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Imposter Syndrome in Design: What It Is and How to Overcome It

Over my years as a designer at WillowTree, I’ve had many conversations with talented colleagues who have struggled with imposter syndrome. The constant internalized fear of not being good enough or being exposed as a fraud is rampant in the design industry. As our industry matures, designers have more and more responsibilities and a never-ending list of tools to learn, so it’s only natural that self-doubt is a common feeling that a lot of us have. This feeling is only exacerbated by the fact that it’s rarely publicly discussed.

Source: Pablo Stanley

Types of Design Imposter Syndrome

As luck would have it, I had a timely reminder of imposter syndrome while at SXSW when I found myself at a talk by Stephen Gates, Head of Design Transformation at InVision. As part of his presentation, he broke down five different types of imposter syndrome he sees in designers, no matter their title or company they work for:

1. The Perfectionist

Perfectionists set excessively high goals for themselves, and fear failing to reach them because they have major self-doubt about whether they measure up. You have difficulty delegating and then feel frustrated and disappointed in the results.

2. The Superwoman or Man

Superwomen or men feel they are phonies working alongside real talent and fear being exposed so they push themselves to work harder and harder to measure up. You stay later at the office than the rest of your team, even when you’ve completed that day’s work.

3. The Genius

Genius’ feel their success is based on their abilities rather than their efforts and fear having to work hard at something because they think it means they must be bad at it. You hate the idea of having a mentor, because you can handle things on your own.

4. The Individualist

Individualists feel that asking for help reveals that they are imposters and fear assistance so that you can prove their worth. You frame requests in terms of the requirements of the project, rather than your needs as a person.

5. The Expert

Experts feel like they somehow tricked their employer into hiring them and fear being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable. You constantly seek out trainings because you think you need to improve your skills.

- Stephen Gates, Head of Design Transformation at InVision

How to Overcome

Most designers will associate with a couple of different types of imposter syndrome. For instance, I closely align with the Perfectionist. Often times I feel like if I want something done right, I have to do it myself. That obviously isn’t conducive to teamwork, so it’s something I’m constantly trying to overcome. But how do you get past your imposter syndrome?

Know You’re Not Alone

One of the first things you need to do is accept and embrace that you are experiencing imposter syndrome. Almost every designer has these same feelings—even the ones that seem the most put-together. By talking about it with a friend or mentor, you can find support in each other and acknowledge that we’re all going through this together.

Trust Yourself

The other advice I always tell others that feel like a fraud is to understand that you are where you are because of your talent and hard work. If you really were a fraud, you probably couldn’t have gotten this far. Have faith that your company hired you because they see your potential and trust that your teammates believe in you.

Others Are Here to Help

I’ve talked to a lot of designers who hate showing in-progress work at a critique because they feel like they aren’t good enough. Often times, feedback they receive is perceived as if they’re a failure because they don’t know what they’re doing and got something wrong. But being wrong doesn’t make you a failure. The whole point of having your work critiqued is to get others’ perspectives because you can’t possibly be expected to know everything. Embrace that you’re a good designer, even if you don’t have all of the answers. I can guarantee it that none of us do.

Designers often fear critique because other designers are “judging” your partially-thought-through work as if it was the best you can do. Hearing all the problems with your work can make you feel small, even though you know the existing shortcomings. It’s important to remember that nobody is judging you personally: they’re giving you feedback because they want to help. To alleviate some of this anxiety, structuring critique sessions in a way where you explain where you are in the process and what sort of feedback you’re looking for will help.

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Jesse Prehodick

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