How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome as a New Designer

​I’m going to be honest. I put off writing this because I didn’t feel qualified.

Alexa Harrison
Alexa Harrison
Dec 13, 2019
Min Read

I’m going to be honest. I put off writing this because I didn’t feel qualified. Even as I write this now, I’m overcome with feelings of imposter syndrome. 

The truth is, I do feel like an imposter much of the time. Friends often have to remind me of my previous successes to reassure me that I am, in fact good enough, and that I do belong—even when I’m really uncomfortable in my skin.

Throughout my entire childhood, I had this recurring dream where I’d wake up in a math class that was for students two or three grades above my own. I was panicked. I’d look around and realize no one else seemed bothered by my presence—they thought I belonged, so why didn’t I?

Spoiler alert: I did belong. I hate math—but I did end up graduating early, so I must have been doing something right. We all battle with imposter syndrome. It permeates every stage of our lives, especially (since this is where our anxieties take cinematic form) in our dreams.

Expert on the subject, Dr Valerie Young, has classified imposter syndrome into five types: the Perfectionist, the Superwoman/man, the Natural Genius, the Soloist, and the Expert. In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr Young shares her decades of research studying phony feelings among high achievers.

If you’re just starting out as a new designer, chances are you’re probably feeling some type of imposter syndrome. Beginning any new career is scary, and there’s always a learning curve, but it can be especially nerve-wracking for those in creative fields where there isn’t really a right answer to anything.

Designlab mentor, Andrea Soverini, thinks that imposter syndrome in the design community can be connected to two main factors: “One: The lack of benchmarking in design roles, and two: not knowing the expectations that your team (especially your manager) has of you.”

Read through these five categories to see which type of imposter syndrome resonates most with you, and then read on for some tips about how to overcome imposter syndrome.

5 Types of Imposter Syndrome

1. The Perfectionist

The Perfectionist is focused primarily on the “how.” How something gets done and how it turns out can cause major hangups for the perfectionist. This type of imposter syndrome often causes excessively high goal setting that is simply unattainable.

For the perfectionist, 99/100, an A-, or a near-perfect performance report with one slight critique, is a failure. To use another colloquialism, this type can usually be classified (often by themselves) as a control freak. They have a tendency to ruminate on feedback, and even once they feel that success has been achieved, it’s rarely satisfying.

As a designer, the only way to improve the effectiveness of your designs is to always be seeking quality design feedback. So if you identify as a Perfectionist, it’s time to take action.

Are you a Perfectionist? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do people say you’re a micromanager?
  • Are you bad at delegating tasks?
  • Do you feel like the only acceptable outcome is 100%?
  • Do you find yourself saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself”?

Quick tips to overcome:

  • Own and celebrate your achievements
  • Understand that mistakes are part of the creative process
  • Realize that perfection is not real—just let it go

2. The Superwoman/man

The Superwoman or Superman focuses on “how many.” How many roles, relationships, and projects they can juggle is directly tied to their self-worth. This can be harmful—both to themselves, and to the people around them.

Superbeings tend to think of themselves as phonies standing next to the real deal. They often focus on quantity over quality, and eventually that comes to light, hurting their cause in the long run. These people tend to be addicted to the external validation that work provides, and not actually to the work itself.

Are you a Superwoman/man? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you feel like you need to work harder than your coworkers to prove your worth?
  • Have you sacrificed your hobbies and passions for your day job?
  • Do you work late, even when your work for the day is done?
  • Do you find it hard to relax?

Quick tips to overcome:

  • Stop seeking external validation, and turn within
  • Learn to accept constructive criticism
  • Focus on fixing yourself before fixing everyone/everything else

3. The Natural Genius

The Natural Genius is inclined to spotlight the “how and when”. This type of person tends to think that everything should be handled with ease and speed, and if it’s not, then they’re not talented. 

If a product is not perfect on the first try, the Natural Genius will likely toss it aside in favor of something that comes to them much more easily. These people don’t value the struggle of mastering a new skill. 

Design is all about failing: testing, learning, and iterating. So if you’re a Natural Genius type trying to become a designer, it’s important to realize that early on, and work to overcome it.

Are you a Natural Genius? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you typically excel without trying too hard?
  • As a child, did you often get recognized with “straight A’s” and “gold stars”?
  • Does having a mentor make you uncomfortable?
  • Do you avoid things you don’t already know how to do?

Quick tips to overcome:

  • Try to see yourself as a constant work in progress
  • Embrace lifelong learning
  • Break tasks into smaller, more achievable chunks

4. The Soloist

The Soloist cares mostly about the “who.” And the who, is almost always, them. Often considering themselves to be a lone wolf, the Soloist has a hard time asking for help. 

