That Time I Choked aka Fear and Self-Loathing

It’s 11:30pm and I’ve got nothin’. I have a folder full of every single Mercedes-Benz model silo’d out and ready to go and I’ve got nothin’. Some big meeting to present design concepts for a kiosk is happening in less than 10 hours. I’ve been moving objects back and forth across the screen for the past 14 hours and my co-workers have long gone. So I sit here staring at a blindingly blank computer screen praying for a spark that will shoot through my skull, down my spine, through my arms and cause me to spontaneously create a piece of design genius that will save the day.

I’m absolutely fucked.

“What the hell am I doing? I’m not good enough yet.  I never have any interesting ideas. I barely know Photoshop. The Art Director is absolutely killin’ it. The Creative Director nailed it hours ago. What’s the point of me doing this anyway? God, I stink.”

This ran through my head on a loop. And now, it’s 1am.

I’d like to say that in the end, that spark did hit me. I’d like to say that I saved the day and basked in the glory of my design prowess. The truth is, I was in the office until 2:30am working on a barely passable design that ultimately (and not surprisingly) did not get picked. I wasn’t very confident presenting it, either. Looking back, the design I hobbled together wasn’t very good and it certainly wasn’t one of my shining moments.

Why am I sharing this limp story of failure then?

I’m sharing this story because despite its panic-induced start, this project was the source of tremendous growth. And this hardly was the last time I considered a design I worked on a failure. This experience afforded me the wisdom that: 

Fear and panic almost always produces crummy work.
Because I was fraught with fear I was doomed to live what ran on a loop in my head.  What started as insecurity progressed to fear which ultimately gave way to panic. All of those emotions took any creativity I would have had and locked it up in solitary confinement where I couldn’t reach it. I’ve since learned to manage it and found a way to change this state of mind instantly. 

Design isn’t (just) for you.
Part of my framework for managing my emotions during my process is now focusing on others first and foremost. I was trying too hard to be clever, cutting-edge, trendy. I’ve since learned that this is a terrible place to start your work. When I was first starting out, I was designing solely to suit my own petty ego which often resulted in missing the mark. I’ve since broadened my thinking to include the end user, my clients and their business. I asked better questions like, “What is Ann trying to get done by using this product? How should she feel while she’s using it?” You could probably argue this is when I finally realized what it meant to be a designer. This unfortunately wasn’t something that was taught to me in college. 

Compare this to the kinds of questions I was asking myself as a new designer struggling to find my place in a big world; feeling crushed by the weight of everyone else’s talent.

Missing the mark does not inherently mean that you are a fraud or that you don’t deserve to be a designer.
It just means that your weaknesses are exposed. We all have them and now that they’re out in the open, we can get to work. We should all be so lucky that we have enough self-awareness to see them. 

Now, the light at the end tunnel is that I find these situations occurring fewer and farther in between as I gain more experience. I just choose not to design in fear or panic anymore. The focus is no longer on designing for trends. The focus is on designing for longevity and this shift in thinking is in the best interest of others, not my fragile ego. I strive more for doing what’s right for the client’s business and their customers.  The biggest gift of all, was being grateful that I even had the eye to recognize when I was falling short. The work (and my sanity) is much better for it. 

My energy is much better spent using my craft to be in service of others and working on my weaknesses instead of massaging my needy ego. I would argue it’s a better use of your time, too.

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  1. Mark says

    Love this post thank you for sharing. It’s a million times more helpful than most of the stuff out there.

    Question: between being given the brief and your state of panic, did you have anyone come up to you and mention the project had to ‘kick-ass’ or be ‘cutting-edge’ for example? I find it terribly unhelpful when that happens…

    • Christine says

      Yeah, that happens a lot and I expect it to continue to happen forever and ever. It’s often said by clients that don’t know how to articulate how they expect a particular execution to tie into their goals, eg: brand goals, communication goals, sales goals, etc. So saying “kick-ass” or “cutting-edge” is sort of a catch-all directive and as you know, leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

      So now, I just prod them further as to what exactly they mean by those terms. A good brief will already have those questions answered, but sometimes you’re not so lucky. Once you start digging deeper (not unlike a therapist), you can design an experience that is in congruence with your client’s expectations. Beyond that, there’s always an opportunity to push a design or idea further than they ever imagined – that’s what I think a lot of people really mean when they say, “kick-ass,” or “make it sexy.” But you want to make sure you’re nailing the requirements first.

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