Dealing With Stress As A Designer: Here’s What Research Says

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Ollie is co-founder & CEO at Milanote, a notes app for creative work used by top designers, writers, marketers and other creative professionals from … More about Ollie ↬

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The world is a stressful place. That’s probably why if you search for articles about dealing with stress you’ll find lots of great advice. But the problem is that most of it is pretty generic. Is there anything more specific to the profession of design? In this article Ollie Campbell takes some of the academic research on stress and applies it to the challenges designers face every day. If you’re a designer who feels stressed from time to time, then this article is for you. It takes some of the academic research on stress and applies it to the challenges designers face every day.

The world is a stressful place. That’s probably why if you search for articles about dealing with stress you’ll find lots of great advice. But the problem is that most of it is pretty generic. Eat good food. Exercise. Get plenty of sleep. Those are all good general tips — but is there anything more specific to the profession of design?

If you’re a designer who feels stressed from time to time, then this article is for you. It takes some of the academic research on stress and applies it to the challenges designers face every day. Read on for tips on how to feel better, get on with other people, and most of all do better work.

You Are Not A Machine. You Are Not Alone.

Many of us struggle silently with burnout. Let’s identify six areas where burnout hides, and how to deal with them. Read a related article →

1. Feeling Anxious About An Upcoming Presentation

Feeling anxious about an upcoming presentation

The Problem:

You’ve got a big design presentation coming up. Your work will be on display, and so will you. But you’ve never liked public speaking, even if it’s just to a few people. You spend the whole week before the presentation feeling anxious about how it will go. A million scenarios where you end up looking stupid run round and round in your head.

What’s Happening:

Human beings are extremely sensitive to being judged by others. Presenting your work can lead to what psychologists call "evaluation apprehension". And putting yourself on display in an important meeting or presentation can lead to various audience effects which cause you to behave differently than you would if you were by yourself.

The Solution:

Focus on learning, not performance. Research has shown that if you’re too focused on giving a great performance, you’re actually likely to do a worse job. So don’t think "I have to give a great presentation!". Instead, think "This is a great chance to practice giving presentations. I’m going to learn a lot!". This will mean you’ll feel more relaxed, you’ll be less affected when things go wrong, and paradoxically you’ll also do a better job presenting your design work.

But just because you’re focused on learning doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice. In fact for stressful activities like giving a presentation, the more you practice, the better you’ll do. According to social psychologists, being in front of other people makes people more likely to perform the "dominant response" — the thing that comes most easily and naturally to them. If you haven’t practiced enough, the dominant response will be to forget what you were going to say, fumble your words and generally do a worse job than you would if you were alone. But once you’ve practiced something a lot, the dominant response flips. When this happens, the presence of an audience will make you do a better job than you would if you were by yourself — stress actually starts to enhance your performance.

Another tip is to work on your body language. Of course our body language says a lot about how we’re feeling at any given moment. When you’re feeling stressed, you tend to close in on yourself — hunch your shoulders, cover your body with your arms. But psychologists have found that it works the other way too — you can change the way you feel by changing the way you carry yourself. Experiments have shown that adopting a "power pose" for as little as two minutes before (not during) a presentation can reduce your stress levels. And it’s not just about feeling better, you’ll also come across as more composed, confident and enthusiastic. So find a quiet place before your next presentation and strike a pose — feet apart, hands on hips and shoulders thrown back. It sounds crazy, but it works.

2. Dealing With Negative Feedback (From Your Clients, Your Boss Or Your Peers)

Dealing with negative feedback

The Problem:

You show someone else your design and they say they like it … before telling you about 50 things that are wrong with it. Your heart sinks. You feel crushed. All of your hard work feels like a waste.

What’s Happening:

If negative feedback stresses you out, chances are you’re new to the design game. Studies have shown that people who are less experienced and earlier in their careers tend to prefer positive feedback to build their confidence and self-esteem. But wait, doesn’t everyone like positive feedback? Actually, the answer is no. More experienced designers know that negative feedback is the key to producing great work, so that’s what they prefer to receive.

It’s also worth knowing that humans are programmed to remember negative feedback more vividly than positive. This is called "negativity bias" and it’s something we all exhibit. This is why you instantly forget all the nice things someone has said and stew over the criticism.

The Solution:

One secret to learning to deal with negative feedback is to actively seek it out. If you’re a designer, you’re guaranteed to get feedback on your work whether you ask for it or not. But if someone gives you feedback you haven’t asked for, research shows that you’re more likely to become defensive and shut it out. Actively asking people for feedback gives your brain permission to hear what they have to say without shutting down.

Research also shows that people tend to accept praise uncritically, but receive criticism sceptically. So make sure you give feedback a chance to sink in. In a design critique or client meeting, write down all the feedback and then come back to it the next day. Chances are you’ll be much more objective about it when you’ve had a chance to cool down.

Remember too that when tensions are high on a design project, the people giving the feedback are likely to be stressed as well. Sometimes it’s easy to write off a client or a manager as rude, impatient or unkind. But chances are it’s the situation causing them to behave the way they are. People who are stressed tend to be more critical than usual and you’re probably underestimating the effect a stressful situation is having on their behaviour. The "fundamental attribution error" is a psychological principle which explains that people are much more likely to attribute people’s behaviour to their internal characteristics rather than the situation they’re in. So next time you think someone is being overly critical, try to separate the person from the situation.

If you’re the one giving the feedback, it’s a good rule of thumb to give 5 pieces of positive feedback for every piece of criticism. This ratio can make it easier for people to accept the criticism they need to improve.

3. Feeling Like Everyone Is A Better Designer Than You

Feeling like everyone is a better designer than you

The Problem:

You spend all day jumping between Dribbble, Designspiration and Behance looking for "inspiration". But somehow, the more amazing design work you look at, the worse you feel. How can everyone else be so talented? How will I ever produce anything that good?