These types of people often reject the mentor/mentee relationship dynamic, which can be detrimental to their learning journey. Because of the Soloist’s need to always do things on their own, they tend to neglect their own needs in favor of taking on too much at work or home.

Soloist types should remember that no man is an island when it comes to learning and growing, especially in the design field, where collaboration is key.

Are you a Soloist? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you often say, “I don’t need anyone's help”?
  • Do you feel like the only achievements worth celebrating are ones you achieved totally on your own?
  • Do you dislike group work or team projects?
  • Do you see yourself as a lone wolf?

Quick tips to overcome:

  • Talk about your feelings with someone you trust
  • Practice gratitude for those who help you on your journey daily
  • Seek out opportunities to work with others

5. The Expert

The Expert’s main focus is on “what and how much” one can know or do. Their biggest fear is being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable. The Expert is like the knowledge version of a perfectionist where even a minor lack of knowledge means failure.

In a field like design, where tools are constantly changing and improving, Expert types should take note and be kind to themselves when they don’t (yet) know something.

Are you an Expert? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you avoid applying for a job unless you meet every single requirement?
  • Are you constantly seeking out new training?
  • Do you refuse praise when someone calls you an expert?
  • Do you expect to know everything and feel shame when you don’t?

Quick tips to overcome:

  • Seek out mentorship opportunities to share your knowledge with others
  • Avoid unequal comparisons with people who have more experience
  • Don’t hoard skills for a rainy day that may never come—learn as you go

Designlab mentor George Visan can relate to new designers that may be experiencing imposter syndrome feelings. He says, “Having dropped out of university and being self taught, there are many days I feel like a fraud. 

“Why do I have the opportunities I do when other people took a ‘better path’? One way I've been able to mediate this is reminding myself that I’m not my job title—I am a human who has a skillset and can deliver.

“The anxiety lives in what I think the job title means, and not in what I’m able to produce. Ultimately, our peers only care about how we treat them, and what we can produce. Job titles don’t matter.”

10 Tips on Overcoming Imposter Syndrome from Valerie Young

Break the silence
1. Break the silence

People who experience imposter syndrome often think they’re alone with the feeling. But once you open up to people you trust, you’ll find that many more people experience it too.

Confide in someone you trust—a friend, coworker, family member, or mentor—and allow them to bolster your self confidence. Then, be available to do the same for them when they need it (because they will need it).

2. Separate feelings from fact

You may feel stupid, but you are not stupid. You may feel inexperienced, but you would not have gotten the job if you didn’t have the experience needed. Separate what you’re feeling from what is fact, and recognize that one often follows the other and both can be easily confused, especially when we do not take the time to speak or think clearly.

3. Recognize when you should feel fraudulent

When you’re blazing a trail, maybe by being the first in your family to get an education, or by being the youngest designer on your team, fraudulent feelings are inevitable. Recognize these feelings of self-doubt for what they are, thank them for coming, and kindly ask them to move along.

4. Accentuate the positive

Usually, perfectionism or the general drive to succeed is a good thing. Give yourself a pat on the back for wanting to be good and do good. Just don’t obsess over it. Forgive yourself when things don’t turn out like you planned, and reward yourself for trying in the first place.

5. Develop a new response to mistakes and failures

Henry Ford once said, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently”. Stop seeing failure as a setback, and instead see it like a slingshot—you have to be pulled back as far as you can go before being propelled forward.

6. Right the rules

If you’ve been living your life with an operating manual that contains rules like “I should always know the answer,” or “Never ask for help,” it’s time to throw that manual away. Give yourself permission to be wrong, to have a break, and to seek help from others.

Break the silence
7. Develop a new script

The script of your life, that internal dialogue, is the most important one you’ll ever read. If your script contains a lot of negative talk, it’s time for a rewrite. Instead of saying, “Oh no, I don’t know how to do this, I’m going to get fired,” try saying, “I’m still new to this and the learning curve is a few months. I may not know the answer right now, but I will.”

8. Visualize success

Professional public speakers and athletes use this tactic all the time. Whatever the task, project, or goal you’re working towards, take a moment to close your eyes and really visualize what success will look and feel like. Then, manifest that reality.

9. Reward yourself

Break the cycle of continually “seeking and then dismissing” validation from external sources. Take time to reflect after major goals have been realized, and reward yourself for a job well done. 

10. Fake it ‘til you make it

This phrase gets repeated so often because it works, and most successful people have had to do this at one point (or one hundred points) in their career. Don’t wait until you’re 100% confident or ready to take a risk, because that day will never come. If you need to put your mask back on, do it. The more you act like the person you want to become, the quicker you’ll get there.

Illustrations by Annie Devine

Imposter syndrome holding back your new design career? Break the ice with Design 101, a 4-week, mentor-led intro to design!

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Gain confidence using product data to design better, justify design decisions, and win stakeholders. 6-week course for experienced UX designers.