Designers discuss imposter syndrome
Early in my design career, I wanted to learn more about user experience design, but I was only one of two UI designers at a small startup and had no one to learn from. Then I stumbled across the book The User Experience Team of One by Leah Buley, a design alumni of Adaptive Path and Intuit. Her practical advice about how to design in a user-centered way, even if you’re the only designer on your team, gave me the knowledge and confidence to begin injecting user research into my design process.
Her book completely changed the trajectory of my career — for better or worse, I’m known for pushing user research and validation in all my projects to this day. I’ve always credited Leah for this; she’s a big design hero to me.
So when I read her recent article about attending a retreat for women in senior design roles, I was shocked to hear her speak so openly about feeling imposter syndrome — that internal voice that tells us we’re not good enough.
She admits that walking into a room with sixty other design leaders made her feel like an imposter, because in her twenty-year career she’s never been a manager, whereas many of the other attendees led large design teams.
She writes that internally, she felt like her career was lagging behind— “I frequently encounter people who say that my book or one of my workshops helped them when they were just starting out — and these people have more senior titles and more responsibility than me.” But when she spoke those feelings out loud to her fellow retreat attendees, their response was nothing but support — “All around the table, like a Greek chorus, they said that I’ve got to stop comparing myself to others.”
I couldn’t believe that someone I see as so capable and influential would have doubts like this.
But then again, I know that even after seven years as a product designer I definitely struggle with imposter syndrome. I’ve heard my co-workers at Envoy and my friends in the wider design industry struggle with it, too. It seems that no matter how great others think you are, you can still struggle with professional self-doubt.
Leah’s article sparked an idea to reach out to the Envoy design team and some of our close design friends to share our own experiences with imposter syndrome. We hope that speaking more openly about this issue helps other designers feel less alone and realize that we can all be that chorus of support for one another.
Amy Devereux, Visual Designer at Envoy
The feeling of self-doubt, coupled with the fear of being exposed as a fraud.
It seems like nearly every designer experiences imposter syndrome, yet it’s so rarely talked about. It’s like middle school all over again — pretending to be cool and confident to fit in. But why do we pretend?
What would happen if we shared our real fears or feelings with each other?
Throughout school, I constantly felt like I was failing. I had many sleepless nights and routinely questioned why I was going after a design major. Despite ultimately graduating summa cum laude, I whole-heartedly felt that my work was not good enough. I didn’t know that it was “normal” to feel this way.
I always think about a question I asked my mom when I was in my early twenties: “So how long does it take until I feel like an adult?” She, a fifty-something retired rocket scientist, leaned over and whispered, “Let me know if you find out. I’m still waiting to feel like one too.”
– Amy earned a B.S. in Graphic Design from the Art Institute in the fall of 2013. She spent several years at a creative agency designing for clients like Boeing, Microsoft, and Cartier. She has been a visual designer at Envoy for three years, during which she has developed Envoy’s brand and visual styles and redesigned the website… twice.
Nancy Nguyen, Product Design Team Lead at Voices.com
That constant fear that you’re not good enough and soon people are going to catch on.
Since the start of this year when I first moved into a Design Lead role, I’ve had these time periods that come in waves: feeling super confident in how I’m contributing to the company and my impact with building the design culture, but also moments that creep in of feeling like I have zero clue what I’m doing and thinking, “they’re gonna catch on and regret giving me all these responsibilities!”
I think it’s so easy to catch the feeling of imposter syndrome in the design industry because of how fast it moves. New tools come out regularly, there are new design-thinking processes to use; it can be so hard to keep up. If I don’t try and master that new thing, am I falling behind?
I think oftentimes people think they’re lacking a specific skill, and because of that it negates all of their other great qualities.
– Nancy has worked as a designer for over five years, making the jump from traditional graphic design to digital design. While working as a Visual Designer at London Life Insurance, she became interested in moving into UX/UI design. She went on to join Voices.com as their first product designer, eventually becoming a lead designer and now a team lead.
Stuart Norrie, Senior Product Designer at Envoy
When you lose sight of who you are and who you want to be, and start judging yourself by other people’s ideas of what you should strive to be. It’s getting lost in other people’s expectations that feel impossible to meet.
Designers are constantly bombarded with tweets, articles, and conference speeches about how “every designer should code, prototype, publish case studies, etc.” The “unicorn” persona, or perfect archetype of a designer, that the industry talks about leads to a good number of designers feeling like impostors.
The vast majority of my career I have felt like a fake. I used to constantly tell myself — and still do on occasion — that I should learn to code. So many amazing designers in the industry are front-end developers. But as I pushed myself to step into that world, I wasn’t enjoying it. I felt fake, like I’d never be as good, or like I didn’t belong.
Ultimately I do my best to ignore all the noise, remember why I became a designer, and grow in ways that make me happy and further my career.
The challenge is remembering you’re only an impostor if you try to impersonate someone else.
I hope one day the industry will begin promoting self-driven improvement defined by what individual designers want to do and be, not what the industry tells us we should do or be.
