Advice — The Guardian’s digital design director on how to turn self-comparison into a positive
When it comes to career confidence, nothing stops you in your stride like a bit of toxic self-comparison. Having worked as a designer for nearly 15 years, Ben Longden knows this only too well. Currently working as The Guardian’s digital design director, Ben recently shared his experiences of work life, creativity and mental health in his first book, Graphic Design is Mental. In this extract, Ben focuses on the harmful effects of comparing yourself to others, and how to transform the feeling of inadequacy into strength.
Designers are creative people, generally, and in my short experience, they are also anxious. Little balls of creative anxiety. It certainly is the case for me. I think this goes hand-in-hand with the job, and the way in which I think as a designer.
Often the design process requires you to think about all the possibilities, all the scenarios: How does that person feel? How do I feel? In the past, I have found that this process – this wonderful ability to be creative and ask those questions – can turn into anxiety about your ability as a designer.
“This wonderful ability to be creative and ask questions can turn into anxiety about your ability as a designer.”
Flipping negative self-comparison on its head
When I was studying, I compared myself to other people in my class. In my first year, I had that-person-is-so-much-better-than-me syndrome; a very unhealthy way to think. I learned that, actually, this kind of thinking can be used for good – for personal development – if you flip it round and ask yourself: What makes that person good? What are they doing that I’m not? What can I learn from that person?
If you look at it this way, you will always be learning from them, and you will also become better. But that sort of thinking can be crippling if it’s not turned into a positive approach. That combined with the pressure of ‘The Industry’ will inevitably bring about anxiety, and you won’t work to your best ability.
I had a friend with both of these inflictions, and for a long time I watched as they stopped him from being able to approach things in a positive way because: a) It wasn’t ‘good enough’ for The Industry; and b) Others could do better so why bother. It’s something I have seen in a lot of students I’ve spent time with, too.
“[Self-comparison] can be crippling if it’s not turned into a positive approach.”
Having talented people around you makes you better
I think it’s good to have people around you who are ‘better than you’, and they are probably thinking the same thing about you. I don’t think there is necessarily ‘better’ or ‘worse’ – often it’s just different.
If you talk to people you think are good, you will learn what their thinking was, how they developed those ideas and the inspiration behind their work. This is not to suggest copying their work, their style or steal their ideas, but instead bringing some of that approach to your working practice. That could be when developing an idea, pushing a layout, or playing with logos. You can ask yourself: “How would [person X] approach this?”
“You can always find ways to put people, and things, on pedestals. It’s what you do with this that counts.”
Believe me, having people around you who are better will make you better, and you will eventually be the one people are looking at for inspiration and advice.
Changing your mindset is in your power
You can always find ways to put people, and things, on pedestals – this is natural. It’s what you do with this that counts. It can be demotivating or inspiring, it can push you to think in new ways or feed the natural imposter inside you. Remember that what you choose to do with it is all in your power.
Graphic Design is Mental is a book about creativity and mental health. It explores imposter syndrome, how you can feel when starting out as a designer, and some of the challenges you might face whilst working in the creative industry. Written by Ben Longden, an often “anxious creative person.”
Available to buy here.