Designers, you are not imposters
Imposter syndrome – I feel like it affects all of us at some point, but lately I’ve noticed it becoming a pervasive term in the design community. Why is that? I don’t like the power we’ve given to this term. I’ve heard it used around the office, at conferences, at happy hours. You are not an imposter and I’ll tell you why.
A canvas is a medium. A billboard is a medium. A book is a medium. These examples are familiar and constant – a canvas for artists, a billboard for advertisers, a book for authors. But, digital designers express and make things for screens. This is our medium… and it changes all the time. Compared to construction, architecture, accounting, etc., the web industry is relatively new. As of this writing the web as we know it is only about 20 years old. With older industries like architecture or accounting, you can expect a bit more consistency. That’s not true for web designers. With the web, we’re all still fumbling around trying to figure it all out, trying to standardize and componentize, trying to find systems and constraints, trying to learn new skills and tools. Everything on the web is changing constantly and it can be difficult to keep up. It can be difficult to keep your balance, to feel like your feet are firmly planted on solid ground. It’s easy to feel confused and lost.
Today, we have the internet everywhere: cars, pockets, refrigerators, thermostats, TVs, bedrooms, bathrooms. We’ve got tablets, laptops, desktops, projectors, watches, glasses and each medium is equipped with different features, sizes, and capabilities. No single person can keep up with this technological trajectory at an expert level.
When I think about this idea of shifting tools, I think about Vincent Van Gogh. I imagine what it might have been like for him to deal with his tools or medium changing all the time. I picture him painting Starry Night–that quiet calm and still night in the small village, the orderly, yet conflicted swirling of brush strokes over the moon and mountains, the balance of light and color–and then all of a sudden he’s forced to recreate his masterpiece as a mural on a brick wall, but his paintbrush changes to a pen. Van Gogh would’ve lost it… again. Still, we can assume he at least benefited from a consistent and reliable medium, one that didn’t change all the time. Digital designers today are not so fortunate and so I say, give yourself a break. You are not an imposter. You have the mental agility to pivot and adapt to this constant change–that’s no small ability.
Art is subjective
Van Gogh may have benefited from a consistent medium but he was not immune to the subjective nature of art. People see art differently. Some people prefer blue over red; some prefer dark over light; some like flat design; some like skeuomorphic; some hate “liney”; some love the lens flare. Whatever the preference, there is no silver bullet, no perfectly correct artistic solution that fits all molds, scratches all backs. Art is subjective and that’s an even bigger hurdle to overcome than a shifting medium because it’s ephemeral. So we try to lean on metrics and statistics, best practices, and trends to help our rationale but still, there’s no avoiding the subjective nature of art. At the end of the day we have only our instincts to guide us. So just let go and embrace it, enjoy it. Rather than be disenfranchised about what you cannot control, try to focus on the process itself. I can’t stand all those mushy design phrases like, “do what you love, love what you do”, or “the future inspires us” but I can see the point–focus on the craft. Making art, that is, creating something from nothing, is for some, our life’s purpose. How’s that for a mushy statement?
I know you’re hearing that song right now. Queue it up if you want.
There is an enormous amount of pressure to ship, to deliver, to impress, to compete. We’ve got deadlines, backlogs, deliverables, meetings, reminders, and email, email, email. Everybody is always two steps ahead: companies are innovating quicker, designers are designing better, developers are… doing whatever it is they do. Time seems to be going a million miles an hour and the demands seem to be increasing at a quantity that is unforgiving. But this is all a farce. It is merely our perception. Time has not changed. This perceived pressure is a result of our new reality: that we are asked to be always connected, that we are always reminded to compete, to compare, to deliver. Pressure contributes to this feeling of inadequacy, but pressure can be managed and alleviated.
Overcoming the syndrome
I hope you’re feeling better about yourself by now, but you’re bound to feel inadequate and frustrated at some point again, so here are some things you can do to keep this term (imposter syndrome) from attaching itself to your brain:
- Go back in time. Pull up your work from last week, last month, last year… Have you improved? Is the work you’re doing right now better than before? Chances are the answer is yes. Chances are you might laugh at what you thought was “good” a year ago. Going back in time to look at your previous work is a great reminder that you’re getting better, but also that you’re human and therefore subject to the changing nature of the industry.
- Get feedback. Ask colleagues, family, friends, strangers if they like your work. This can be challenging for designers because design has to be intentional and deliberate, so asking someone who doesn’t understand the context can seem like a waste. I know. But these people, the ones without context, can provide great perspective because they lack context. This kind of feedback is about gut reactions. Don’t be defensive or explanatory with them–just listen to whatever they have to say–take the useful nuggets and use them to improve. Ask them to be brutally honest. Fun fact: I like to ask people to tell me my work is crap and that I should stop designing. If they don’t tell me that, I keep going.
- Variety is the spice of life. Don’t be afraid of the changing of the tools, the shifting mediums. Embrace that change. Try different tools, different mediums. Play. Have fun. Experiment. If you’re a brand designer, take on a freelance project to do some UI development or animation. If you’re a UI designer, take on some branding work. I’ve found that design in all its forms is enjoyable and only enhances the types where I’m savvier.
- Get outside. Experience life away from the screen. I recently read about a study that suggested that people who get away from distraction and into nature perform better at a complex task. So get outside, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Dribbble is not the only source of artistic inspiration.
- Do nothing. This one is a lot less obvious but I’ve found (when I can actually practice it) that doing nothing–just sitting still in silence–is a great way to still the mind. Uh oh, meditation… No. You can think about whatever you want, just don’t do anything. Notice your thoughts coming and going. We are constantly doing and thinking and it’s important to take these mental vacations as a way to clear the noise.
I’ll admit it, I have used the term. I have spoken the blasphemy. I have told myself (and others) that I have imposter syndrome, jokingly of course but mildly serious. I have felt like an imposter, and I’ve been creating things on the web for 15 years. So, let’s stop saying we’re imposters. There’s nothing good that comes from it. You have it in your power to change this thinking. The next time someone says, “I’m an imposter”, even as a joke, tell them they most certainly are not. Remind them that this space is chaotic and messy and they are doing their best to paint a masterpiece with varying tools and shifting mediums. The next time you think to yourself, “I have imposter syndrome”, give yourself a break. If that doesn’t help dilute the negative thoughts, take a walk outside, go get some feedback, or just do nothing. You have my permission.