ego-in-design

Pedro Canhenha

Another topic that has long been associated with the Design discipline, has been Egos and particularly how Designers wear theirs on their sleeves. This has been an association that I can remember existing since I started my professional career in the early millennium, and that continues to pervade across articles and considerations written a bit all over. My goal in writing this article is not so much to focus on the psychological aspect and personality issues associated with the topic of Ego, but particularly how this impacts Designers’ careers, Hiring/Recruiting processes, Review processes, Collaboration with teams, all taking into account specific examples that demonstrate for the most part, how a lack of self awareness, can jeopardize the future of a successful endeavor or even destroy it (be it a product or even an organization).


Ego in Design — Careers, Recruiting, Collaboration. Ego of course has a series of definitions derived from Sigmund Freud’s studies of the psyche. According to dictionary.com, the word means, “The “I” or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought” and also “The part of the psychic apparatus that experiences and reacts to the outside world and thus mediates between the primitive drives of the id and the demands of the social and physical environment”. Typically though, the concept of Ego is associated in the lexicon with the topics of self-esteem and self-image. In the context of the Design Industry in particular, as far back as I can remember, Ego was always associated with Designers and the ever-present association of these professionals with Artists. Artists have long had a reputation for being capricious and self-involved professionals, due to the fact that their primary audience and focus, is always driven by self-expression or showcasing a universe very particular to their point of view. Their Ego is therefore exacerbated since their work is after all their own particular vision, unencumbered by requests, perspectives, audiences or influences. Designers have long had to battle this impression, that their work is solely driven by a singular and warped point of view, without acknowledgment of external factors, in particular, the audience /target that is ultimately going to be using the product/solution created. Before illustrating how Ego can impact/condition the careers of Designers, I’d like to reinforce that, much like long-lasting brands, it’s fundamental that professionals in general and Designers, in particular, be mindful of certain qualities that sustain these long-lasting brands, but also long-lasting careers, namely: self awareness, principles, deliberateness, focus, adaptability.

I first noticed the impact of excessive Ego in the context of Design Agencies. I witnessed how a lack of self-awareness and an excessive dose of Ego prevented Designers from understanding the Clients/Partners they were working with, and how that same Ego created a gap in the relationship that should occur between both parties. An unchecked Ego allows for fractured communications to flourish, and above all, prevents professionals from assessing the real needs of their teams, clients, peers. It also prevents them from adapting to the ever-evolving demands of the market. I witnessed how unchecked Egos created friction between team members, ultimately causing project dissatisfaction and moral erosion. When Designers evolve in their careers (please check the article I wrote on that topic here), it’s somewhat of a trap for professionals to fall back into certain habits, certain behaviors, and dismiss everything that is alien to them, or somehow newish. Adaptability is crucial for Designers, as is continuous education. A persistent thirst for knowledge and constant craving to refine one’s capabilities are a testament to the realization that in the Labor market in general (and Design Industry in particular), everything is constantly evolving, and only through constant upgrades can a professional retain his/hers relevancy.

The second part of this section pertains to Recruiting and how Ego ingratiates itself in this topic. In both sides of this equation, which means, both as a hiring force, and as an applicant, it’s interesting how Ego permeates this entire process. From the hiring perspective, it’s important that the hiring entity, understands the position that is being filled, and when assessing applicants, they also analyze their career path, who the applicants actually are and what realistically are they looking for. I’ve witnessed senior professionals who were hired for positions clearly junior to their experience level, which eventually led to their swift exit, an outcome that can be attributed to many factors, but that one can’t help tie with factors such as career path and Ego (professionals who have a cadre of positions under their belt, are less likely to be satisfied with positions that don’t align with their career ascension/path). From the applicant perspective, and in the case of Designers, in particular, Ego can easily play the role of a best friend to cynical mistress. A healthy Ego (with a healthy dosage of self-awareness) allows for Designers to understand where their skills lie, what they’re able to do, therefore allows for a better filtering process when applying for roles. It also allows professionals to quickly discern where to focus their attention, when contacted by hiring agencies, who at times reach out to candidates based on keyword matches, without realizing if the positions are sensical for those candidates or not. A cynical mistress driven type of Ego, will on the other hand guide Designers to reach out to situations and opportunities, where the chances for success are doomed from the beginning. Though ambition and thirst for ascension is never something to criticize, the outcomes of these quests are often enough met with disappointing results. The gaps that exist between what is being submitted and what is being expected, are far too wide. A checked Ego allows for Designers to ultimately understand that filling positions, gaining access to certain opportunities, depends on many factors, some more objective and easier to quantify than others (which includes skills, portfolio assessment, academic background, tasks performed, awards and recognition, among others). This process is at its core humane, and therefore there is a layer of subjectivity and interpersonal relationship that can’t be discarded and that plays a crucial role in filling an opportunity.

On the aspect of Ego and Collaboration. Design Thinking, Innovation, are terms that are part of the vernacular of any Designer. Both terms underline the fact that collaboration is basilar for successful projects and endeavors. I have witnessed, in the context of a startup, how an unchecked Ego, caused a professional to distance himself from his pears/teams, which ultimately impacted the quality of the work being handled and caused a rift between team members (which had to be handled collectively, openly and ultimately resulted in the diagnosis of a mismatch in terms of professional and position). In order for effective collaboration to occur, it’s important that every participant understands who they are, but just as equally, who their peers are. This is a process anchored on the convergence of experiences, research, insights of different natures, inputs from different sources. Designers with a healthy Ego understand what their role is (catalyst, filterer, communicator, educator, overall alchemist of these ingredients), but most importantly, know how to manage personalities, Egos, participation, in order to build solutions that are adequate to the problem at hand, and not a gratuitous demonstration of theirs (or someone else’s) ego.

Outcomes, Reality Check. I’ve read a variety of articles claiming Empathy to be a counterbalance for Ego. Personally, I believe much like what I described in the previous points, that self-awareness, humbleness, emotional maturity and insight play important roles on a Designers’ arsenal. Unchecked Egos invariably are a one-way street, which can only be occupied by a sole driver. Designers, Technologists, are now more than ever, immersed in cultures where collaboration is fundamental, and those are invariably multi-lane highways with a multitude of different drivers. Being able to be considerate, attentive, inquisitive, adaptive, focused, allow for the long journey to be a far more satisfying and pleasurable one.


I’ll conclude with the following quote, from Henri Bergson on the topic of maturity:

“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.”


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