Me and My Big Fat Ego

Designers are renowned for having egos. But we’re really not all big-headed prima donnas. It’s just that we can devote so much of our time and care to our work that it becomes entangled with our self-esteem.

Article Continues Below

We’d all love our work to be perfect at the first draft. If we could solve all the potential problems in the project in one pass, without anybody else’s intervention, wouldn’t that make us perfect designers?

Our desire for perfection sets us up for that crushing feeling when a client doesn’t love our work the first time. It creates anger, tears, condescension, bitterness: all the ugly things. Our ego doesn’t want us to see ourselves as flawed, so we’re tempted to see the client as foolish in order to have something to blame the flaws in the work on. That’s how this big fat fragile ego can really get in the way of a good client relationship.

As with any working relationship, we need to be able to empathize with the other party, and understand the position that they’re coming from with their opinions. Design is nuanced; there’s far more to it than finding that one right way to solve a problem and rejecting all the “wrong” ways. Our ideas and the client’s are as likely to be conflicting as they are to be complementary. We can’t let ego get in the way of compromise.

But ego also gives us confidence#section1

Bravado is ego’s younger, stupider brother. Most days I feel in control of my bravado, but sometimes I’m a little too vocal and critical of the work and actions of others. By showing off my supposed knowledge, I’m trying to mask my insecurity when my work doesn’t feel good enough. That pretty much explains my general attitude at art college and university… (Hey fellow RSAD and Bath Spa students and tutors, I’m sorry you had to put up with that!).

But we need that spike of confidence that ego brings. How could we ever share our work if we didn’t think it was any good? We could spend forever revising our ideas until our designs feel “good enough.” We need a little bit of ego so we can share with others.

Let’s not let ego get the better of us#section2

Striving for perfection without the input of others doesn’t just put pressure on our self-esteem, it also restricts the scope for a solution. Every time I get that downhearted feeling over client feedback, I remind myself of other projects where I felt that way. In the end, the solution on those projects was always far stronger after multiple iterations. Feedback from clients brought in valuable constraints and thoughtful ideas from someone who understands their context and goals far better than I do.

Sometimes I just need to remind myself that I’m working on a solution with the client: we are both invested. And what we create together may be my adopted project for a few months, but it’s their product to own for many months or years to come.

About the Author

Laura Kalbag

Laura Kalbag is a designer working on Ind.ie. She was freelance for five years and still holds client work dear. She can be found via her personal site, Twitter, and out on long walks with her big fluffy dog.

8 Reader Comments

  1. Thanks for this post Laura! I believe taking an iterative approach getting feedback from clients early and often helps keep helps often keep ego at bay as the further down the chain the more likely we are to attach our ego to our work not to mention it allows the client to provide critical feedback before it is too late.

  2. Hey Laura – you have the least ego of any designer I have worked with. It’s always a pleasure to exchange ideas with you. But I wonder now whether that’s because you are just really good at hiding your frustration with idiot clients (ahem!). But if you do anything creative, even writing, you have to embed a bit of yourself in everything you do and that means any feedback, especially daft feedback, is going to be hard to take on some level.

  3. Thanks Michael, I absolutely agree. A disappointing “Big Reveal” can be like popping the balloon of your inflated ego…

    Matthew, it’s so fun to have a real client commenting on my writing about client work! I don’t think I’m very egotistical, I think self-esteem is fragile but I’m becoming experienced enough to know better…

    My frustration is usually something that reflects on me, and my actions, far more than that of a client. Feedback can be hard to take, but daft feedback is rarely cruel. It’s useful to have the benefit of somebody else’s angle. Tempering your ego isn’t really hiding anything, I think it’s more checking yourself when your emotional reaction to criticism gets in the way of doing good work.

  4. Great article! The easiest way I keep my ego in check is to remind myself that design is iterative. In a previous life I was a weather forecaster. I always tell people that I hated that job because I was always wrong AND I could never change my answer (once the day is over, changing your forecast is kinda pointless). At least with design you can look at each criticism as a new piece of information that will help you reach the “right” answer.

  5. Great Post! Clients and designers can both benefit when they leave their ego’s out of the equation and focus on the best solution, rather than focusing on proving their initial thoughts are the right ones. Its important to remember that ego is not the entirety of our mind. Ego is separate from conscious thought, and conscious thought is where all of our problem solving abilities are found. Ego only knows how to judge, that’s it, it can not do anything else. If you approach clients with your ego the only thoughts you will have are ones of judgment. However, if you approach them with your conscious mind you can easily organize all the pertinent and current information in your mind allowing you to provide feedback to them that has the projects best interest in mind rather than your ego. Updated and organized knowledge gives you a big boost of confidence in presenting your work, giving you the courage to put yourself out there. Courage that is based on reality, unlike bravado which provides courage based on your ego’s fantasies. If you are unsure of what thoughts are ego and which are of your conscious mind here is a quick test you can use: if your thoughts contain “I”, or “me”, or “you” or “they” etc. then you are thinking with your ego.

  6. Nice post Laura. Much of your post resonates with me. I give my team members the space to try and try again as it is important that they get to make their mark.

    I don’t mind healthy egos as it breeds confidence which is important for our service. Most stakeholders like to feel this confidence from us. When someone gets a bit cheeky though, this highlights to me that they’re ready for bigger challenges which tends to keep people humble.

    An important thing is when a designer fails, I frame this to them as a ‘lesson’ and ensure that I can be there to pick things up for them. I’m fortunate I am like my team – we’re all challengers…as a former colleague expressed to me a long time ago – ‘history tends to favour the brave’.

  7. Really good reading, Laura.

    It’s one thing for us to remember to temper our ego lest we are crushed under its inimitable weight, however, we should all remember we have one, too! Sometimes I do forget – working in an environment with voices that are somewhat louder than mine – that I’m allowed to be a bit showy-offy (yes, that’s a thing) since I’m employed as ‘The Expert’.

    It’s never nice to have someone pooh-pooh your work outright and the massive ego-knock you get from such ‘feedback’ is always a shocker. As other posters have said, everything should be taken forward as a lesson; good feedback and bad.

  8. Interesting article. It’s all too easy to allow yourself to fall into the know it all mindset all when it comes to working with clients who can barely turn their computers on, let alone understand what makes a good website.

    I find it ultimately comes down to educating clients instead of just preaching at them about why some of their ideas wont work. Both sides have to compromise though because clients can also let their ego get the better of them when they believe all their ideas are amazing and they have hired you to implement them.

Got something to say?

We have turned off comments, but you can see what folks had to say before we did so.

More from ALA

Nothing Fails Like Success

Our own @zeldman paints the complicated catch-22 that our free, democratized web has with our money-making capitalist roots. As creators, how do we untangle this web? #LetsFixThis