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Imposter Syndrome & Design — Who gets to say “I’m a designer”?

Published onJan 07, 2021
Imposter Syndrome & Design — Who gets to say “I’m a designer”?

The Human Rights Centered Design (HRCD) community meets monthly and hosts conversations on the challenges that we — as a community — face as practitioners, ranging from our experience as individuals to the issues that we are working to address in the world. Explore upcoming calls and notes from past community calls.

As we’ve been organizing HRCD community calls over the last year, we noticed that as a community, we don’t seem to be comfortable with the term design. During informal conversations, it seems that many of us don’t feel comfortable talking about ourselves as designers. Where does this feeling come from? How can we address it? Is everyone feeling this? To find out more, we decided to focus on this during out October 2020 community call — the psychological phenomenon, “impostor syndrome,” which reflects “a belief that you’re inadequate and incompetent despite evidence that indicates you’re skilled and quite successful” at what you do.

Who experiences impostor syndrome?

Anyone can experience impostor syndrome. When HRCD community members were asked if they had experienced imposter syndrome, the majority of them agreed that yes, they have experienced this before and/or continue to wrestle with these thoughts. 

During the call, five community members discussed their personal experiences with impostor syndrome throughout their design career. While all five members call themselves designers and/or researchers, some expressed that they have not always done so, or have not always considered themselves to be “designer-enough” to use the label. For some, it has taken time to grow accustomed to that title, for others, it has taken the strengthening of skills or the development of a community in which they are seen as a designer, to accept and believe that they do and they should, own that title. 

What influences impostor syndrome?

Culture and identity are two factors that heavily influence impostor syndrome. For instance, stereotypes of a certain culture or identity, or perceived stereotypes, can trigger these feelings, as it has been shown that when you sense that people expect you to perform worse because of their stereotypes about you (gender, age, race, etc.), you  could end up performing worse. If you feel you are performing worse, you will feel even less deserving of your title, thereby increasing your feelings of impostor syndrome. 

The power dynamic in a culture can also be a main contributor to the feeling of imposter syndrome. As women, a few of our panelists shared, it can be even more difficult, particularly if you were raised in a patriarchal society and culture. Having been taught not to trust or rely on yourself as a woman, you now not only have to push past the thoughts of being a design “impostor,” but also the remnants of the thoughts you were taught to have as a woman in that society.

So how do we combat this? 

To start the discussion and ease the current impostor syndrome in the room, the group started with a short, individual exercise. This simple exercise, developed by Leigh Honeywell, asks participants to:

  1.  Write down the values, selecting from this list, that come to mind when they have been the happiest, or the proudest, in their life. 

  2. Pick one of those values and write a few sentences about why it is important to them; and 

  3. On a scale of 1-5, rank whether they agree or disagree that they try to live up to these values. 

  4. Finish the exercise answering the question, “what was the last topic that someone asked for your advice on?”

Following the exercise, members of the community shared their immediate thoughts and reactions, saying that the exercise “intrigued visual memories of the good and happy,” “helped [them] realize that not only have [they] been able to accomplish things that [they] didn’t think [they’d] be able to do, but that [they] can also be very good at doing [them],” and that it “reinforces” their strengths and success.

As a community, how can we support each other in combating imposter syndrome? 

Build a safe space. Build a community of people who support each other and reinforce a growth mindset. It is important not only to build trust and relationships with each other, but also to be conscious about the words and phrases we use. For example, rather than highlighting traits about a person, talk about facts. Instead of saying “you are smart,” you can say, “you worked really hard.” Using subjective words and phrases, such as “you are smart,” can be dangerous as it adds pressure to the individual and can actually trigger their feelings of failure. 

Remember to be kind to yourself. Keep a list of what you’ve achieved, treat yourself, and think about your achievements with much love. Remind yourself of your accomplishments and strengthen your self-affirmation muscles for times when the impostor syndrome hits again and remember that compassion is not synonymous with weakness, rest and return to the place where you are comfortable. Be proactive about your relationships, and step away from any toxic surroundings. It is important to lean on the community that supports you and helps you grow and succeed. 

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