by Tori Sgarro
As we crafted the narrative of our “Emerging Voices” series, Phim Her (Content Lead) and I decided to focus on “imposter syndrome” – the belief that we’re a fraud or a failure, despite achievements or qualifications that suggest otherwise. We knew that many designers face imposter syndrome when starting out in the industry, and some researchers believe it affects minorities more profoundly. As our interviews unfolded, we learned that imposter syndrome also afflicts another group: designers without a formal education in design. It makes sense that self-taught designers struggle to shake the feeling that they’re perpetually behind; they worry that they lack some irreplaceable insight or skill attainable only in design school. But looking back at my own path as an emerging designer (and those of the designers we interviewed), I believe that a nontraditional education helps rather than hinders a career in design.
Contrary to the advice many of us receive in school to specialize, Adam Grant argues in Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World that the most successful professionals cultivate experience in more than one domain. For example, Nobel Prize-winning scientists are more likely than their peers to engage in an artistic hobby. Similarly, the most creative fashion lines come from designers with the most experience working abroad. The cross-breeding of ideas across disciplines or cultures inspires more originality and creativity than deep specialization in one field alone, explains Grant.
I’ve seen Grant’s theory play out in my own design career. In college I majored in Comparative Literature, spending most of my time studying literature and foreign languages (Spanish, Mandarin and eventually, Italian) – far removed from my university’s art school. My favorite undergraduate class explored literary theory as applied to the study of translation, and I often view my work as a user experience designer through this lens. I learned that the discipline of translating a text from one language into another centers around an unresolvable conflict between intention and execution – or the meaning and the form (structure, rhythm) of a text. For example, I can translate “green eyes” as “ojos verdes” in grammatically correct Spanish (favoring fidelity to the English original’s meaning); or I might translate “green eyes” as “verdes ojos” (favoring fidelity to the English original’s form, even at the risk of distorting the Spanish meaning). As our design language advances from written content to emojis and video, from screens to chat interfaces and virtual reality, and from flat to material representation, I continue to see this same effort to converge meaning and form. My job as an experience designer requires me to translate a business idea into a digital experience that aligns intention with execution.
Equally important, studying Comparative Literature taught me to place any translation, work of literature or artwork into the context in which it was created. I learned that creation cannot exist in a vacuum; social, historical, political, geographic and cultural context is key. Today, I aim to use this same critical lens to examine any design as the product of its context, through posing questions like: What are the long-term problems facing the industry you’re designing for? How does your design problem relate to, intersect with or contribute to them? At what environmental, cultural, and social cost does your design solution come? Who is your design solution serving, and who is it not serving? Are your team and testing representative of the populations impacted? How does your solution compare to your users’ values, preferences, and behaviors? This perspective, learned from a nontraditional academic path, can make me a more thoughtful, empathetic and ethical designer.
In his podcast Hidden Brain, host Shankar Vedantam describes a scientific theory called the Edge Effect, which says that the most new life-forms are created at the point where two ecosystems meet, like the forest and the savannah. Vedantam uses this theory to explain the success of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, a collective of artists from different cultures who convene to play music. It’s another instance of Grant’s idea that creativity arises at the intersections, and from breadth as well as depth of thinking. After interviewing many talented designers about their feelings of imposter syndrome, I hope that emerging designers will embrace the point where the forest and the savannah meet in their careers. So, to all designers who are starting out: explore other interests, lean into what makes you different, and play to your strengths no matter how diverse. You’ll be a better designer because of it.
Beyond her work co-producing the AIGA Emerging Voices series, Tori Sgarro is a product designer who uses her strengths in empathy, openness and connection to design experiences with intention and impact. She is passionate about designing digital products that improve our offline lives.
Tori currently designs for Panoply Media, a podcasting network created out of Slate. Previously, she worked at Morning Consult and National Geographic.
Before pursuing a career in design, she studied comparative literature, foreign languages and journalism. She learned the importance of empathizing with others’ perspectives across backgrounds and cultures, questioning her own assumptions, and considering the larger context of her work. These skills make up the foundation of her approach to design today.