A black and white still from the 1944 film Gaslight. Paula, played by Ingrid Bergman, stares up with a haunted expression at a flickering gaslight chandelier in her home. Just one of its light is on.
Ingrid Bergman as Paula, a woman being gaslit by her abusive husband. (Gaslight, 1944)

Hey designers, they’re gaslighting you.

“Prove your value.” “Justify your presence.” “Demonstrate impact.” Too many organizations have convinced designers that they’re the problem — that if they just worked harder, they’d be taken seriously. But if just doing more were going to fix the problem… it’d be fixed by now.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher
Nice Work
Published in
14 min readOct 5

The first thing I loved about coaching was the intimacy — the chance to strip away the veil of professionalism, and create spaces where people could get real about their challenges, their dreams, and their disappointments.

But pretty soon, I noticed another benefit: by talking with people in a range of different roles and organizations, I could start to see patterns. And lately, what people have been telling me has been alarming. Things like:

My organization just doesn’t understand research. I’ve been working overtime to educate them, but now I’m being told that it’s not enough and I still need to “prove my value.”

I’ve spent two years “evangelizing” content design, and people still never invite me until the last minute. My boss told me I should always jump in when asked, so people will learn the value of content.

I’m stretched across five teams, but I’m told design can’t get more headcount until we “demonstrate impact.” So I have to keep doing this and hope someday I’ve done enough.

These people all cared deeply about their work and were invested in their disciplines. They participated in professional communities, read books, learned new techniques and technologies. So when they were advised to do more, they did. They honed their business skills. Their quantitative skills. Their “executive presence.” They stretched across bunches of pods or squads, made more decks, “democratized” their research practices.

They tried so, so hard to prove that they were valuable. But all they got for their effort was bone-deep burnout.

So I started paying attention to where these messages were coming from. And pretty soon, I noticed them everywhere. Like when Judd Antin, a former research leader at Meta and Airbnb, wrote about what he called the “research reckoning”:

UX Research as it has existed over the last 15 years hasn’t done enough to justify itself.

Or when I wrote about the “prove your value” problem on LinkedIn, and one particularly salty UX leader told me that designers were being “pathetic.” He went on:

If UX designers can’t demonstrate their value to their leadership, they’re failing. End of story.

Over and over, the message was clear: Just do more. And if that doesn’t work, you didn’t do enough.

Friends, this is gaslighting.

It’s a manipulative technique that makes designers question their own sanity and assume that they’re the problem — but that maybe, if they just try one more time, things will change. But they never do. Because the truth is, you cannot overwork your way into being valued. You cannot explain or fight your way into being valued.

You can’t prove your value to someone who isn’t interested in seeing it.

So instead of burning ourselves out trying, what if we stopped?

I know that might sound terrifying: Just stop worrying about whether people think my work is valuable?! But I’ve met people who’ve done it — and found more peace on the other side. So this summer, I asked some of them how they did it, what they learned, and where they’re putting their energy instead.

What I found was that there are three big reframes we need to make right now to break free of this gaslighting and stop working in ways that bleed us dry and leave us cynical: our time, our value, and our relationships. And maybe counterintuitively, these reframes are also the shifts most likely to help designers actually gain some respect and power in their organizations.

Let’s look at each one.

Our time

Here are some statements I’ve heard one too many times in this cursèd year:

  • We need you to do more with less.
  • Always be helpful. Never miss an opportunity to demonstrate value.
  • You need to stretch across the full product surface area until we get more headcount.

This advice might sound reasonable on its face, but it doesn’t work. Doing more with less doesn’t give us power — and it doesn’t produce good design work, either. Instead, we get overloaded and overcommitted. We feel personally responsible for keeping all the plates in the air.

We also get shallow work — because we’re prioritizing juggling it all over doing anything really well. And you know what that does? It teaches our partners that that’s our full value: quick fixes. Firefighting. Smoothing out the rough edges. It also makes it even easier for the organization to keep understaffing our teams. Why would we add headcount if everything’s covered?

