A designer’s guide to overcoming impostor syndrome in a new workplace

Illustration of a designer working opposite their shadow, signifying working with impostor syndrome
Published
August 4, 2021
Category

Strategy

You've aced the interview and received some amazing feedback from the panel. The recruiter sends you the offer –– you accept –– and you start at your new role. Your first days on the job are nerve-wracking! You have to learn the systems and processes, master the tools and meet dozens of new people, all while thinking about how you're going to add value.

Then you get the sinking feeling that you're not good enough. You’ve tricked everyone into hiring you. You start thinking that "interview you" was a big fake, and at any moment, they're going to realize their mistake. Even though you've done well in the past, it doesn't matter now. You're an imposter.

Or, maybe (definitely), you’re suffering from imposter syndrome.

The ingredients for an imposter cocktail 

 In January 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, I moved to Germany. Not only did I need to adapt to a new country, but a new role and workplace, too. I previously worked in luxury ecommerce and now had to now deep-dive into the world of content management systems (CMSes). This was a significant change I needed to learn specialized domain knowledge, non-linear workflows, and a complex digital ecosystem. It turns out this was the perfect mix for a strong case of imposter syndrome.     

In those first few weeks, I grappled with extreme anxiety. I struggled to sleep, and had a strong urge to quit everything and return to my old, familiar life. I worried I didn’t know enough, or that I would break something with a bad design decision. I shied away from expressing my thoughts in team meetings and kept my opinions to myself. 

At some point, a few weeks into my role, I realized that I couldn’t live like this. I decided to get to the root of where these feelings were coming from, and why they had popped up during this critical time. From there, I could make a plan to address and resolve the conflict.  

Icon of an easel with paint and a paint brush

Are designers more susceptible to imposter syndrome? 

After chatting with other designers in the tech space, it seems like I wasn't alone in struggling with imposter syndrome. Here's why I think designers are particularly susceptible: 

  • Digital product design (sometimes called interaction design or UX design) is still an evolving field within the tech space. As designers, sometimes we need to fight for a seat at the table for strategic decisions.

  • A lot of organizations aren't equipped to onboard a new designer like they are with engineers. Management often expects you to hit the ground running and navigate any ambiguity on your own.

  • Designers are often empathetic people –– it's a trait that makes us good at our jobs! We can be very attuned to the headspace of our colleagues and customers, which helps us make better design decisions. It also means we're introspective and sometimes too self-critical.

  • Like many creative people, designers have a leaning towards perfectionism. In the early days of a job, we might not give ourselves the freedom to explore and make mistakes; we expect perfection from the get-go.

  • Some workplaces may also lack inclusion, equity and diversity competency. Research reveals that people from underrepresented groups are more likely to experience a more terrifying form of imposter syndrome than people in the majority. This difference originates in the systemic and subtle discrimination against people from underrepresented groups in the workplace. In such cases, the onus is on the organization to identify how it perpetuates microaggressions and make significant efforts to foster an environment where newcomers, especially those coming from marginalized backgrounds, feel safe enough to express themselves and grow.

In my case, multiple check-ins with my manager/mentor helped me to a great extent. His opening line would be some variant of “How are you feeling today?” instead of “What have you been working on?” The question always came from a place of genuine interest and empathy. We would end our meetings with him asking, “Is there something that you want me to help you with?” This immediately established trust and I could start talking to him without inhibition about ongoing work and navigating the organization, people and processes.

Illustrated icon of sunglasses

Some tried-and-tested strategies to deal with imposter syndrome 

In my journey with imposter syndrome, I've found a few strategies that have helped me. Although these are not exhaustive or prescriptive, I've heard that these tips have been useful from other designers. It’s also important to mention that I’ve never found myself completely on the winning side when it comes to mental health. It’s an ongoing battle and always a work-in-progress. 

Acknowledge that you’re struggling: It might sound counter-intuitive, but the first step is to take a moment to acknowledge and accept how you feel. If you have friends or family that feel safe, it could be a good idea to open up to them. Chances are, a lot of people have experienced these same feelings –– feeling less alone in your struggles always helps!  

If you're comfortable, you might also want to see a licensed professional. Self-diagnoses and self-help can only go so far, and sometimes, imposter syndrome can be a symptom of a deeper cause. 

