copies of pasta

Imposter Syndrome Is Not Real

An unpopular take on imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is not real. ๐Ÿ˜ณ Yes, you read that correctly. An imposter is “a person who practices deception under an assumed character, identity, or name.” Other words for imposter include, but are not limited to, cheat, swindler, con artist, fake, fraud, and pretender. These are not the types I see in most design circles. I see many designers and creatives helping, assisting, and collaborating. Sharing ideas and feedback is the norm. It is a fantastic community.

So, with so many sharing ideas, why do some designers feel like imposters? Well, one word is causing the problem. A few of the antonyms for imposter include honest, truthful, open, helpful, and genuine. And I would agree with that list, especially for the people in design. But there is one more word used as an antonym for an imposter. Are you ready for it? Original. I mean, I get it. The opposite of impostor is ‘original.’ But that shouldn’t mean there’s nothing else. 

Let me ask you a question. Which car manufacturer makes the best vehicles? Or how about this one: who brews the best cup of coffee? Better yet, what musician sings the best version of Along the Watchtower? I imagine you had answers like “Mercedes-Benz, Starbucks, Bob Dylan.” Or maybe your choices were “Toyota, local coffee shop, Jimi Hendrix.” Some of my friends here in the US probably said, “GMC, McDonald’s, Dave Matthews.”

Did you notice something? I didn’t ask who makes an original vehicle. I didn’t ask who brewed an original cup of coffee. And I didn’t ask who sings an original version of the song. And none of us would call these brands imposters. Because of creators around the world, people have options. And there are more choices than just an original and a copy.

๐Ÿ‘€ Let’s look at why we might see similarities between others’ designs and our own.

overhead view of trucks in a row

We like usability.

We have choices because other industries create the same things as their competitors. What if Toyota thought, “I cannot make a vehicle with clear windows because Mercedes already used that idea. We’ll use stained glass instead.” And imagine if GMC decided they would ‘break the mold’ and put square tires on trucks? (You think potholes are bad now?! ๐Ÿ˜ง) What might have been Mercedes’ response to competitors ‘stealing’ their design ideas? What if they changed the experience of riding in a car to standing in a car just to be original again?

No, that didn’t happen. Instead, other companies copied the fundamental design Mercedes set because it worked. There was no need to ‘recreate the wheel’ (pun intended) because customers like round wheels, comfortable seats, and the ability to see when driving.

Lesson for designers: Your design needs to be usable. Suppose you make a creative decision to load a client’s website with many large images or animations to be different from other designers. The likelihood of the client’s site becoming unusable is very high. There are many reasons for best practices when designing. Most of those reasons center around creating something people can use. So, many of our designs will function similarly to others.

black and white pattern of coffee mugs

We like simplicity.

I don’t know about you, but I neeeeed coffeeโ€”every day. Black. And I usually brew it myself at home. It’s just what I do. But when traveling, sometimes I need to rely on others to get my caffeine jolt. And I’m not too picky about the place. However, if I walk into a coffee shop, ask for a cup of black coffee to go, and they tell me they only serve tea blends with two sugars, cream, and a slice of lemon because they’re unique and don’t want to be an imposter Starbucks, I’d walk right out the door.

People do not like what is too different from what they expect. When I go to a place that sells cups of Joe, I don’t care that they use the same coffee beans from the vendor that sells to Starbucks. I’m ok with their bean grinder being the same model as their competitor. And I don’t think they are a fraud if their coffee comes in a recycled paper cup like everyone else. No, I only care about getting a cup of black coffee. If you have that, great! We’re in business. ๐Ÿ’ตโ˜•๏ธ

Lesson for designers: Your design needs to be simple. Adding too many elements or options will not make your design original. It will seem cluttered and disorganized. People won’t find what they’re looking for and could end up ‘walking away.’ You want to establish a clear focal point to draw attention to the call to action. Graphic designs should have clarity and balance. So, many of our designs will appear similar to others.

black and white photo of guitars hanging on a rack

We like dependability.

People love musicians. We all have our favorite bands. And of those bands, we have our favorite songs. We fill our playlists with their greatest hits and sometimes complete albums. And we can sing along word-for-word. Ahh, to be a rockstar would be great, wouldn’t it?!

There are other musicians in the world. Sure, they’re not as well known as a Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix, but they are just as talented. They picked up an instrument, learned how to play it, and practiced for many hours. Their dedication to creating music for others is no less significant than “the Greats.” They are professionals, too. They’re just not famous (yet.)

As they build their audience and following, they sometimes play hits from our favorite musicians. Why? Because the crowds enjoy it, and they associate the not-yet-famous musician with the one they already know and love. And the best part is nobody in the audience throws rotten tomatoes or screams that the person on stage is an “IMPOSTER!” Instead, the crowd acknowledges them as a great and entertaining musician they can depend on for an incredible experience.

Lesson for designers: Your design needs to be dependable. Each business has a specific look according to its industry norm. Show a few websites stripped of their names and logos; we can guess whether it’s for banking, healthcare, e-commerce, social, etc. Industries know what works with their customer bases. When we design for them, we need to stay within those bounds. So, many of our designs will be similar to others. Changing something to be original would be like playing a well-known song differently from what everyone expects. It doesn’t sound good.

You are not an imposter.

The list above is just a few examples. You can find more everywhere: house designs, restaurant menu items, appliance stores, daycare centers, and even nature. Good design repeats. Great design evolves.

To be original, we should look into being an artist. But we wanted to be someone others could depend on to help them. We picked up our tools, learned the techniques, and practiced our crafts to become professionals. Now, we can give people what they need and want in their designs. It will often look like others’ designs. And that is more than ok. It does not mean we are fakes, frauds, pretenders, or imposters. We are designers.

Now get out there and create, my friends! ๐Ÿ˜

Featured image (I’m calling Copy Pasta ๐Ÿ˜†) and coffee cup pattern provided by Pawel Czerwinski. Other images provided by Zach Vessels and Senad Palic.

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  1. jcarney Avatar

    What are your thoughts about this topic? Do you agree or disagree with me? ๐Ÿค” Open for all discussions ๐Ÿ˜Š

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