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How to Stay Sane as a Designer

What I Wish I’d Known When I Was a Young Designer

A pink neon sign reading 'breathe' with a background made of dark green plants.

Photo by Fabian Møller on Unsplash

“I fucking hate it.”

This is actual feedback that I’ve received from a stakeholder looking at one of my designs. (Oof.)

No college course prepared me for the emotional terrain that came with being a young designer. Creativity is a vulnerable act. I wasn’t prepared for the resilience that would be required of me when I executed a design and presented it to a room. In one particularly toxic workplace, I was screamed at, told I was a shit designer, and mocked by my manager.

Thankfully, I’m out of that environment now. But navigating these difficult situations gave me a lot of insight into myself and my work. I became a more proficient designer, and I gained emotional skills that helped me stay sane along the way.

Here are a few of the difficult lessons I’ve learned over the years and what I wish I could go back in time and tell myself as a young designer.

1. Separate your self-worth from your work.

Early on when I heard negative feedback, I let it affect my self-esteem more than I care to admit. If I wasn’t succeeding, I was failing — and that left me feeling defeated, paralyzed, and out of ideas. Design is an idea we are opening up to judgment. It can leave us feeling exposed in the light of harsh and reactionary criticism.

It took me a while to truly understand and empathize with the person reviewing my work on the other side of the table. They are also an emotional human being. It would be ideal if every person could be 100% in control of their emotions and reactions, but that’s not realistic.

Take the above example where a stakeholder told me, “I fucking hate it.” In that experience, the person walked into the room already upset. They were at a 10 out of 10 on the frustrated scale before I even had a chance to present my work. I wasn’t failing. It was an impossible situation to win from the very beginning.

Over time, I learned to put a degree of separation between what is being said about my work and what that says about me. This allows me to be more objective and less emotionally attached while still caring deeply for the objective of the project. The ability to separate myself from my work actually allows me more flexibility in creative problem-solving.

2. Ask questions.

Even with my improved skills in managing emotionally-charged feedback, it can still be hard to know what to say in the moment.

If you’re caught off-guard by strong critical feedback, my first bit of advice is to ask questions. If a stakeholder is reacting, keep asking questions to tease out what they’re reacting to. This can often lead to insights and can help you move the conversation forward.

Don’t let communication come to a standstill because it feels like you’re up against an emotional brick wall. Sometimes gently acknowledging the emotional discomfort of the stakeholder can go a long way. It can strengthen the relationship and build the trust necessary to move designs forward in the process. It’s important that we maintain and respect the relationship with the stakeholder because we are on the same team.

“I have several times made a poor choice by avoiding a necessary confrontation.” 
–John Cleese

3. Stop chasing perfection.

Fresh out of college, I was nervous as hell to hear feedback about my work. I also hated showing work in progress. I only wanted people to see my work once I thought it was “good enough.” I thought if I worked hard enough, I would be able to execute the perfect design aesthetic and concept every time.

I still struggle with self-doubt and perfectionism like many other designers (or people in general). It’s a miserable boat to be in. Perfection is a massive expectation to hold yourself up against. Life is an iterative process. Embrace that you are human and will make mistakes. Forgive yourself for your perceived shortcomings and embrace that you can learn from the discomfort of vulnerability.

I consider myself a recovering perfectionist these days. I still try my best to achieve as close to perfection as possible but am able to forgive myself for not living up to an unattainable standard. This a process to work through and whatever you are creating is enough even if it doesn’t feel that way.

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” 
–Brené Brown

4. Take responsibility.

You’re going to fuck up. It’s what we do after that counts. Take ownership and accountability. The pain is temporary. Own it and learn from it. That’s all we can do when things don’t go as planned. It can be painful and a source of rumination. But it doesn’t have to be.

Honesty is difficult but respected when you hold yourself accountable for a mistake. Take it from me: it hurts more to put off a difficult conversation than it is to have that difficult conversation.

As long as you continue to be a human being, fucking up is inevitable. That used to scare the shit out of me, but that fear has lessened over the years. When we fail, we have to dust ourselves off, learn from what happened and try again.

“It’s through mistakes that you actually can grow. You have to get bad in order to get good.”

–Paula Scher

5. Keep trying.

I used to feel guilty when I had days where I wanted to throw in the towel. I didn’t feel like a real designer. Real designers didn’t seem to struggle like I was. When in truth, I think it’s hard for people to admit they struggle or have struggled. But there is no shame in struggling and continue to chase your goals.

It irks me when I hear “you have to really love design to stay in it.” I think this oversimplifies the dynamics at work within the design industry and community. This statement could apply to any profession. You aren’t always going to love design and that’s okay.

In the moments where I have questioned my passion for design, it has always come after a toxic confrontation or unhealthy work environment. It wasn’t the design that I didn’t enjoy. It was the toxic environments. Even the best designer in the world can’t thrive in a toxic environment.

“It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

What keeps me coming back for more?

Simply stated: the good people. Friends and mentors have always kept me grounded through tough experiences. They’ve given me advice, feedback, and perspectives that helped me recognize toxic situations and make necessary changes in my work.

For every absolutely abysmal low point in my career as a designer, there are at least a dozen great experiences. My biggest fuck up over the years has been letting other people’s actions make me question my love for what I do. I’m proud to be a designer, and I’m grateful for the ways that I’ve been able to learn and grow through the challenging parts of my career.