I’m afraid of other designers.

I’m afraid of other designers. I’m afraid that everyone I know will find out that there are other designers out there in the world who are more qualified, more dynamic, more eloquent, more trend-conscious, more ballsy, more creative, just plain MORE than me. Until fairly recently I have actively avoided these creatures of inhuman perfection, and when I am required to interact with them, this anxiety-ridden chant manifests itself: “They know you’re a fraud.”

Since childhood I have been called “talented.” Not the kind of talented that makes you teacher’s pet or garners declarations of “Child Prodigy” from jealous parents. No, I’m just good at a lot of things. Good, but not “great.” Over the years I’ve learned that you can make up for a lack of amazingness by showing up and being incredibly passionate about what you do. As one pretty smart guy once said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” (Albert Einstein) But even being in good company doesn’t stop the niggling voices in my head from whispering that others can see right through me. Right into the depths of my soul where the questioning and self-doubt lies in wait. This rather loud interior world has convinced me that designers, because they do what I do, possess the keen eyes to spy my elaborate bluff.

This designer fear falls somewhere between mild unease, to waves of nausea, to outright mental with the completely (in my mind) rational expectation that someone will approach me at an AIGA event to proclaim, “You don’t belong here. You’re not good enough.” It’s the high school dance all over again and no, I’m not one of the cool kids. I intimidate my way through most situations by hiding behind my vintage specs and stoic demeanor, but one-on-one I falter due to the lack of the go-to bragging rights of so-called top designers. I do not have a blog with which I pump recycled trendiness into the internets, nor do I follow those that do. I don’t know what this designer said on that podcast I’ve never heard of, and I don’t care that this other designer decorated her sparkly new studio with metallic contact paper.

I have always felt like an outsider in this industry, like I’m doing something wrong for placing more importance on solving my clients’ problems through design than getting self-congratulatory praise based solely on aesthetics; and that somehow this philosophy makes me less successful in the eyes of my peers.

I’ve been a designer for nearly 20 years. I’ve built a thriving studio that’s won awards. I have clients who sing my praises. I’ve taught design, lectured, sat on panels and guest critiqued for universities. And yet, most days I feel like I’m just waiting for someone to point out that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

Why? What is it about the “others” that scares the bejesus out of me?

It is a strange and guarded industry we designers immerse ourselves in. Perhaps it’s the constant scrutiny our work endures that causes us to wear our judgment of colleagues like a badge of honor, ‘cuz man we can be a catty bunch. Is it any surprise that designers like myself fear putting themselves out there when sites like Under Consideration’s Brand New — supposed forums for critique and discussion become the place of vitriol? More often than not the design team whose work is being shredded already had their collective psyche pulverized by the client. Do we really need to add to it?

Before this totally unhealthy dread of my comrades got too comfortably seated in my life it was time I kicked the legs out from under it. Over the past year I have pushed myself to face my “Fear” and let other designers into my fragile world—to open up and talk about the things that excite me about design and how my client work reflects my personal values. Turns out that when you present yourself as a human being—flawed, but passionately curious—there’s not a whole lot to judge.

So, I engaged the enemy and found out that the enemy was actually me. I still get anxious in a room full of designers, but who wouldn’t? We’re intimidating by design.

Jenn’s mission in life is to use design to connect people with the arts, which she does every day at Studio Fuse. When she’s not at that studio you’ll find her dancing, studying and rehearsing for her other life as a dancer with NEDT. She’s also Executive Director of her dance company and Vice President of the Victory Theatre Center Board of Directors. And yes, she is now an AIGA member.

Krystle: If we stripped away the big egos, awards and bragging points, I think we’d discover that we’re all just faking it. Confidence has become our default state of being as we continue to put enormous pressure on ourselves to produce results. That’s what our clients pay us for, after all. Unfortunately, the race to create bigger and better things has created a false sense of urgency. If we don’t come up with the next big thing, the designer next to us surely will, and we all want to be the first. Oh, hello, Ego. It’s actually easy to understand why we intimidate each other when we leave out the part about crying in the office bathroom after a stressful deadline. You’ve discovered the key to flipping this all around, which starts by opening up to fellow designers and sharing your whole story.

Fear Confessions is a series of essays by creatives who share personal stories about facing their fears. It’s a celebration of vulnerability.

  1. Wow. If anything, your confession here made me think that you are perhaps cooler than the popular kids!

    It made me think of a few things:

    I really don’t have time for the kind of posturing that you describe: “I do not have a blog with which I pump recycled trendiness into the internets, nor do I follow those that do….I have always felt…like I’m doing something wrong for placing more importance on solving my clients’ problems through design than getting self-congratulatory praise based solely on aesthetics…”

    Just, YES.

    I feel like the hip thing to do now is to call yourself a designer if you have a certain aesthetic instead of being passionate about the role of design in society — solving problems.

    I’m not a designer (I’m a developer), but I follow all the design-y lady blogs. And I love them. But what I really love is knowing their quirks and insecurities.

    Also, similarly to your fear of other designers, I feel like I’m afraid of just…other people. Ha! Like someday the ruse will be up, and everyone will realize I am not as knowledgeable or intelligent or *whatever* as they thought I was. Impostor syndrome is a bitch.

    And with that, I will end this very rambly & ridiculous comment. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Lisa, I enjoyed your rambling comment!

    Jenn, like I said on Twitter, I believe words like these will help cultivate the next iteration of the design community, complete with crap tons of encouragement and support.

    Thank you for sharing such insightful and honest thoughts.

  3. Lisa – Thanks for your comments! I’m with you on not having time for the posturing — literally and figuratively.

    And yes, unfortunately so much of the design work that gets published is all about style. Part of that is on the designers for wanting (logically) to promote work that showcases what they want to do more of. What we miss out on with that is the process that went along with it….the crazy ideas that went nowhere, the messy comps, the doubt, and the final tweak that made it all come together to solve the problem. That’s the good stuff, “pretty” or not.

    Erin – I am SO ready for that next iteration! It’s people like you and Krystle who make me believe it’s not that far off.

  4. Yes. Just yes a hundred times! I feel intimidated by other designers (and bloggers) on a daily basis. I compare constantly. I berate myself for not being MORE by now. It’s refreshing to know that a 20 year veteran designer can still feel out of place sometimes, even though everyone else probably thinks you’re brilliant (you are). This is my first year as a solopreneur, scarred out of my wits, faking it until I’m making it ;) Thanks for your words, Jenn. They are so encouraging.

  5. Natosha – It’s scary being a solopreneur no matter how experienced you are. On a regular basis you find yourself playing roles in your business that you never expected. You’re constantly learning, adapting, and sometimes just flying by the seat of your pants so self-doubt is kind of inevitable. I must ask myself, “Am I doing this right?” 50 times a week. (And yes, I talk to myself a lot.) Thing is “right” is relative. If you’re doing what works for you, you’re not faking it.

  6. I feel the same way! Thanks for sharing, Jenn. In the moment, I seriously believe I’m the only one who feels this way. But I’m coming to realize it’s quite universal.

  7. Jenn, Well said! Another famous quote comes to mind: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” And I have to add – like father, like daughter. . I can relate, but one thing I learned after 40 years in design is that we’re all frauds at a certain level. Some of us just hide it better than others.

  8. I am the same exact way. I have always been a designer and people always have nice things to say about me yet I still always feel like I am not good enough.

  9. Seriously. I thought I was the only one thinking/feeling this.

    Thank you for sharing.

  10. I could have written this post. In fact, I had to double check to make sure I hadn’t. From one designer to another: Keep making your clients happy, and screw the rest.