#49: Imposter Syndrome & How to Fight It

BlogPost49ImposterDo you ever feel like an imposter? How do you know if  you are being confident or just arrogant? I’ve met lots of designers and creatives over the years and one thing is certain, we all doubt ourselves. We doubt ourselves when we can’t seem to come up with any good ideas, we doubt ourselves when we screw up something or cause a misunderstanding with our clients. It’s something called “imposter syndrome”. I first encountered this term on a SeanWes podcast awhile back and have thought about it a lot since. It happens to all of us, when things go wrong especially, but even when things are going right. This week I wanna talk about imposter syndrome; what is it,  why it happens, who really are imposters, and how to fight it.

What is imposter syndrome?

Have you ever had those days where you look at your work and think, “I hope this is good enough.” or “ What if they don’t like my ideas…” Maybe sometimes you think that when something doesn’t work out exactly the way you expect on a project that you are a failure. Whether it be with some technique you can’t seem to grasp or a loss in client communication, sometimes you feel like a fake. You hope no one finds out how you work because that isn’t how real designers work.

Often we compare ourselves to others we think are 100% confident in their work. No one is confident all the time, not even your creative heroes.

Imposter syndrome looks like constantly going back to change something in your design, not because you know it can improve, but because you feel like you don’t now what the best choices are and your design is a mess from your lack of trust in yourself. It happens.

So what do actual imposters look like?

Here’s the truth, there actually are imposters in our business. What I usually call “fake”  designers. We have all met them, or have lost jobs to them.They are your friend’s cousin with Photoshop, they are the teenager who steals off of Google, they are the friend of a friend who taught themselves on YouTube. They do bad design, because it’s easy. They even have degrees and may know better but just don’t care and are  fine with being a technician, or a screwdriver.
The screwdriver doesn’t ask questions, it just lets you take it and put it to use wherever and for whatever the owner deems necessary. A screwdriver doesn’t care if it is being used properly, because it is a tool, it is there to be used.
The imposter is happy to just be a tool, something to make someone else’s idea come to life because that someone doesn’t know how, but has an idea-and money to pay to use them. An imposter is like a screwdriver, they are a tool to be used, not use tools to create
They take other people’s ideas and just do what they’re told or asked to do without any kind of thought or creative process. The imposter is a tool, mindless, and driven by the whims of the user/client. An imposter doesn’t care about feedback from peers. They will sit in front of Photoshop and use lots of effects to try to make something look “cool” instead of making the design effective for the message. I could do a whole other post on this one thing but you get the idea.
Just know that doubting yourself or making mistakes does not make you an imposter. Doubt is inevitable, whether you are a multi million dollar CEO, a big time art director, a freelance designer, a mother, a student, or an athlete.
We all doubt who we are and if we are going to be “found out”, but if you are worried about being an imposter, you can know you aren’t one. 
The real imposters don’t think that they are; they are convinced that they know what they are doing and should not be told otherwise. The real designers, what I would call; for lack of a better name, are always wanting to improve. They worry about the quality of their work, they care about current trends and new ideas, they carefully choose clients and try to frame the perception of what they do.
Real designers ask questions, and work to find answers, then own their decisions.
If you are worried about being an imposter, and you actually care, I can almost guarantee you are not one.

Why it happens

So why do even experienced designers feel like they are faking it and are just one step away from being found out? Well, because we too, are human. We have doubts. And we live in a society where perfection is the highest standard and the worry about imperfection stresses us out daily. We live in an insecure society and so we become insecure.
We doubt ourselves when we are tired and the ideas just won’t come. We doubt ourselves when design starts to feel like work and we feel like we are forcing our creativity to work and nothing is happening. Insecurity is the seed that grows into imposter syndrome. 
Whether people understand or value what we do, the fact remains that we have really important jobs as designers. It’s a lot of pressure to design a poster for an event, our client is relying on us to communicate their message in a way that will bring people to their show. It’s a big job to create a brand identity for a company who needs to get more business and hopes that a rebrand can help-they are relying on us to make an identity for them that communicates who they are in a way that will draw clients to them.
It’s a bit of pressure when a band hires you to design merchandise for them that they can sell at their shows; their merchandise is the primary income that a band or musician gets to take home after a show. They are relying on us knowing their target audience, knowing them as a band, and merging those things to create merch that fans will want to buy.
It’s a lot of pressure to be designers and we care very much about screwing things up on a daily basis.
So we doubt; but then we need to question, and double check our reasons and intent for doing things and for making the design decisions  we do. Doubt and insecurity comes easily, but how we react to it is key.
Some people frankly just don’t have this problem. The “screwdriver” doesn’t generally have this problem, because the imposter doesn’t usually realize they are one. They are overconfident and arrogant. But sometimes, someone points out to them an area where they see something that is wrong or needs improvement and they react defensively.
Getting defensive about your work is a common reaction to imposter syndrome, but if you recognize it and don’t like it, you can fix it.
Some designers get defensive about their work when they are questioned about it because many times they have also already been doubting it themselves.
Sometimes being questioned is the very best way to figure out if you are on the right path or not. If you are, and can explain why you chose to do what you did, you will grow more and more confident. Others react with ambivalence and just change whatever because either they are too insecure to stand up for their ideas or they just don’t care and will change whatever they are asked to because they knew it wasn’t right because they are feeling like an imposter.
Being arrogant, overconfident, or ambivalent will only make imposter syndrome worse, so how do you fight it?

How to fight it

The best way to fight imposter syndrome is to have confidence. Confidence comes from not accepting failure, it comes from accepting disappointment and knowing that some things are out of your control.
Confidence as a creative comes from knowing your reasons. Figuring out your reasons requires having and following a process, questioning your decisions, and trusting yourself. 
These things help you fight off the feeling of being an imposter. When you find your process and actually practice using it, you will see that you have a method of working that is well thought out, planned, and productive–this gives you the ability to show that you know what you’re doing. It allows you to show others why you are confident with reason and not just because you are the designer and you know more than they do.
When you [as your own worst critic] can question yourself, and your own decisions and motives, you won’t get defensive when others do the same-because you have answers.
This gives you the backbone to you understanding your reasons, and a place to begin to explain why you did what you did to your client. When we can explain why we did something to someone, it reinforces our standing as professionals and eventually as experts in our field.
IF you have a process and if you are able to ask why and answer all of the questions about your design, you will immediately–as a natural by product– feel more confident.
That confidence will result in being able to trust yourself. But trusting yourself takes time and experience and not giving up. The more you do good work based on a process and question your motives, the more confident you will become as a result of producing great work.
You know you’ve done great work when your peers recognize it, you feel good about it from as objective a standpoint as you can, and your client is satisfied with it.

 Confidence, lack of self-doubt, and the ability to fight imposter syndrome aren’t easy but it will come. I don’t mean to sound all Disney but truly, believe in yourself. Believe that you know what you’re doing, believe that you have great ideas, and believe that only you can create the way you do.
Confidence will come, and sometimes it will go. But believe that you can be a great designer, do the work, don’t give up, question your motives, and imposter syndrome will be less and less a part of your life and you will have the tools to fight it when it is.

There’s few things in a creative’s life that plague us like imposter syndrome and self doubt. The important thing is to recognize that it will happen, and not be cornered by it. When you feel like “do I really always know what I’m doing?” know that you can fight it. Fight it with the knowing your process, questioning  your own work, and trusting yourself. Grasp these and your work will be amazing and eventually you will believe that it is.
Design is a wonderful world. I hope you’ll continue to join me here, because design matters.


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