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To the power of two (or more)

I used to be a freelance web designer, a jack of all trades who dealt with every aspect of producing a website from the first client meeting to the launch of the site. This meant I would work through the entire design & development process alone, working on user research, information architecture, wireframing, visual design, front end code and development, not to mention managing the project and the occasional nightmarish server admin task. 

These days this wide range of disciplines are more specialised and unlikely to be undertaken by one person, so it’s no wonder I suffered from the acute anxiety of knowing that I would never be as good as I wanted to be in some of these areas. I worked hard for years to get across The Gap, as Ira Glass describes it (here’s a great video covering this: — courtesy of @frohlockecom) and enjoyed success with some areas, but other areas such as visual design and development I felt stuck at a level I was not happy with. 

With such a diverse array of roles I would always suffer from Impostor Syndrome on meeting a new or potential client, or talking to my peers. A crippling fear of being a pretender about to be found out. Initially I tried to specialise, to work for design agencies with the skills I was good at, and this helped a little. I focused on UX and front end, thinking they were my strongest areas but was not happy with just being able to help with parts of a project, I still wanted to do it all. 

From January 2012 I was no longer a one man band, having co-founded fffunction. In those early days I found an almost instant benefit of being a “we” rather than a “me”. Previously I found it very hard to talk about and sell myself — now that I wasn’t selling “me” I could forget about the anxieties. I could talk about Adam being amazing at UX, and Pete being one of the best visual designers I’ve seen. By leaving myself out of the equation altogether I had a newfound confidence in the “we” rather than the “I”. 

fffunction has grown to a team of 8 and I’m confident that whatever topic surfaces we have someone in fffunction who can talk about it. Now when I meet new people whether they be new or prospective clients, friends or people in the web industry, I still have the same feeling that I’m able to promote fffunction far better than I can promote myself and so I kind of bypass the impostor syndrome by forgetting to talk about myself. 

I’m afraid I don’t have the solution to get past the impostor syndrome, and still suffer from anxiety in initial meetings, and the odd pitch scenario we partake in. Specialising helped, collaboration helped and I think if I had spent more time learning to talk about what I did that would have helped too.

By Ben Coleman - @bencoleman

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One year ago


A few years ago a friend asked me what I was doing differently; my design work had “just gotten better”. She had worked with me in a previous environment and was collaborating with me on a project at different agency. It was clear that something had changed, but it was hard for me to articulate what it was; not only that, I felt noticeably happier. Without realizing it, I had found a way for me to maintain my “flow” at work.

Flow meaning my actual mental state: I was in my zone, designing like time didn’t exist, food didn’t need to be eaten, and all the puzzle pieces were snapping into place. It was a luxury that I tried to ration to myself for fear of becoming an unsocial hermit. It was a state fostered by a complex web of factors, all contributing to my ability to find my optimal state: being highly challenged and having the skills to meet those challenges without interference. It wasn’t entirely obvious to me at the time, but things like having a solid organizational infrastructure, working with a supportive team and reporting to management who championed my need to succeed all helped contribute to my happiness. Overall it was a cultural system that empowered me to seek my own challenges and face them uninterrupted.

I didn’t know this was an actual recognized psychological state until I watched a documentary called Happy, where I was introduced to the positive psychology concepts of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Csíkszentmihályi doesn’t just recognize my flow, he says it contributes to happiness. This perfect storm of factors actually contributed to me feeling very content.

While flow had previously been an achievable mental state while working on personal projects, painting, or gardening, I am not sure I truly had found a sustainable state at work. Contrary to popular belief there is no recipe for the perfect environment for a designer. I have had conversations with friends who swear that exposed brick and hip furniture make them feel more creative. Others feel inspired when they can dress however they want.

Both process and culture are the two most underrated topics in the design industry. They form the infrastructure that can make or break a project; it dictates how teams work together, how communication is performed, and how a designer finds their flow against all challenges that face them in creating a solution. We talk about innovation, but how do we build the systems that breed it?

Watch Csíkszentmihályi’s Ted talk on Flow.

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