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.