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Dealing with impostor syndrome as a product designer

If you ever had a feeling that if you make a single mistake, everyone would see that you have no idea what you are doing and everything will fall… Congratulations! You've experienced impostor syndrome.

Alex Dovhyi
Alex Dovhyi
4 min read
Dealing with impostor syndrome as a product designer

You're not good enough. You're a failure. No one likes you. You've been lucky to get here. They know. You suck.

Over the years of working as a designer, I've struggled with impostor syndrome a few times. I remember the biggest one happened in the first year of working with international clients.

In 2015 I started working with a company in the USA. I was excited AF and couldn't think of anything else!

— This is my first long-term contract with them. Don't screw up! Don't screw up! Don't screw up!

But the moment I started working on designs and getting feedback, I felt different. The work I was doing didn't seem very good. People on the team would constantly throw their comments on the designs and point out all the issues.

After the first month, I had constant internalized fear of not being good enough or being exposed as a fraud. I thought I had tricked them into working with me. I didn't believe I deserved it.

As I grew and my design practice matured, I started experiencing even more self-doubt. There were so many responsibilities and things to take care of, not to mention an endless list of tools to learn.

If you ever had a feeling that if you make a single mistake, everyone would see that you have no idea what you are doing and everything will fall… Congratulations! You've experienced impostor syndrome.

What is impostor syndrome?

Dr. Pauline Rose Clance identified Impostor Phenomenon as:

The psychological experience of believing that one's accomplishments came about not through genuine ability but due to having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated other people's impressions.

TL;DR

It's when you don't feel you've earned everything you have in life.

Why do designers experience it?

The root of impostor syndrome in design (and any other creative work) is a false belief that your work is worth nothing because someone might not like it.

Most designers have felt like frauds before. This feeling comes when, for example, you're just starting a new job, and your boss gives you a big project. You're under pressure to succeed, and there's always self-doubt that creeps in to make things even harder.

But why do designers experience impostor syndrome? I want to address a couple of points here.

First, design is intertwined

As a discipline, design is changing and growing. It becomes more complex with many sub-disciplines.

Think about it: when someone asks you what you do, saying you're a designer doesn't help much these days. You could be a fashion designer, industrial designer, interior designer, or service designer. All these are design sub-disciplines, but each is quite different.

Second, design is fuzzy

When you think of design, what comes to your mind? Suppose we don't speak about those involved in the design or tech industry. In that case, many people will associate the term with creativity, goods, architecture, graphics, or simply how something looks or works.

Even though there's a clear distinction between design and art, I know many people who have a point of view that designers are part-time artists.

All of this captures what we would call typical forms of design. But today's design practice often expands beyond these limits to include broader techniques, methods, and approaches.

How to overcome it?

The first thing I want you to understand is that impostor syndrome is normal. It's a sign that you have achieved some success in your work and life.

Think about it: you wouldn't experience it if you were pumping gas all day. This means that you're in a challenging role to have an impostor syndrome in the first place.

Know that you're not alone

Accept and embrace that you're experiencing impostor syndrome. Almost every designer has these same feelings. Even the ones that you look up to are still figuring things out.

Talk to a friend or a mentor to find support in each other and acknowledge that we're all going through this together.

Trust your gut feeling

Another piece of advice I always tell myself and others when they feel like a fraud is to understand that they are where they are because of their hard work, not because of luck. They couldn't have gotten this far if they were really a fraud.

Believe that your clients or company are working with you because they recognize your potential and that your coworkers believe in you.

Work on what you control

Many people are hard on themselves than they should be, and that's reflected in our culture, where we feel like we constantly need to achieve things. This pressure is going against the norm.

Do things you believe in and want to grow in. While striving to improve, do it in ways that make you comfortable. Focus on areas you can control. Think of how you react to the situations.

"Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it."
– Charles R. Swindoll

Reflect on your past work

Impostor syndrome often feels like the more you achieve, the more you feel like you didn't get what you wanted. You create higher expectations for yourself, and that is, what I believe, keeps us feeling like impostors.

But the reality is that you do things you do because it was something you wanted to do, and it's your insecurities are telling you that you're not good enough.

If something doesn't go by plan – relax.

"You can't have a plan for everything. Pick your destination. Take some good wine, food, and people. Then simply enjoy the journey."

Strive for 1% improvement

It's easy to forget about the small wins and complain about not having significant achievements. But in life, every small decision, action, and success compounds. Strive for making the least possible progress every day instead of complaining.

"Strive for continuous improvement, instead of perfection."

Conclusion

Do not try to convince yourself that you are the best designer on the planet. The cure for imposter syndrome is recognizing that the world's best designers are all faking it, just like you.

The only difference between you and some famous designers is that they let themselves be excellent for long enough without worrying that they were faking it.

Designer's life

Alex Dovhyi Twitter

Product designer giving unsolicited advice on design, freelancing, career and personal growth.