10 Top Tips
Tackling imposter syndrome for designers
Hi, Mark here from design studio Superfried. I have heard many designers over the years say that they struggle with the dreaded imposter syndrome. I feel this is an issue that has been greatly exacerbated by the internet + social media – before this we were simply unaware what everyone else was doing. As a self taught graphic designer, I have found it particularly challenging at times. So, I am not a medically trained professional, but here are some tips for how I have tackled that demon of doubt perched on my shoulder.
Whenever I am struggling for confidence, the first thing I try to do is look for concrete truths that I can rely on to eradicate the demon. What are those facts that can not be argued against and dismissed regardless of how misaligned my perspective may be at that time. So this can work for anyone in any profession – take a look back at your portfolio / CV. Look at the great client that hired you, the team you were put in charge of, the promotion, the award – would any of those things happened if you were not good at what you do? If you tell yourself yes, then you are suggesting that all of the people that made those decisions are stupid.
Ask yourself, is this logical or likely?
This can be difficult to do. So if that is the case, you can simply listen to others. In times when confidence is low, it is amazing how arrogant we can be to assume we are the only one's struggling with this – why should we be so special ; ) Despite a natural desire to feel unique, the reality is that we humans often share the same desires and fears. How else would horoscopes work? Once you hear that a fellow professional you revere has the same insecurity, it can be a huge boost to your confidence knowing you are not alone. That despite your insecurities, like them, you can also reach the same level of achievement.
03 So what?
I am sure I am not alone in this, but one of my biggest failings is that I care too much. When your profession is also your passion, it can be difficult to separate the two. To remember that it is still just a job – work to live, not live to work. So, any comments or comparison seem like a personal attack, rather than in relation to the work.
But would it really matter if you actually were the worse graphic designer in history?
Ultimately, the only person that really needs to love the work is the person paying the invoice and their target audience. After all, that is who it is for. It is the clients problems you are trying to solve not your own.
Even if you are not happy with the work – which is inevitable at some point in your career – you don't have to put it on your site. Perhaps the next project will be the folio booster. You can always spend some of the fee on a takeaway to cheer yourself up!
04 Don't compare
Unless you take yourself off grid, there is a relentless bombardment of information. So it is difficult not to be curious or aware of what everyone else is doing. But if you can refrain, it will really help on three fronts. In the first instance it will make you more productive. Once you start to a peep, it so easy to end up down the social media rabbit hole and lose the next hour. Secondly there is a danger of the work subconsciously influencing your own. There is nothing worse then thinking to have nailed a brief, then wondering where you got the idea only to realise you have inadvertently recreated something you have previously seen. Thirdly, it is the quickest way to feel crap about your own work and lose confidence, making the project ten times more difficult. I heard someone clever say a brilliant phrase the other day – Comparison is the thief of joy – it is so very true.
If you wish to compare, when in a positive mind set it can spur you on to raise your game. But you have to compare apples with apples. For example, if you are married with children, but compare yourself with a graphic designer that is single with no family dependents, you are not giving yourself a fair chance. They are likely to have less distractions, far more time to dedicate solely to their profession, enhancing their skills + knowledge, making contacts, going to events etc.
And more energy ; )
If sharing is difficult for you, I have found podcasts can be really helpful. Hearing how others have struggled in a similar way, can be reassuring that it is ok and normal. You are not a weirdo. The methods and techniques they employed tackle this can then be taken on board risk free.
Never before have we been so open about our struggles with mental health. I think this is one of the many reasons podcasts are now so popular. It is so easy to dismiss advice from friends and relatives in different lines of work – you don't understand, our industry is different etc. But when you hear straight from the mouth of those at the top in your own sector, there are no excuses any more. Time to be positive, pro active and give it a go.
After all, what's the alternative?
When I have been wrestling with the imposter demon, I have sometimes found comfort from the type of work I am doing. So even if the demon is right, and I am just a fraud – which of course is nonsense – at least the project I am working on is helping a charity or someone embark on a new future for them and their family etc. Over the past few years I have found myself drawn towards projects for non-profits rather than the 'sexy' household brands. This helps, as the purpose shift is now re-directing away from my ego towards the cause. Plus this type of work is less publicised, reducing the opportunities for toxic comparison.
07 Flip it
Although perceived as a negative, it can be flipped to be an asset. As a designer you will have your own bar – the point at which you set your standards. When you reach that point of deciding if the best solution has been found and there are no more refinements required or you decide there is time for another think just in case. If you struggle with imposter syndrome you will always think you should be doing better, so this will help to push your bar higher. Although this inevitably leads to more time and effort, it should also lead to higher level clients as you build a reputation for attention to detail and craft.
08 You only follow the best
This is an interesting point made by one of my friends that had never occurred to me. I was talking about how good some of the people I follow are on social media, and he replied – but you only follow the best in your industry, so it is hardly surprising that you feel inferior? This makes logical sense. If you are a keen amateur runner, but only compare yourself to professional athletes, there is a high chance your efforts may seem a bit lame. Plus, when you consider the potential for slight exaggeration of achievements, the gap may not be as big as you think. After all, as designers, we are supposed to be the experts at positioning people + companies how they would like to be perceived.
So try to follow a broad spectrum within your sector. This way you are more likely to connect with others struggling with the same fears + anxieties.
I will be totally honest here. Have I entered and won awards – yes. Did it make me happy – for a minute or so, yes.
But the real question is why did I enter them?
I could argue that I did so to try and raise the profile of the business. There would be a slight element of truth in that statement. Did they make any difference to my business – no, I don't think so.
But being brutally honest, the main reason was a lack of confidence. I felt the need to prove my worth as a designer and falsely believed winning would convince me that I was ok. It didn't.
I have nothing against awards, they can be exciting and fun. But enter for the right reasons. Ultimately they do not prove a designer is the best in a particular category since only a small proportion of their competition will have entered. I know of many great graphic designers, confident in their ability, that have never entered a single award since they never felt they had anything to prove.
So what is the point? Well, you can legitimately write 'award winning designer' – but having done so, makes me cringe with embarrassment ; )
This has been my biggest hinderance, but not always when you would expect.
Early on when I went solo, I was lucky enough to consistently work with a global media agency on a day rate from my bedroom! I thought I had made it. Falsely believed that because I was making much more money this was proof I was a better designer. I could not have been more wrong.
You are only as good as your portfolio – and consistent b2b marketing guff meant my book was looking rather thin, corporate and dull. Not only that, they supplied so much work, my other clients were not replaced, and I ended up with all my eggs in one basket. When the market got tougher, they moved more design in-house, the work dried up. But with effectively just one client I now no longer had a business. This was a painful, but valuable lesson. Now I was more focussed on the quality of my work, since this was my only vehicle to attract more clients. Although I was earning far less, it forced me to become a better designer.
Now for the big irony. When I was younger and not very good, I was delusional, cocky and confident. Many years later, I am far better than I was, can offer more value to my clients – yet, I am now less confident. This is because I have raised my bar, expect more of myself.
So although confidence is valuable, it has to be justified.
Check out more free top tips at the top of the page.