So here’s the reframe I want you to try on:

Old frame
We’re understaffed, so
my time is stretched.
I have to spread myself across the product to make sure nothing suffers.

Reframe
We’re understaffed, so my time is precious.
I need to protect it for high-value, high-impact work.

What does it look like to start treating your time as precious? I talked to Dylan Wilbanks about this. He’s a senior design manager who told me he was running himself and his team ragged trying to cover all the bases. So he stopped — and here’s what he learned:

You’re taught that saying yes is how you become valuable to organizations. What I found is that’s a trap, because that leads to that weird, demented heroism. You actually have more value if you do fewer things better.

When we chronically “save the day,” that extra effort becomes expected — and we can easily turn into martyrs, transmuting what should be the organizational pain of under-resourcing and poor planning into our own personal pain to bear.

It’s time to let our organizations shoulder that pain.

That’s something Melanie Seibert, a UX manager, learned to do—despite deep fears that saying “no” would hurt her career:

The biggest issue for me was…confronting the fear that someone might say that you’re not doing your job: “This is what I hired you for. I had the expectation that you were going to cover eight products, and you’re not doing that.” That never happened.

Read that again: that never happened. The risk was a lot bigger in her head than it turned out to be in reality.

Once you start setting boundaries, you also gain some space — space to tackle a juicy problem that’s actually fun to work on. So that’s Melanie’s advice:

Try an experiment. What if you drop some of those things and spend more of your time on solving one problem area where you could really sink your teeth in? That’s going to be rewarding to most people. And it’s a good object lesson to everyone around to say, “This person can deliver a lot of value if we give them the right working conditions.”

Dropping things doesn’t mean abandoning them without a word, though. It means showing people the gaps — and then not filling them. This is what Aladrian Goods, a senior content design manager, started doing for her overstretched team:

We’ve done zone coverage, where everything in a pillar goes through one person. So rather than spreading them across tasks, we started to get really clear on the subcategories of work, and call out gaps in red. It’s taking my personal responsibility out of the work getting done, and holding the organization accountable.

It’s also what Michaela Hackner, a global head of UX ops, started doing with her boss:

We’ve published our 2023 commitments, and we update those every quarter. And so if my boss ultimately says, “Hey, I need your team member to do this,” I’ll say: “Take a look at this list. Which of these things do you not want us to do?”

I don’t pretend this shift is easy — as Melanie noted, it can feel quite scary to start to say “no.” But there’s a high price to continuing to say “yes,” too. Burnout, disillusionment, cynicism — even giving up on design entirely.

So what might be different if you treated your time as precious?

Our value

More statements I’ve heard lately that make me want to scream:

  • If you want a seat at the table, you need to prove the value of design.
  • If you want to be invited earlier, make a case for why.
  • People don’t understand what you do. Why don’t you make a deck to educate and evangelize?

I’ve seen way too many people listen to this advice—and it’s left them perpetually on defense, ready to justify their existence at the drop of a hat.

But endlessly justifying yourself rarely changes others’ opinions. It just positions design as something that’s up for debate.

It also does nothing to create that elusive “impact.” Because the more time we spend explaining why design matters, the less time we have to improve the actual product.

And according to Anna Söderbom — who built and led a UX writing team before becoming a localization and UX writing coach — this approach tends to erode our confidence, not build it:

It just creates more impostor syndrome for ourselves, trying to always prove our value. We get stressed thinking, “OK, have I proven myself enough?”

So here’s how I’ve been reframing the concept of value:

Old frame
Design isn’t well understood. I need to prove my value.
I need to create yet another deck to evangelize and educate.

Reframe
Design isn’t well understood. I need to own my value.
I need to assume I belong at the table, and bring a strong POV with me.

According to Dylan Wilbanks, the problem with looking to others to affirm our value is that it creates a never-ending cycle. “You get caught in this ‘I don’t feel valuable, I have to make myself valuable’ trap,” he told me. But we don’t actually need colleagues or bosses to approve of our existence. We need them to engage with our ideas.

