Design

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome By Developing Your Own Guiding Principles — Smashing Magazine

Quick summary ↬
Design is one of those disciplines that has a very low barrier to entry. But what isn’t so easy is acquiring the softer skills that you’ll need when entering this job market. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a mentor or a guide, which is why we often have to rely on “working it out” by ourselves. In this article, Luis Ouriach tries to help you in this task so that you can walk into the design critique meetings with more confidence and really deliver the best representation of your ideas.

Design is one of those disciplines that has a very low barrier to entry, and this is amazing! What isn’t so easy is acquiring the softer skills that you’ll need when entering this job market.

Working on designs is just so much fun! But to become better designers, it’s also crucial to understand what makes a great team member and how to present your work to colleagues. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a mentor, guide, or whatever word you’d like to use to describe advice from a more senior person in the design industry, which is why we often have to rely on “working it out” by ourselves.

This may be intimidating at first, but I firmly believe that if we take a step back from the pixels on the screen and reflect on who we want to be and what our core principles are, we can walk into these design critique meetings with more confidence and really deliver the best possible representation of our ideas.

“Yes, I’d love to present my work at the next meeting!”

“Yes, I’d love to present my work at the next meeting!” This has probably been you at some point during the past few months. Your boss has praised your design work, and you’ve been asked to share your design with the wider team. The thing is, you’re really not sure if you even like your work. You can see the inconsistent padding between the labels and the icons, the misalignment of the chevron, the lack of canvas organization, a glaring omission of meaningful layer names, and more.

Unfortunately, we’re raised in a world where seniority demands respect regardless of whether that is justified, and we need to be seen to grow within an organization. This means that we need to be able to present for the job we want in most cases, which is a fair ask for progression and, ultimately, also… money.

You know what? What you’re experiencing is within us all. The unfortunate side effect of being a creative is that you will never be satisfied with what you’ve produced and you’re not alone.

“It’s not uncommon for me to love the direction a design is going at the start of a project, but by the time it’s complete, I’m cringing and wishing I’d done so many little things better. And it’s not just imposter syndrome, it’s also that you have a gap between your vision and your skills. You can picture something in your mind — or you see inspiration elsewhere that you know you can match — but when it comes down to executing that vision, your skills and experience fall short of what you were aiming for.”

— Benek Lisefski, “Why Good Designers Can Never Do Their Best Work

“I’ve been designing for almost two decades, and I can tell you that I feel like a total amateur at least once a day.”

Daryl Ginn

Unless, like I have tried to force myself to do, you’ve resigned to the fact that 80% done is more often than not good enough to convince those at the table you’ve been desperate to sit at that we can produce good work and, ultimately, sell our product.

Presenting your work is fundamental to career growth, at least on every career ladder I’ve seen. This means we need to either become excellent actors or learn some coping mechanisms to handle that pressure. Weirdly enough, presenting work to your team should — and is often — the least pressured environment we will find ourselves in at work. Still, because we know each other and are unfortunately in competition with one another, it can feel like the most daunting task of them all.

This is where I can try to offer some help! Over the past many years, I’ve landed on a formula that works for me, and I’m happy to share what I have learned. Creating your own goals, rituals, and methods will help you succeed, but sometimes it’s hard to know where to start.

The Experience Paradox

You may be looking at your more experienced colleagues in awe, wondering how they present so well and seemingly without a bead of sweat. The funny thing, though, is that as your experience level increases, so does your self-doubt.

A graphic that shows the relation between your level of experience and the feeling of insecurity
The relation between your level of experience and the feeling of insecurity (‘imposter syndrome’). (Large preview)

This oxymoron keeps us all sprinting along in blind panic, not stopping for air, burning out, and wondering what went wrong. But as Car Seat Headrest’s lead singer Will Toledo sings, “It doesn’t have to be like this”.

A second side effect of being a creative is that we get kicks out of focusing on the wrongs in the world, rather than appreciating what we have or what’s going well. This means that as we progress, become more successful, earn more money, buy that new iPhone, or spend $500 on some digital art, we will always fall into a slump at the first sniff of negative feedback. It’s in this slump that we are the most vulnerable, and here is where we need to rely on our personal values to keep our chins up and our spirits high.

