebody graduating now has probably never seen a royalty contract, so the thing is to talk to somebody about what someone’s offering and say, what would your advice be, how does this work? It’s quite simple – take your time, don’t make any quick decisions, and talk to people who can help you. It’s really the idea of stepping from the world of education to being a professional. On the first morning of the final show, you’re no longer a student – and that’s a dramatic overnight change. I think it would be nice for people to know that the RDI mentoring scheme is there, among the other resources offered by the college.

Do you have any general advice for people graduating now?
Don’t be too arrogant, although there’ll be plenty of people telling you that a good designer or a good artist is by implication a bit arrogant. Make yourself easy to help by not thinking you know all the answers and being open to letting somebody actually help you. Some people are easier to help than others. These are obvious things to say but they do count for something. Don’t make out you know everything when you don’t. People will enjoy helping you: you have to see these things as a two-way deal. You have to make the experience of someone helping you enjoyable. All they’re getting out of it is a warm glow so give them the opportunity to have a warm glow. 

The RDI scheme puts different generations together, often with really productive results – do you have a sense of generational change within art and design, especially having seen successive year groups graduate from the RCA and go on to build careers?
I think there’s more continuity and more similarity than there are really changes. The situation for people isn’t that different from when I graduated a long time ago. Although, having said that, clearly the whole world of the internet has fundamentally changed how people work and live and operate. In one way, it couldn’t be more different from when I graduated, and in another way much of it is really the same. One of the things that’s worth pointing out to people graduating now is that they might not be able to get to where they want to get to overnight, and they might need to recognise that they’ve got to work their way up within their chosen career path, and what they might not realise is that some of their basic skills that they take for granted could be the things that get them into gainful employment, whether that’s freelance or employed somewhere. If you’re a wizard at Rhino 3D CAD or you’re a brilliant model-maker, use those skills. Even though you want to be a full-blown artist, it might be worth recognising that you might not get there overnight. There's a saying that your first year of work is your last year of college. I think there’s a lot of truth in that – you know a lot of things but there are also very many things that you don’t know. That first year of opportunity outside of education and in the commercial world, there’s a lot to learn, and if you can get yourself into a situation where you can learn all that stuff while being paid for some of your basic skills, that's great. That’s a bit strategic, but the danger can be that somebody thinks they’re above just doing CAD renders of somebody else’s design. Well, it might not fulfil their ambition, but while they’re doing it and being paid, they’re learning about how the commercial world works.

Have you observed any consistent factors among students and recent graduates who go on to make the most of their opportunities and build sustained careers? What counts: charm, talent, hard work, something else?
Yes – there’s something very obvious but that might pass by some people: it’s bloody hard work! And really not many people make it without really working hard. In a way, it isn’t work, because if you’re passionate about what you do then you’re having a good time. You can’t say to somebody, "You’d better wake up tomorrow morning and be passionate!" because it’s a bit late, but the ingredient that makes people succeed is passion and passion leads to hard work. You might not even have found what you’re passionate about, but until you have you’re not going to make it. That’s where mentoring can really help you figure that out, a bit like the Desert Island Discs question where you can only take one book or record – until you make big decisions, it’s hard to make it work and get anyone to help you. Most of that’s common sense stuff. Don’t be afraid to ask. I think Steve Jobs once said, stay foolish. Don’t think you know it all – be prepared to make mistakes.