So what would happen if we simply stopped explaining why design matters? If that sounds impossible, consider what Jonathan McFadden, a senior content designer, told me:

I had a conversation with my manager around that first round of layoffs last summer. He said something that was so profound, as hard as it was for me to hear it: “If there’s a discipline that has to spend such a disproportionate amount of time proving why it’s important, it’s probably not going to be considered important to the business.”

In other words: justifying your existence sends the message that your existence needs justification. So what Jonathan’s team decided to do instead was to focus on the work itself:

The roadshows aren’t working. The presentations and the decks just do not work. Our hypothesis is that showing up in the work consistently, as a discipline — and being very loud about our work — is probably the best way for us to show the value of our work.

The problem, he told me, is that for a lot of people, “educating” is comfortable. It lets us focus on the tools, the process, the concepts. It doesn’t require the more vulnerable part: sharing a recommendation. Advocating for a design direction. Offering a strong rationale.

“I think we feel shy about showing up in the work, improving impact that way,” he told me. “Because there’s more risk in it.”

He’s not wrong. When we’re bold about our work, we risk someone disagreeing with our ideas or critiquing our execution. But I think what this year has shown is how risky it is to default to education and evangelism. It might be more palatable, but it clearly doesn’t protect our jobs.

So if we want to own our value, we need to get comfortable moving forward simply because we know what needs to happen — even if others still don’t quite get us. That’s something Aladrian Goods told me she encourages her team to do:

If there’s a question that you have, or a meeting that you should be a part of that you haven’t seen, feel free to set those up. Feel free to say, “Hey, this is the intention for this meeting, we’re going to talk about X, Y, and Z.” It’s building that confidence to be able to say, “I don’t need to ask for permission to do this. I can take the lead on doing this.”

So what would happen if you stopped worrying about whether others understood your value, and simply brought that value to the work itself?

What would be different if you stopped waiting for permission?

Our relationships

Here’s a tougher reframe to swallow. Because it’s not about what designers hear from others — it’s what I hear us tell ourselves:

  • Product managers don’t care about UX. They just want to ship features.
  • Cross-functional partners only see us as pixel-pushers.
  • We have to fight back against the people who don’t respect us.

I don’t know your product manager or business partners. But what I do know is this: when we see the people we work with as the problem, no one wins. It creates an us-versus-them that positions our peers as enemies, not fellow humans. We spend our days feeling persecuted, ready for a fight. This kind of chronic stress wreaks havoc on our central nervous systems — and leaves us even more disconnected and alienated.

If you find yourself in this space, here’s the reframe I want you to try on:

Old frame
I feel misunderstood. I need to fight those who don’t value us.
I’m in a constant battle with others who are trying to keep design down.

Reframe
I feel misunderstood. I need to build deeper connections. I’m working with imperfect partners who also want to feel valued.

When we feel insecure, we’re often quick to assume others’ behavior is about us. It feels personal, after all. But the reality is, they’re often just as caught up in their own pressures and preoccupations as we are in ours. As Anna Söderbom told me:

People are not leaving you out because they don’t want you to be there. They’re just not thinking about it, or they haven’t yet realized that they need you. It’s not because you’re not important. It just IS sometimes. And it’s good to have a little bit of distance.

So what do we do instead? Michaela Hackner told me that one of the biggest lessons she had to learn was to drop her adversarial stance. “I used to lean forward in meetings, in aggressive mode,” she told me. “And the more that I found myself sitting back, managing my nervous system and trusting myself, and just having a conversation with people as me, it changed so much, because I wasn’t on the offense anymore.”

This isn’t just important because living on defense is stressful and exhausting (though it is). It’s also important because when we’re in adversarial mode, we’re not curious. We’re guarded and dismissive. That prevents us from actually listening to our partners. It prevents us from finding common ground, and from seeing places where we can move forward together. As Michaela put it:

If we spent the same amount of time trying to understand our partners and what they care about as we spend trying to understand our users, we can paint this picture for everyone: This is what we can do together.

