Perfectionism, the imposter syndrome and designers.

This week, more than others, I’ve had/read/overheard conversations about perfectionism and the imposter syndrome. Both are well known traits of creatives. And both can negatively impact your mental health.

So I did some reading…

The imposter syndrome

It only takes a quick dive into Mrs Google to understand it’s not just creatives who feel like fraudsters. It’s rampant throughout every career and every industry sector.  I’ve read about imposter feelings from best-selling authors, Nobel peace prize recipients and even American Presidents (except the current one who interestingly seems the biggest imposter of them all).

For the record this is Wikipedia’s definition:

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

Much has been written about the syndrome, but I particularly enjoyed this article Learning to Deal with the Imposter Syndrome published in the New York Times in 2015.

I like ‘sketch guy’s’ writing but I suspect I like this article specifically because it doesn’t direct me to ‘do’ anything. Instead, the author Carl Richards suggests I embrace the feeling and work with it. That resonates with me.


Many designers identify as perfectionists. Some say it pushes them to deliver excellent work. What I see is an increase in anxiety and that results in a decrease in productivity. Neither delivers excellence.

There is a big difference between the healthy and helpful pursuit of excellence and the unhealthy and unhelpful striving for perfection.

Liking to do things well and getting pleasure out of achieving is positive. But perfectionism has profits and perils. It becomes negative when:

  1. perfectionists assume others are not able to perform to the same standards
  2. their self-worth is based on an ability to strive for and achieve unrelenting standards
  3. the actions result in negative consequences, yet perfectionists continue, despite the high cost.

Unfortunately, in a world of co-creation and collaboration these character traits can cause grief in a studio. It causes grief to the studio owner because a project may meet and exceed the client brief, but the perfectionist designer is reluctant to handover.

That’s not just my thoughts, Pedro Canhenha’s article published on UX Planet argues the same point – only much better. In Perfectionism vs Thoroughness Canhenha talks design principles and having respect for the end user. He argues the point much better than me, but I’m OK with that, because I’m a reformed perfectionist. 🙂


Imposter syndrome is everywhere and suffered by many people. At best it reminds us to take stock of our knowledge and our skills, and remind ourselves why we deserve our space. At worst it is paralysing. Rest assured; it is not an uncommon phenomenon.

And perfectionism / high standards are great, but they shouldn’t keep you from achieving, they stop us playing well with others, and they shouldn’t be the crux of a mental anguish.

If you do feel either hinder your wellbeing, do talk to someone, do get help.


Carol Mackay

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Carol Mackay has embraced change. After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, she pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council she uses her experience, and research, to help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

Carol works to help designers de-mystify the complexities of managing a small business. The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement  paid gigs with mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

In 2018 Carol co-founded the Clear Communication Awards, and the Business of Design Week. Both will be run in 2019

An archive of her design work at
Her current work can be viewed at and

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