Design Ego and Workism

One of the trickiest phases early in my design career was working through the misconception that I am the sum of my work output. Psychology Today calls this workism, and I can attest that it hurts you both professionally and personally. Designers are especially susceptible to the pitfalls of perfectionism and long hours, but this isn’t only a design problem. Anyone can potentially get bitten by the workism bug.

As a young designer, I didn’t have many distractions. Single. No kids. I ended up spending 70-80 hours a week on a regular basis making things perfect. When a project went well, I felt amazing and was energized for the next week or two, buzzing from a success. When a feature launch failed, I wore that failure equally. It took many years for me to internalize that I had worth as a designer and a human that wasn’t tied to the work I produced, but the biggest blockers were attitudes that I held.

Why Does It Happen to Designers?

The platitude “your biggest strength is often your biggest weakness” comes into play. Two of the attitudes I’ve seen design ego present itself are:

“I’m the only one that cares about users”
Designers are empathetic people. When you care deeply about your users – especially when you’ve been on customer feedback calls and heard their pain points – it can feel like others on the team don’t have the same level of care or are making decisions that don’t have the users best interest in mind. That little voice inside says “if others cared more, we would have succeeded!”

More likely than the team not caring, a designer with an incomplete understanding of the constraints, business goals, or outcomes that a project is driving towards can feel like the team was focusing on the wrong things. The pain points expressed by users may be valid, but the work that needs to be done first may be fixing even larger pain points. Building a shared understanding is a great alternative to blaming others.

“I’m the only person on the team trained in design”
When designers give birth to an idea, it’s only natural for them to be attached to it. If others on the team or customers don’t share the same enthusiasm, or worse yet have an idea that they feel is even better than yours, it’s easy for the defensive wall to go up.

How would a non-designer know how something should look and feel? Designers may feel entitled to be right because they understand the principles of design and design thinking, especially if they’ve gone through design school (ask me how I know 😉). Even if you’re a designer with 20 years of experience, that still doesn’t mean your opinion is inherently better.

A team armed with domain knowledge & research to prove / disprove assumptions are almost always going to find a better solution than one without. A mantra for designers to follow is “fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” The ego can build up an attitude of self-importance, an attitude of exclusion, rather than looking for inspiration from all directions. Many brains are better than one at solving problems and being centered on self closes you off from considering better alternatives. Herein lies the big difference between being ‘right’ about aesthetics and visual design vs being ‘right’ about solving problems effectively for users.

Is it better to ship something that was your idea or something that elegantly solves a problem?

Attitude Is Connected to Happiness AND End Product

In a team environment, everything boils down to attitude.

Early in my career, the dopamine hit of a design being implemented un-altered from my Photoshop comp to code completion was huge. Whenever changes needed to happen, for time or scope or just general viability, I ended up being unhappy with the remainder of my time on the project. I would spiral from “if they could only understand why this approach is best…” to “nobody values me or my opinion.”

When you’re feeling down, that energy transfers to the rest of the team. Ego didn’t just give me a lack of awareness, it hurt my relationships across the organization. Collaboration on unrelated projects started to suffer. Building great products requires collaboration and anything that pushes teammates away is going to tangibly affect your end product.

Through reading different books, I came across the concept CYA (Choose Your Attitude) which I try to share with anyone that will listen to. In a nutshell, it teaches intentionality. Even if you can’t control everything in the workplace (or in life in general), you are fully in charge of choosing how you personally react to things that happen. It’s a choice you make every day, with every reaction you have. This is especially important for designers, as how we respond to feedback DIRECTLY impacts how much feedback people are willing to give us in the future.

Choosing an attitude of curiosity and inclusion meant I was able to view suggestions for change as opportunities instead of people not accepting my ‘perfect’ vision. And – you guessed it – the better my designs got as a result of several viewpoints converging.

The Great Decoupling

If you’re with me so far, the next natural question is HOW do you break bad habits of entangling your identity as a person from specific project deliverables? It’s different for everyone, but I can share what worked for me.

  • Taking a “we” approach instead of a “me” approach… the wins are more fun to celebrate together and the losses aren’t quite as bad
  • Even if a project doesn’t go well, taking away the knowledge of the parts that did succeed and being introspective of the things that made us fail sets up “future me” for success
  • Setting goals for leveling up my design skills… which meant admitting to myself that I’m not an expert at all things. As simple as that seems, there’s a humbling curve once you truly know how much you don’t know
  • Doubling down on curiosity & learning new things… which is a facet of why I enjoy design so much in the first place
  • Soliciting peer feedback from people I trust and taking things to heart. It’s hard to know you’re being combative or aren’t being as much of a team player as you should be if you never stop to check

If this is something you’re going through, whether you realize it or not, or if it’s something you’ve worked through yourself and can see elements of your own journey here, there’s a path towards being a better, happier designer.