Ultimately, the best way to get someone to see things your way is to try to see things theirs. But we can only do that if we invest in those relationships.

So what would it look like to connect with your partners, instead of fight them?

Your value isn’t up for debate

If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this article, it’s this: your value isn’t something to prove. It simply exists, whether people see it or not.

So whenever you get this advice — just do more, be more convincing, make the case again — know that this is gaslighting. It might come from well-meaning people — it might even come from leaders within your discipline who are truly trying to help! But if always proving ourselves, justifying ourselves, and working ourselves to death were going to work, they would have worked by now.

They haven’t. Instead, too many designers are exhausted, cynical, and still always feeling like they are coming up short.

And the kicker is: the more we buy into this gaslighting, the less we can actually make an impact with our work.

The more time we spend trying to “prove value,” the more focused we become on obtaining validation — on being liked and wanted.

This distracts us from the work itself, and erodes confidence in our ideas — because when we’re focused on people-pleasing, we stop having strong opinions. We stop championing new ideas. We’re helpful, sure. But in a way that feels small. Insignificant. Expendable.

But there’s another reason that “proving your value” doesn’t work, and it’s a structural one. See, the whole idea is centered on individual responsibility: the only thing in your way is you. If you just worked harder, or had an MBA, or used the right executive language, you’d have that seat at the table.

You know what’s really in the way? Business structures that are inhumane at the very core. An economic system that prioritizes shareholders and investors over everyone else. Short-term, profit-maximizing, unbridled and exploitative capitalism.

There’s no “managing up” you can do that will change those incentives. But that’s the trick of late-stage capitalism: it convinces individuals that structural problems are personal failings. But as Erika Hall wrote recently, in response to the so-called “UX research reckoning” this summer:

Researchers aren’t getting laid off because they didn’t do a good job proving their value to business. It’s that they were hired into organizations that either didn’t actually have reality-based business models, and/or have been doing short-term investor-centered design instead of anything resembling evidence-based strategy.

The reality is that many of us are working for companies where the business model is fundamentally misaligned to a good user experience, because shareholders and investors are the only audience that actually matters. And shareholders and investors are focused on making a return on their investment right now, at the expense of pretty much everything else: the health of the planet, the lives of workers, users’ wellbeing, you name it. All of that becomes a distant second in a world where shareholder primacy is the standard.

You can’t prove your value to someone whose business model relies on not seeing it.

I’m not gonna lie, this is a bit of a bum-out. Thinking about the ways that businesses are incentivized to grow as large as possible as quickly as possible, regardless of the consequences, doesn’t make me feel great about spending my one wild and precious life helping them. Especially when this reality comes into direct conflict with the reasons so many people I know got into design in the first place: to make the world better. To make things more useful, more inclusive, more beautiful.

But what I’ve come to realize is that we need to learn to sit with this reality, as unpleasant as it may be. We need to get comfortable admitting that there’s no purity in design, and that the idealized version of our profession simply isn’t the reality. Because if we bury our heads in the sand about the incentives of the systems we live in, we stay vulnerable to the gaslighting. We blame ourselves.

It’s often more comfortable to believe that you’re the problem than to accept that the whole system’s rotten.

But once we’re honest with ourselves about the structures that we’re working in, new possibilities open up. We can stop beating ourselves up for failing to change something that’s not in our control, and instead reclaim that for the things we actually can change: our own wellbeing. The way we treat one another. The boundaries we set. The solidarity we build with colleagues.

I don’t know if this will change your company, or your partners’ perceptions of design. But I know we can’t change anything if we keep breaking ourselves trying.

So let’s find out what happens when we change how we see our work instead.

--

--

Sara Wachter-Boettcher
Nice Work

I help folks in tech and design build sustainable careers and healthy teams. Author @wwnorton @abookapart @rosenfeldmedia. More at www.activevoicehq.com.