A few weeks back, one of my coworkers shared this article on imposter syndrome in our company’s Slack channel.
“This is totally me,” he said.
A few others chimed in with similar self-deprecating remarks.
We laughed it off, but as the day went on, we realized that the article actually hit home with quite a few of us.
Imposter syndrome is best described as the feeling that you’re a fraud—even if you’ve been recognized for being amazing at what you do. Imposter syndrome sufferers constantly worry they’re one mistake away from being “found out.”
In most professions, the idea of this is nuts—especially when designers are known for their work. If you’re putting out great work, how could you even begin to consider yourself a phony?
So, we took a step back and we talked to a few of our designer friends. We wanted to see if this was a common problem.
Turns out, it definitely is.
So to help out other designers who are feeling this way, we’ve compiled a few symptoms we’ve seen (and fell prey to) along with some helpful advice for overcoming imposter syndrome.
Symptom #1: You won’t let some of your designs see the light of day
Imposter syndrome makes you feel like you’re a thief. You worry that your admiration and inspiration from others is actually just plagiarism.
Unless you’re stealing someone else’s designs, or taking credit for another person’s work, then your designs are yours. That feeling is why some of the best designs go completely unseen. They’re either locked away in a Dropbox folder, or they’ll get dumped in your Mac’s trash bin.
“Some of the best work you’ll ever do is the work you don’t let others see.”
For most designers, this is an issue that you’ve probably fought with before. Though, I’m told, it gets increasingly more frustrating the better you become.
Designers—and the design community as a whole—appreciate and understand the hard work it’s taken to get where you are today. Some of the best work you’ll ever do is the work you don’t let others see.
Know that your work speaks for itself. It’s brought joy to others and it’s helped you get to where you are today. Remember how awesome it is, and if you’re ever in doubt, show it to someone else before you trash it.
You’d be amazed how much the positivity of another human being changes the way you perceive your own work. You’ll feel warmer, motivated, and more likely to ask for (and receive) actionable feedback to make things that much better.
Symptom #2: You’re always wary
That scary feeling that you’re close to the edge.
The feeling of doubt that tells you you’re one mistake away from the end of your career.
Well, the reality is, you’re not.
Even if you’re designing for clients and your work doesn’t quite hit the mark (or it just feels awful) you’re still a great designer.
“Don’t take undue criticism as feedback.”
Be grateful if you feel like you’ve failed, because failure is the starting point of all learning.
Failing teaches us invaluable lessons, and it helps us improve as people and as designers. All feedback, as long as it’s from the right sources, is good feedback.
Don’t take undue criticism as feedback. If someone judges your work and they don’t have the knowledge or experience to do so, then don’t take their feedback personally.
Most harsh feedback is only as harsh as you choose to take it.
Ironically, if you never get feedback on your work, you’re in danger of becoming irrelevant. Challenging tasks—with timely and useful feedback—create flow.
Talk to people you respect—there’s nothing more valuable than actionable feedback from people in the industry who you admire. If they’re as awesome as you are, they’ll be happy to help.
“Failure is the starting point of all learning.”
If you’re struggling to find actionable feedback, then give other designers useful and actionable feedback. In time, you’ll get the same in return (and you’ll make some new friends, too!)
One of the great things about giving other designers feedback is the self-reflection it gives you on your own work. It takes talent, knowledge, and patience to help improve the work of others. If you’re able to do this, then you’re already leagues above where you (probably) think you are.
If you’re feeling weary, bottling it up only makes it worse. Never be scared to ask or talk to others—people are almost always happy to help.
Symptom #3: Client projects are roller coasters
Working on projects for yourself is hard. After all, you are your own worst critic. But if you’re feeling like a fraud, it’s a lot scarier to work on client projects.
We’ve heard a lot of people say that clients not only pay your wage, they build your reputation.
This is only partially true. Ultimately, your reputation is yours. Even in an ideal scenario (with the best briefs and the greatest clients), designing someone else’s dreams is tough. It can be really stressful to pick apart the thoughts in someone else’s head and then put them onto a digital canvas.
Worst of all, if you believe you’re an imposter, there’s that looming fear that a client will lose their temper (or their mind) and take your reputation with it.
Choose your clients carefully.
A lot of designers feel like they can’t pick and choose who they work with, when in reality that’s totally possible (and we’d really encourage you to do so).
Work with clients whose vision aligns with yours—especially if they have exciting ideas. If the client has looked high and low for a designer like you and appreciates your work, that’s a good sign, too.
Of course, sometimes you’ll pick the wrong client, but don’t feel that’s a reflection on your ability as a designer.
“Work with clients whose vision aligns with yours.”
Design is subjective, and if you’ve ticked all the boxes on a brief (and implemented their feedback) then you’ve done everything you can.
If you ever get really stuck, let your client know. We’re all human—no one’s expecting the world from you, and a quick discussion can usually get the ball rolling again.
Our number-one tip
Believe you’re a badass.
Take a moment—or, really, an hour—to appreciate your achievements and what you’ve accomplished over the years. It’s too easy to remain humble and forget what you’ve built and the talent that lives inside you.
When you’re feeling low or like an imposter, be mindful of that feeling and identify what’s made you feel that way. Once you know the root, you can think of the best way to approach and combat the feeling.
Here’s a few examples of what you can—and probably should—feel badass about:
- Getting your first ever design client
- Nailing a project for your first big client
- Receiving a thank you email from a client
- Getting referrals because your work is that good
- Posting a super successful Dribbble shot
- Getting mad appreciations on Behance
- Being asked for design-related advice
- Giving feedback that’s rescued someone’s designs
- Getting asked to teach a class
- Getting asked to teach and to be paid for it
- Seeing someone share your designs on social media
- Being included in an inspiration article
- Being interviewed for a popular design blog
- Being interviewed for a global design magazine
- Being nominated for a design award
- Winning a freaking design award
- Getting 10 freaking design awards
- Mentoring another young designer
- Watching your apprentice do all of the above and more
- Reading this blog and realizing you’re not an imposter
You’re a great designer who deserves all the success you’ve worked so hard to achieve.
Never stop doing your thing. Ever.