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7 min read

Learning to work through imposter syndrome one day at a time

Feeling like a fraud is common, especially in creative fields where things are often subjective. These words of advice can help.

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At some point we’ve all had the moment of insecurity: Can I do this job? Will I be good at this? Am I a fraud?

Working through imposter syndrome is a real concern for many designers. It can sneak into your psyche at almost any time, regardless of where you are in your career. Its implications go beyond the anxiety you may feel when starting a new job or role.

However, once you recognize it, working through the pains that come with feeling like a fraud can help you get past it one day at a time. Here are some words of advice on how to deal with imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome?

Let’s take a look at the relationship between design and imposter syndrome.

Creative fields are often subjective, leading to insecurities that can manifest themselves as imposter syndrome. But what does that really mean?

The most recognized imposter syndrome definition comes from a classic study in Psychotherapy published by S.A. Imes and Pauline Rose Clance: “The psychological experience of believing that one’s accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated other people’s impressions, has been labeled the impostor phenomenon.”

The roots of imposter syndrome come from a study conducted with college women in 1978, who despite success, did not see themselves as worthy and competent as their peers. In the study, they attributed accomplishment to luck, charm, or an ability to please people, but not their skills, leading to self-doubt and a belief that they were “faking it.”

This is the same feeling that many of us–regardless of gender–experience today, and it’s quite common among designers and others working in creative fields.

The topic has been highly debated and talked about in articles on Medium, in TED talks and so on. It’s estimated that up to 70% of creative workers have felt this way at some point in their careers.

So, what does imposter syndrome feel like, exactly?

Imposter syndrome is more than simple insecurity about a new job or career. And while it’s not uncommon to compare yourself to other designers and co-workers with more experience or expertise, imposter syndrome goes beyond this form of self-doubt. It’s worrying that you’re going to be “found out” and that you aren’t really good at design at all.

Yellow piggy bank with the words 'Nothing will save you' printed on

Many of us go through this experience, even designers who earn praise and recognition for their work.

Designers tend to be particularly susceptible, because “good” and “bad” visual design can be a matter of taste, and creative techniques, trends, and processes are changing all the time. It’s an environment that’s somewhat undefined and always evolving, which can lead to insecurity.

Trust the feedback you get from others. If someone tells you they like your work, believe it.

There’s a fine line between a little professional insecurity and imposter syndrome. Designers who feel like frauds may find themselves working in overdrive to be perfect.

You might suffer from imposter syndrome if:

  • Everything has to be perfect. It makes you nervous to share wireframes or sketches that aren’t pixel-perfect and ready to launch.

  • You don’t want to participate or get nervous about design reviews or feedback (even if you have consistently received high marks or praise for your work).

  • Assignments or tasks take an overwhelming amount of time because of an effort to create perfection or compensate for a perceived lack of ability.

  • You question your role or leadership ability and try to avoid opportunities for fear of being “exposed.”

Laptop with the words 'Nobody is following you' on the screen and jug with 'disaster' written on it

These feelings can come and go at different points in your career. While most designers associate imposter syndrome with a career change, that’s not always the case. Consider the following:

  • An unexpected promotion can trigger these feelings, potentially making you feel unworthy.

  • Too much praise can make you feel uncertain. (We all fail at some point.)

  • You admire a colleague’s work so much that you begin to feel inadequate.

  • You’re involved with risky bets or design choices that result in continued success.

Almost every designer feels like an imposter from time to time, but is it a bigger concern?

Stephen Gates, in his “The Crazy One” podcast outlines five types of imposter syndrome in designers. There’s a strong chance you can see yourself in one of these personas if you are having internal design doubts. See if any of the following applies to you:

  1. Perfectionist: Has high goals, fear of failing, and has trouble letting things go

  2. Superman/woman: Feels like a phony working next to “real designers” and compensates by working longer hours (even if the work is done)

  3. Genius: Thinks success is based on ability rather than hard work and fears mentors

  4. Individualist: Believes that asking for help will show weakness

  5. Expert: Feels that they somehow “tricked” people into hiring them and seeks constant training to improve

A clock reading 'I'm afraid of the future'

Imposter syndrome case study

I had my own experience with this very real phenomenon. Imposter syndrome hit me like a brick wall at a rather unexpected time.

I wasn’t new to a job; I was taking the same projects and doing the same type of work that I’d become known for. And then I got a client that was a lot bigger than my standard business client.

As someone who already strives for perfection in my work, I became Gates’ version of the perfectionist. As a freelance designer, no one but me knew my new client was a big fish, but I set amazingly high goals for success anyway. I was in constant worry that I might fail them.

Would this client realize they should have hired someone else?

At every checkpoint in the design process, I was fearful and worried that the work would not be good enough. I was frustrated with my internally perceived lack of ability. Despite the fact that the client was happy and praised the work, I continued to feel this way. What if they figured me out?

And you know what? They did figure me out. This client got a top-notch job on time and on budget. It just took me a little while to figure it out, too.

The doubts that crept in during this job stuck with me for the next few clients. The problem with imposter syndrome manifesting itself for me this way was that I was spending way too much time on everything. It was costing me time and money.

Colorful playful looking installation on the theme of insecurity

At the time, I didn’t really understand what it was or that imposter syndrome was a thing. I broke out by engaging my network of other designers and talking about it.

Those conversations led to a new, collaborative project that stretched some of my boundaries, helped me learn new things, and pushed those insecurities away.

I used these feelings to help fuel my work by really grabbing on to what I knew I was good at. I made a list of what I can offer clients that is unique to me. I also made a list of things that I know aren’t my strong points and created a list of other designers that I could outsource some of that work to.

That list stays in a desk drawer, and I still have to pull it out from time to time. It’s a good reminder that I am not a fraud. I am a designer.

How to deal with imposter syndrome

If you are feeling like imposter syndrome has snuck into your professional world, it’s important to recognize and manage it. (Everyone else is doing it, too!)

While it’s not uncommon to compare yourself to other designers and co-workers with more experience or expertise, imposter syndrome goes beyond this form of self-doubt. It’s worrying that you’re going to be “found out” and that you aren’t really good at design at all.

Whether you work alone or are part of a big team, the best thing you can do is to trust your work ability. Trust the feedback you get from others. If someone tells you they like your work, believe it.

Challenge yourself. Hard work, continued learning, and getting feedback (especially constructive criticism) can help humble you in a way that feels human. I felt most like an imposter when too many good, big things happened at once; balance brought me back.

The most important–and difficult–way to manage imposter syndrome is to believe in yourself. Remember the following, more accurate ways of interpreting a new situation to stay on top of imposter syndrome:

  • You were hired for your ability.

  • Your work speaks for itself.

  • You are part of a team that respects what you do.

  • You are not alone. We all have good days and bad, awesome projects and duds.

  • You can ask for help; it’s not a sign of weakness.

  • You will feel different or uncomfortable sometimes; as long as it is only temporary, that’s totally normal and can make you an even better designer.

Find ways to feel good about your work

Developing personal and professional confidence might be the best way to beat imposter syndrome in the long run.

Creativity isn’t a talent that can be defined in a way that directly translates to professional success. That means you have to have a measure of confidence to feel good about your ability, effort, and deliverables.