More after jump! Continue reading below ↓

Personal Principles

This is where I should probably coin a catchy marketing phrase like “The 5 P’s of Personal Principles,” but this isn’t the movie Dodgeball or an overpriced email course that you paid for (but could’ve Googled for free). So, let’s just pretend it has a catchy hook.

Principles also have a bit of a woo-woo reputation thanks to the boom in personal reflection over the past few years. But essentially, it’s about knowing yourself and understanding what you’re in control of and what you’re not. Control is a strong word and probably elicits some negative feelings, but it basically means “what we have within our reach.”

Knowing what you can and cannot control is incredibly important. Once you’ve grasped this, you will understand where you can win, and — you’ve guessed it — where you cannot. Knowing where you can win will present you with an endless amount of marginal gains that, once properly planned for, may turn you into a superstar. (Of course, there’s no such thing as a “superstar designer” or a “front-end ninja.” Although you’d be surprised at the number of hits if you Google one of these terms!)

A meme photo showing Big Bird from Sesame Street sitting in a room full of designers with laptops
How designers feel when in a meeting with stakeholders, or me when showing my internal product ideas to the Figma team. (Large preview)

What Are “Principles”?

If you’re like me, your mind probably went straight to something spiritual or religious when reading the word “principles,” but I promise you it’s not that.

Believing in yourself is more powerful than you think, and if you can stay humble whilst knowing your worth, you will become the best kind of colleague.

I’m not encouraging you to write down a list of commandments or commit to an “every day I will do this or that” type of routine here because we all know forced routine often fails.

What I would like you to do is start considering whether there is anything you find yourself repeating. Do you have a “motto” or a phrase that resonates with you particularly well? I have a few:

  • Always be two steps ahead.
    I try to work extra hard at being one further step in front so that when I fail, I’m still in the pole position. This also encourages me to anticipate scenarios and tension to prepare my responses in advance and build solutions to address them. In Shane Parrish’s “Decision by Design” course, he teaches us to “make our best decisions in advance,” and I strongly agree with this philosophy.
  • Expectations lead to disappointment.
    If we constantly set either ourselves, our peers, or our colleagues to out-of-reach expectations, we will more often than not feel let down. It’s easy for our minds to get away with themselves, and the best way to avoid this is to accept that we can’t bank on people doing what we think they will. The easiest way to address this is to be comfortable with knowing that people are human, will make good and bad decisions, and that it’s not something we are in control of. Removing that tension will help us to be more relaxed and in command of our own results.

I’m also not encouraging you to read more books. Take one look around where you live and count how many books you’ve bought over the years and still didn’t read. I’m going to bet there are at least five or ten unread books there, or probably more. This isn’t about reading what someone else thinks you should be but relying on what you believe to be true. No one can write or describe how you want your outlook to be, so let’s leave the books aside for a moment. (Note: The irony of this message arriving via an article is not beyond me.)

Much like reading someone else’s opinion on how to live your life, I’m also not telling you to steal or borrow principles from somewhere else. I can’t tell you how to think, but I can help get you into a frame of mind to encourage that discovery.

So, let’s do it.

Thinking Through Your Principles

What would it be if you were to boil down what you love the most about your current work into one short statement? This is hard for some people because there are moments when it can feel like nothing is enjoyable about work — which is kind of the point! Maybe it’s about the moments when you are not working that you enjoy the most, and this could form a statement, too.

Let’s make it harder. Try and trim that down into a tweet-sized amount.

Harder again, remove all of the descriptive words and see if you can get it under ten words.

Got there? If yes, well done, you have a principle or at least the beginning of one. You might need to shape and mold it into something catchy that you can remember. Important! This isn’t a principle that needs to be “sold” to others — it’s something you’d be comfortable repeating often. So, if it’s something like “I love it when I’m the best in the room,” no, this won’t work. Let’s think about how this can be shaped into something a little more comfortable, meaningful, and practical. Perhaps it’s “I love educating others”? This flips the point on its head and allows you to focus on the part you find enjoyable from an outwardly perspective, rather than being insular.

