Dealing With Yourself as a Designer: Self-Doubt

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There are a lot of designers that I look up to, and every time I see their most recent work I often feel a tinge of jealousy. The pieces they create are so amazing, and not only do I wish I could design like that, but I also wish that I had the self-confidence that I presume they do. It’s easy to contrast that with the struggles I often feel trying to be creative, or the lack of confidence I feel much of the time.

Of course, if I ever get a chance to talk to them, I usually find that they struggle with the same things!

As a designer, you will find yourself dealing with client issues a lot, which can be very frustrating. Unrealistic deadlines, massive project changes, delayed feedback; all of these things can make you want to pull your hair out.

But even more frustrating and challenging can be dealing with yourself. Through the trials and tribulations of design, you eventually have to learn how to get along and work with your biggest obstacle: yourself.

Self-Doubt Can Be Debilitating

There is room for self-doubt in any career field or line of work, but in the creative industry it can feel much more acute. Trying to be creative day in and day out can be exhausting, and there is often a lot of passion wrapped up in what you will do and create. It’s not just about producing a widget; there is a lot of yourself that you pour into anything you create.

And for the most part we all really want others to like what we create. This can add tremendous pressure to the creative process and lead to lots of second guessing throughout.

For myself, self-doubt always seems to be a constant companion. It can start from the project request itself, where I wonder to myself if I’m talented enough for this project. It sneaks into the ideation process, because obviously all my ideas are terrible. When I’m illustrating or animating I can’t help but wonder why I’m so bad at this. And I still always feel a twinge of nervousness when I hit “send” to shoot of a draft to a client.

“Will they hate it? Of course they will, I suck so much at what I do.”

“I hope they like it, because I actually think it’s pretty cool, and if they don’t then it means I’m a miserable failure, obviously, and they think I’m stupid and that they are wasting their money on hiring me.”

“No one likes anything I do, because I’m awful at design. I should just give up; crap, why did I take on this project?”

Even after years of being in design, these are the types of things that still float through my head from time to time. To be sure, experience and discipline definitely help to mitigate the severity of this kind of self-doubt, but there is still always that natural desire to make the client happy, to have someone else validate what I have done, to have my creative vision accepted and liked.

Self-doubt can wreck your design career if you let it, and thus it is important to develop strategies to overcome it.

A. Develop Experience

For myself, the sheer amount of time and experience that I have invested into design has tremendously helped me overcome my natural self-doubt. As I work at something, it tends to feel more natural, and while I still have to work hard, there is a store of experience that helps me to know that I have done it before and gives me the confidence to know I can do it again.

While sometimes I have to step back from a project to get a different perspective, sometimes plowing through and gritting it out helps in the long-run, since it gives me the muscle-memory (so to speak) of being able to work hard and find success.

B. Celebrate Successes and Learn From Failures

Every six months or so I intentionally set aside some time to revisit old projects from the last couple years. They are fresh enough for me to remember, but far enough away to more objectively evaluate them. As I do this, I strive to be overly critical, asking myself what things worked really well, and what things didn’t. In conjunction with this, I also try to evaluate things not just on an aesthetic level or how cool the design or technique was, but how well it actually met the client’s needs.

My usually reaction is a lot of cringing as I look at things that at the time seemed amazing but now just look amateurish. Lots of face-palms, head-shaking, wincing; you know the drill. But I also try to look very carefully at ideas that may not have been well-executed, but actually had a lot of promise. This can help me to either have a surplus of ideas to use in the future now that I can execute them well, or to understand that even though I didn’t necessarily pull it off wonderfully, the idea was still solid.

This sort of evaluation can be painful, but it actually does help me build my design confidence. I can celebrate successes and find inspiration in my own work going forward, and also recognize ideas and techniques and such that don’t work and avoid them in the future. It is a process of honing my craft and building that design muscle, which helps me to recognize when I get stuck or have self-doubt that I actually do have some skills and ideas that just need to be implemented.

C. Bring In Outside Perspectives

It can always feel risky to ask for advice or critique on something you’re creating; after all, what if they think it’s stupid and hate it? Doesn’t that mean they think you’re stupid and hate you?

As you work through your design career, I think it’s crucial to develop a circle of friends and colleagues whom you can trust to give you feedback and critique that is honest and competent.

In the movie A Man for All Seasons, King Henry VIII queries Thomas More about a piece of music he (King Henry) has recently composed. More deftly prevaricates, and Henry calls him out on it. Wanting an honest answer, he states

“We artists love praise, but we love truth better.”

If you are going to develop a circle of people who can give you critique that is useful, you need to develop this sort of attitude. Naturally we all like to be told that what we have created is the most amazing thing ever, but the truth is rarely so effusive. Someone who will give you useful critique knows how to shine a bright light on things that need work, but in a way that isn’t harsh but rather which builds upon the ideas and techniques that are already there. Very few people are able to strike this balance, so if you can find someone who can do this, snatch them up as soon as you can.

Having these sorts of outside perspectives that are honest can help you overcome self-doubt precisely because they are truthful. Hurtful critique that is dismissive isn’t helpful, but honest critique that values both the artists and the work being created can give you confidence that you are on the right track, or perhaps give you a clear path that is different but still in the spirit of the work.

Self-doubt can debilitate you, but it can also spur you on to greater things if you can overcome it. For many of us it won’t ever fully leave, but confidence is something you can work on and develop. It doesn’t happen automatically, so be sure to devote as much effort to building your confidence as you do to developing your craft.

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Jason Watson

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