Forget what you know about being a great designer

Published January 4, 2022

In this article

The journey to being a great designer is never done. This article explores how to constantly hone your craft and your processes in order to define your own version of success. Oh, and we’ll look at ways to enjoy the journey while doing so.

UX Design is not a new game, but the field on which we designers play changes at an insane rate.

When you’re starting out, it can be overwhelming. There is so much to learn and always something new popping up on the scene. Trying to keep up can make you question if you have what it takes to find success in this field.

I’ve been a professional designer for over 15 years and I still feel like I have an impossible amount to learn. Even after designing 1000s of screens, I often have moments where I feel like I know nothing. I still make mistakes, create designs that fail and have moments where I feel like a fraud.

These feelings used to feel insurmountable. But after years of feeling overwhelmed by need-to-dos, dealing with imposter syndrome, comparison and inevitable setbacks, I’ve managed to develop a perspective on what it really means to be a great designer. It has helped me navigate this ever-changing field and find career success completely on my terms.

Designing through imposter syndrome

Ever fear that you will be exposed as a fraud of a designer? You’re not alone. I still get nervous every time I sign a new client. I still have that voice in the back of my head that tells me I might let them down or that they won’t see value in the work I do.

You’d figure that after all this time I would have overcome imposter syndrome, but all I’ve overcome is the idea that at some point feeling fraudulent will go away.

We think that after a certain amount of experience or number of successful product launches we’d closed the door on imposter syndrome, but the reality is that the more experience you gain the more you are opened up to even more complex problems which you haven’t a clue how to solve.

Every time you come across something you don’t know, you have the choice to see your lack of knowledge as your flaw or the next milestone on your journey towards your goal.

Failed designs can open doors too

There will always be failures no matter how long you’ve been designing. I’ve worked on solutions that I had to redesign multiple times only to have them fail so badly that they needed to be taken down within days of launch.

Years ago, any sort of failure would have gutted me. Now, I see failure as another experience that helps broaden my insight, refine my skill, and helps me to create better designs next time.

What’s changed for me is that I no longer feel the need to approach every new project as an expert in the solution. Perfection of this craft is impossible. It’s not our job to be the expert on every possible tool and to get it right the first time, but to be an expert in a process that allows us to uncover the information we need to design products that are properly aligned with a user’s needs.

I believe in this outlook so much that I outright tell my clients that I am not an expert. I only have expertise in a design process that will help me uncover the insights needed to create a value-driven product. Communicating this to my clients helps set expectations and establishes mutual trust right from the start. Further, it opens up clients to come to me with their ideas. It creates approachability and creates a partnership. This leads to better outcomes because I have full access to their knowledge which is expertise I could never replicate.

How to become great (at finding joy in the journey)

My expertise in a great design process did not come from studying every aspect of design, but from learning only what I needed to know in a specific moment and refining my skills after each failure. It has very much a patchwork of small learnings for specific things that have grown into broader knowledge over the years.

After all, there are no specific books to read or courses to complete that will grant you the skills to be great. There is no end destination where you will finally feel like you’re ready. Just start by solving problems and keep focused on what interests you. Do spend time learning from others, but don’t play into a game of comparison. I used to beat myself up and ask “why didn’t I think of that?” when other designers would have better ideas than me or when designers with half my experience created things I never thought possible. And it never got me anywhere.

There is always going to be someone in front of you and someone behind you. They can teach you a thing or two but their goals, interest and version of success are going to be different than yours. Look to others, both senior and junior to gain more knowledge, not as a market for greatness.

If you can find the excitement in each new experience and lesson learned you will find enjoyment in the process of becoming. Yes. It really can be that simple. Because enjoying the journey is a success in and of itself.

Try the “why not me” approach

To help get around my self-doubts I try to approach work with a “why not me?” attitude. As in, I remind myself that I’m in the room so clearly the client sees something of value in me. It’s like a small motivational speech to remind myself that despite my flaws (real and imagined) I can still create solutions that other people see value in so why wouldn’t I be successful?

You are there for a reason, people pay you because they believe in you and see your value. By showing up ready to do the work needed to design the right solution, you are already offering major value to your client.

So next time you’re pitching a new idea or trying to get a new position, remind yourself that there ARE also reasons it should be YOU.

The Take-Away

There is no right way to find success as a designer and the journey to being great is never done. For anyone starting out it’s common to feel lost and like the gaps in your knowledge are insurmountable. It’s common to look at others and think “I’ll never be that great”.

But as you work those gaps become smaller and more opportunities to gain knowledge become more available. With this, you will see that you can find your own version of success if you commit to honing your craft and your process. Even if it feels slow. And enjoying the road you take in doing so.

As you become more senior, you’ll realize there is no end where you finally know everything you need to know. But despite those feelings, you can find greatness anyway. After all, I bet that the Chief Design Officer at Google has nights where he lays there thinking “I have no freaking clue what I am doing”. But he gets up the next day ready to go after it anyway.