If you haven’t found your principle yet, here are some other questions you can ask yourself:

  • When do I feel most comfortable at work?
  • When do I feel least comfortable?
  • When was the last time I received praise, and what was it for?
  • Do I know where I’d like to be in six months from now? A year? Two years?
    • If the answer is “No, I don’t know,” this could help you spot a gap and a growth opportunity.
  • How would someone else describe you?
    • Pick out the keywords and try to expand them into a phrase.
  • What makes you distinctly unique?
    • Again, if the instinct here is to be negative, let’s try and flip that on its head.
  • What is my working style?
    • Am I most happy in the morning or in the evening? When do I produce my best work?
  • How do I prefer to communicate?
    • In person, via messages, email, or social media?

Jot down these answers onto a piece of paper if it helps. Or maybe in a new note on your phone if that’s how you prefer to take notes. (Again, the way you write down things is also something to be aware of).

Did that work for you?

Working With The Team

If this is something you’d prefer to do visually, I’ve shared a resource in the Figma community with some prompts to hopefully get you into “the zone.” This is something you can do yourself, or better yet, as a team. Finding these things out together actually offers an opportunity to spot each other’s strengths and weaknesses, encouraging a more open communication style and collaborative atmosphere as a unit.

When running this exercise with your team, you should hopefully find each other’s working styles and spot points where you can improve efficiency together. This encourages ownership by those that want it, domain expertise by those that specialize, and an acknowledgment of difference (this is the most important one!).

A screenshot of the Team trading cards in Figma
Team trading cards (a FigJam template). (Large preview)

Now What?

You’ve read quite a few words so far, and you’re maybe wondering what to do with them from the practical side of things. Hopefully, by now, you’ve spotted a few potential principles to align with, so the moment has come when you should try to put them to work!

Remember the imposter syndrome scenario, where you have to present your work to the team, and you are, simply put, frightened? Let’s think about the principles that we defined earlier.

  • Taking the example “I love educating others” from above, you can quickly see how the tension can be relieved. This is what you love doing! Even though “presenting” isn’t at the top of your list, the ability to talk through why you’ve made certain decisions, the research you did to get there, and what others can learn from your work, are all enabling you to become that educator that you love so much to see helping others.
  • If your principle is that you work best in the morning, maybe you should encourage the critique/presentation session when you’re at the top of your game at 10 am? You can see how once you settle on something to guide you, your stress can definitely be managed more effectively.
  • Let’s say you really don’t enjoy the presentation side of your job because you find it hard to concentrate or remember everything you want to share. So, maybe the principle can become “Take notes about everything!” And you can litter your desk (or room) with notes about what it is you want to cover throughout. Or, even better, you can provide everyone at the meeting with a handout explaining the core concepts you want to discuss; the presentation will practically explain itself at this point.

I’ve written about this before, and here are the most important things to keep in mind when presenting projects internally to stakeholders:

  • Agenda! Create and share in advance a concise (important!) agenda way ahead of the time of the meeting.
  • Prepare your guests. Depending on how far out you schedule the meeting, make sure to nudge people before it to remind them of what’s coming up and whether you require anything from them.
  • Frame it. Whether you have the luxury of presenting to your immediate team or the potential pain of external stakeholders, context is everything so work on your short list of actionable points.
  • Work backwards. If you’re presenting something completely new and for the first time, let’s not start from the ground up. Show the finished design first, then go through your early scoping and decision-making.

I find that we become stressed most when we are trying to become someone we think other people want and expect (remember my point about expectations?). By trying to understand who it is that we are as individuals and not trying to double-think untrue expectations set by others, it provides us with a platform to shine.

Conclusion

We did it! We went through the first pass at crafting personal principles that should (or so I hope) leave you feeling stronger and more confident in yourself as you think about progressing as a designer in the industry.

The core messages that I want you to take away here are, first, that you are great at what you do, second, that sometimes we have to take control of our own paths, grabbing opportunities when they arise, and third, that you probably had no idea that you were that confident about your own methodologies before reading this article. I promised that I wouldn’t try to trick you!

I’d love to hear what principles you did manage to create during this process. You know where to find me — either leave a comment here or message me on Twitter.

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial
(mb, yk, il)

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