What’s Happening:

Social comparison theory explains what happens when you compare your work to other people’s — and it’s the direction of comparison that’s important. "Upward comparisons" are where you compare yourself to people who are more talented, experienced or famous than yourself. This is what’s happening when you look at the top rated designs on Dribbble. But by comparing your work to the best in the world, you’re never going to be satisfied or happy with the work you produce. These upward comparisons have been proven to make you feel miserable.

A famous example of this phenomenon was a study showing that bronze medal winners at the Olympics are happier than silver medal winners. Why? Because of who they were comparing themselves to. Silver medal winners tend to compare themselves to gold medal winners and come off feeling "second best". But bronze medal winners were more focused on all the people who missed out on a medal entirely. It’s all about who you’re comparing yourself to.

The Solution:

Avoid those upward comparisons. Instead, spend time with people who are less experienced than you are. A great way to do this is through some kind of mentoring. Becoming a mentor has been shown to do two important things for people: stops you feeling bad if you do hit a "plateau" in your ability, and actually prevent this plateauing from happening in the first place. That’s right — teaching someone else could make you a better designer yourself.

Another way to do this is to make "downward comparisons" with a less experienced version of yourself by looking back over older pieces from your folio. This is a great way to draw attention to how far you’ve come, rather than how much you have to learn.

But maybe the best solution is just not to compare yourself to anyone else at all. Taking a break by unsubscribing from those "inspiration" mailing lists might help you feel better about your work.

4. Feeling Pressure To Come Up A Design Solution Ahead Of A Tight Deadline

Feeling pressure to come up a design solution ahead of a tight deadline

The Problem:

You’ve been given a tough design brief, and the deadline is looming. But you’re stuck. None of the designs you come up with feel right. The solution just won’t come.

What’s Happening:

It might be that you’ve opened up the design software too soon. Research has shown that beginners and experts approach problem solving in fundamentally different ways. Beginners tends to work backwards. They think about the final outcome, and try to jump all the way there — by putting pixels on the screen too early. But expert designers do the exact opposite. They don’t think about solutions to begin with. They think about the process that will get them there, and then work forwards, trusting that process to get them to the right design in the end. Expert designers will always invest a lot of time in defining the problem because they know that’s what leads to good design.

The Solution:

Learn to solve design problems like a pro by following the right process. Start by defining the problem space (even if you don’t think you have time to do it). Write down everything you know about the users, the client, past solutions and anything else. Write a list of all the things you’re trying to achieve with the design. Focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve is a great way to make progress.

Another tip is to give your ideas time to incubate. Write yourself a design brief at the end of the work day, and then try not to consciously think about it overnight. Chances are your subconscious will come up with some new ideas by morning and you’ll be back in business. Allowing time for an "incubation period" has led to some of the most important breakthroughs of our time.

If you’re really stuck for ideas, you might be tempted to organise a brainstorm. But psychologists have consistently found that in-person brainstorming is actually a relatively ineffective way to generate ideas. Instead, get people to contribute ideas in written form in their own time. Create a document or post-it wall for the project and ask your team to dump their ideas in as they have them. The kind of "brain writing" has been shown to produce 28% more ideas than typical brainstorming.

And don’t forget that the best solution might just be to ask for more time. Most deadlines are more flexible than they seem and people are often prepared to negotiate if they know you’re feeling overwhelmed.

5. Something You Designed Fails Dismally

Something you designed fails dismally

The Problem:

You’ve slaved over a design for days, weeks or months. And now it’s finally time to put it to the test. But to your horror, it fails miserably. Maybe the user testing participants can’t understand it. Or maybe you put it live and all the important stats get worse. Conversions go down. People stop using the site. Your design has failed and you feel terrible.

What’s Happening:

Failures like this can hurt, because they can feel like direct threats to your "self-concept". "I thought I was a good designer! How can my design have failed? Maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was?"

The Solution:

There are various coping strategies when you encounter a threat to your self-concept, and some are better than others.

First, here’s something you shouldn’t do: run away. A classic psychological study found that after doing poorly on a creativity test, people were much quicker to flee the room where it happened. But although this a natural response, running away never solves much.

You might also be tempted to attack the threat to your self-concept. "Those users were idiots anyway! Of course they didn’t know how to use the design!". But fight this urge, because it also doesn’t get you anywhere.

Another common approach is to distract yourself with drugs or alcohol. Psychologists call this "self-medicating" and while plenty of agencies have cultures like this, it’s a terrible way to cope with stress long term for obvious reasons. A better approach is to skip the work drinks and head home to your spouse — seeking social support from someone you have an intimate relationship with has been shown to be a much more effective way to deal with stress than getting drunk with your colleagues.

Another great response to a public failure can just be to write about it. Write down all the things you saw in the session or the stats. Write your personal reactions. Write what needs to be done about it. This kind of reflection has been shown to reduce emotional heat, muscle tension and even headaches. It’s a really positive way to turn a setback into a learning experience.

Final Notes

Every designer lives to do great work. That’s why we all feel the same anxiety at the start of a new project. We all wonder if we’ll be able make something great this time, and we all feel the same euphoria when it finally happens.

Learning to manage your psychology through the ups and downs of this creative process is an essential part of being a designer. But it’s not something that gets taught in design school. So next time you’re feeling the pressure, follow these tips to get back on track. They’ll help you take control of your stress and use it to do better work.

Need Help?

If you think your stress is out of control, it might be time to seek professional help. Talk to your doctor, or call a mental health helpline in your country. Remember, you’re not alone — around 18% of people in the US suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, so it’s a very common problem.

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (yk, mrn)