– Stuart has been a product designer almost 12 years, starting at companies like Hipstamatic and Pulse, and then moving on to LinkedIn, Strava, and Facebook. Currently as a product designer at Envoy, he designs for the flagship visitor registration product and leads the design of some of Envoy’s future products, too.
Trevor Young, Product Designer at Square
Some folks experience it as the feeling that they don’t belong wherever they are because of who they are as a person, or because of their background.
But I think other folks experience it as feeling like they don’t belong wherever they are because of their skillset relative to the skillsets of their peers.
I wish more people would acknowledge that not being good at something is different than not belonging somewhere. Like the all-time classic Pixar quote from Ratatouille, “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
When I started in design, it was easy to feel like I didn’t belong, not only because I was new to the field, but because my background and my peers’ backgrounds seemed so dissimilar — my degree is wholly unrelated to tech and product design. I felt like the skill gaps I had were more like chasms.
When you’re doing something new, you probably aren’t good at it. The realization that you have a lot to learn should be something that motivates you.
Having the humility to recognize that, and then to put yourself around people who can help you level up is crucial to growth. Being humble in spirit, but confident in your ability to learn and contribute is a great formula for growth. That’s far more important than wherever you’re coming from.
We work in a craft that is inherently more visual than most, so it’s easy to see the surface of what your peers are doing and compare yourself. We’re also often our own worst critics.
Designers especially should be kinder to each other with this in mind. We’re supposed to be the most empathetic people in the room. When we’re critiquing each other, when we’re interviewing each other, and when we’re working together, we should keep in mind that all of us face self-doubt sometimes. And we all have the ability to help push each other forward.
– Trevor is self-taught in design and has worked as a product designer for five years. He began his career at two B2B startups, joining Showpad as their second designer and Digit as their first and only designer. He is now a product designer at Square, where he designs for the flagship point-of-sale system with a team of eight designers.
Jon Rundle, Senior Product Designer at Envoy
The feeling of being in a position or environment that you don’t personally feel is deserved, regardless of whether it is or not.
The San Francisco area to me has always had that vibe to it that the talent pool is so much stronger, that for me as a designer from a little city in Canada, I never felt like I belonged in the same category. I look at other designers who I admire or am inspired by and I don’t see myself being anywhere near that.
Design is so visual; it’s easy to be consumed by all the immense talent and believe that there’s not enough room for you. I think that hinders some designers’ growth — thinking that the next step is out of reach, or that someone else deserves it more.
As much as I’ve personally struggled with this over the years, I think it’s incredibly humbling to realize that everyone struggles with this, even the best designers. I think it ultimately levels the playing field. It’s reassuring to know that you’re not alone.
Focus on yourself, on improving your own individual skills, and on what you’re passionate about. Just because someone else does something significant doesn’t delegitimize what you’re awesome at, even if it’s something different.
– Jon spent eight years working at a web agency and running his own mobile product design-focused consultancy, working with a wide range of clients including 3M, Samsonite, Ruckus Wireless, and Invision. He’s been at Envoy for the last three and half years reimagining the core Visitor Registration product, bringing the Deliveries product to market, and building a side passion project: envoy.design.
Evan Fletcher, Designer at Race Roster
When we see ourselves as lesser than, because we see others as having skills or talent that we don’t have. Despite really wanting to belong, we feel like we do not.
As soon as I graduated from college, I felt like I’d be an imposter in the design industry. I didn’t think I was good enough yet, so I freelanced while working other jobs. It took me almost two years to build up the confidence to make design my career. Two years after that, I turned down a job at a very notable tech company because I felt like I wouldn’t be good enough.
Today, I still feel like I am leagues away from other designers. Imposter syndrome has followed me through my entire career. I think imposter syndrome holds a lot of people back.
As designers, I feel like it is so important to be encouraging to others. Having other designers who were willing to mentor me throughout my career has been huge. It’s important to have a design community that doesn’t shy away from talking about things like this.
– Evan has been in the design industry for over eight years, working as a freelancer, at a design agency, and in the nonprofit sector. Currently, he’s designing for an online registration company called Race Roster in London, Canada.
Tina Xu, Product Designer at Envoy
This unshakable feeling of inadequacy, regardless of anything positive others say about you, and regardless of everything you know you’ve done to indicate otherwise.
For a long time, I felt like I didn’t deserve my job. I was convinced that I was hired on a huge stroke of dumb luck, and I felt interchangeable with any other new graduate or self-taught designer.
For a while, I thought I just felt inadequate because I was young and early in my career, but after talking to my coworkers, designer friends, and even some design leaders, it seemed like everyone felt imposter syndrome to some degree. It was discouraging to hear that they still felt that way years into their careers, but it was nice to know that everyone feels it from time to time.
– Tina earned degrees in Economics and Psychology from UC Berkeley in 2017. She participated in graphic design clubs during college and in her senior year she decided to pursue product design. She has worked at Envoy for two years, during which she has designed for nearly every part of the web product.
What are your thoughts on imposter syndrome in the design industry? How has it impacted you? Share them with me below!
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