Try to have 1:1 catch-ups: Imposter syndrome thrives in environments where you don't feel psychologically safe. When you don't feel psychologically safe, you're not comfortable asking questions, pitching ideas, taking risks, or in the case of a new employee, admitting you’re a little lost or confused. 

One method to building that sense of safety early is to get to know your teammates. A good onboarding schedule should encourage lots of 1:1 catch-ups in your first few weeks, but if that's missing from your timetable, then try and make an effort anyway. Your colleagues might surprise you by how ready they are to speak about their aspirations, what led them to join the company, and where they want to improve. You'll quickly find these coworkers transforming into your allies (and maybe good friends, too). You'll know who's the guru for the tech architecture, who can collaborate with you on the front-end prototyping, who is scanning the competitor space, and who is full of new ideas.  

Show up: In a home-office set-up, it's easy to remain in the background. But, in the first few weeks of a job, you must show up. Showing up means keeping the camera on, accepting meeting requests, and engaging in team bonding activities like Scribble or Geoguesser. Resist the urge to linger in the shadows. I found that one of my strongest weapons against imposter syndrome was familiarity and putting myself out there. 

Illustrated icon of a notebook with tearaway pages

Take notes: I've always been an avid notetaker, and in the early days of my new job, this was helpful. I was able to jot down terms I didn't know and notes on new topics. These quick brain-dumps were cryptic and disjointed at first, but I started to form connections, and everything became clearer. Avid note-taking took away the burden of remembering everything and gave me space to research and process on my own time. After a few weeks, it became a good repository of knowledge and a record of how far I had come. 

Document your success: If you don't already, start collecting all of the good feedback you have received. Keep a file with appreciation emails, LinkedIn recommendations, and notes on small and large victories. It will act as a reminder that you've triumphed over your insecurities before, and you'll be able to do it again. 

I've even made a point to reach out to stakeholders and clients for feedback for this exact reason. My documentation over the years has created an archive of happy memories –– ones where I was recognized and rewarded for creating impactful solutions. It's an instant boost to my confidence.

Start with smaller contributions: We've established that it takes time to start adding significant value to a new organization; you need to give yourself the time and space to ramp up. But, it's useful to look for small ways to improve the product or service. Starting small can help build your momentum. 

In my first week at work, I saw some scope to improve the Calendar widget. I realized that it required the user to navigate through different months manually. And there was no way to jump back to the current date. I proposed adding a "Today" button, which the team picked up for implementation immediately. 

Also, why not make the most of your inexperience and offer your fresh eyes to an existing project or product? As a new team member, you have an unbiased perspective. You can look over products for your team, almost like you're a tester or new user.  

Engineer your set-up to bring in familiarity: Do whatever is in your control to make your space familiar. I fall back upon my favorite music and podcasts that pull me out of gloom and doom. I also brought my tools with me: stationery, notepads, pen-tablet, and some half-used sketchbooks. As I fill up the pages with meeting notes and a doodle or two, it feels like a continuation of the old and the familiar instead of an abrupt new beginning.

Colorful Russian dolls

Remember, you’re in great company! 

The strange thing about imposter syndrome is that it happens to even the most accomplished individuals. The internet is full of quotes from people who battled imposter syndrome such as Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Maya Angelou, and Michelle Obama. 

Thankfully, most mature companies know that recruits might have this problem. Generally, team members who are humble, are willing to learn, and take their time to adjust within the organization are respected more than those who bring arrogance or cockiness. So overall, we’re on the better side of the spectrum! 

While trying to encapsulate my experience of battling imposter syndrome, there’s one metaphor in particular that stands out. In the rulebook for animation principles, there is one principle called “anticipation.” It's like when a cartoon character runs on the spot and then zips past at full speed. This preparation for an action tells us that the stronger the anticipation motion, the more fluid and effective the animation will be. In sports, there are similar actions. For example, consider the act of taking a few steps back to build momentum before you take the big jump or deliver a ball. 

The same is true for dealing with imposter syndrome. Uncertainty and feeling not good enough can be a runway. With time, you'll realize how much you've absorbed during this phase of discomfort. Remember to be kind to yourself, and things will start to look up before you know it.

About the author

Don't miss the latest

Get updates in your inbox
Discover how to build better digital experiences with Contentful.
add-circle arrow-right remove style-two-pin-marker subtract-circle