We Need to Talk About Mental Health for Designers

Mental health for designers

Mental health is not a laughing matter. According to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 4 individuals around the world suffer from a mental disorder, and two-thirds of those suffering from a known mental disorder never seek help.

I want to talk about mental health for designers today.

  • Do designers tend to suffer from mental disorders?
  • If they do, is that always bad thing?
  • If there are downsides, can we overcome them?
  • Is anxiety/imposter syndrome a disorder?
  • Does our obsession with design trends make us anxious?

Let’s take a look.

High IQ vs. mental health

Is there a connection?

People with high intelligence are naturally curious about things. They’re brilliant problem solvers, and they’re also very creative too. Do highly-intelligent individuals make terrific graphic designers or UX designers? Possibly.

As shown on numerous high-IQ vs. profession lists (amongst scientists, lawyers, doctors, teachers, PhD holders, etc), designers are also known to have high-IQ scores, however where exactly they stand in this list is quite debatable. Every study is different, which is why I’m not inclined to link to any particular study. In fact, much of the research on mental health and IQ is heavily debated.

  • Does high-IQ = success?
  • Does high-IQ = happiness?
  • Are smarter individuals more susceptible to mental disorders?
  • If so, can those mental disorders affect success?

While there's no solid evidence that links high-IQ to mental health and designers to high-IQ, there is a connection, and in time we'll learn more about it.

Picking apart the studies

In a study that researched those with IQ levels above 130 (regarded as “superior intelligence”), they said that 65% of subjects had a major depressive disorder.

A study in Sweden showed that individuals with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia (two examples of major depressive disorders) were more likely to enjoy creative work that required high levels of artistic talent and cognitive function.

Dots have been connected, but the picture is not yet complete.

Even if there is no scientific connection between designers and mental disorders, mental health still affects 1 in 4 individuals, which includes:

  • Mental disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Imposter syndrome

What’s the difference?

Also, why you shouldn’t care.

I’m not an expert, so I won’t dive into too much detail here.

Anxiety disorders are a type of mental disorder. Depression (a very common mental disorder) and anxiety are not the same thing, however those with depression may experience anxiety-related symptoms (such as nervousness, trouble sleeping, constant worrying about silly things, and low self-esteem).

Imposter syndrome is a concept. It’s not a “real” disorder (whatever that even means anyway), but it is real. Sufferers of imposter syndrome may experience the same symptoms as those suffering from an anxiety disorder, however they're as a result of being unable to truly believe that their accomplishments are worthy of accolade, and a constant fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

But here’s why you shouldn’t care what you have:

I haven’t used the phrase “poor mental health” at any stage in this article. I mean, who is to say that mental disorders = poor mental health? Sure, they can make you disorderly at times, but as the research suggests, mental disorders also go hand-in-hand with creativity, intelligence and higher cognitive function.

Alcohol can make you disorderly too — it changes your personality a little, sometimes for the worse, but also sometimes for the better.

A mental disorder isn’t what you have, it’s who you are.

Just like alcohol, mental disorders can make you tearful, creative, angry, motivated, or even all four of those in a single moment! Weather and diet can affect your personality too, and we all respond in different ways.

What mental disorder you have (if any) doesn’t matter, the name you give it doesn’t matter, but what you do with it does matter. Let’s take a look at some of those downsides and how designers can combat these changes in personality.

Personality traits vs. mental triggers

People who suffer from anxiety tend to overthink things, worry, and may lack self-worth. While they might also be extremely intelligent, they don’t internalise it, and one of the things that fuels this behaviour is the industry’s need to constantly define “design trends”. Here are some of the things you might hear:

“You shouldn’t be using skeuomorphism in design, flat design is trendy now.”

“Stop using Arial, you should use something like Lato, Roboto or Open Sans.”

Just because something is trendy, that doesn’t mean it’ll automatically make your design fantastic, and offering advice about design trends to other designers without explaining the why’s, where’s and how’s makes less-confident designers think that they have to be trendy to stay relevant, and failure to do so makes them bad designer who doesn’t know how to “stay ahead of the curve”.

Design trends come and go too quickly. If you waste your time trying to stay relevant, all you’ll end up with is wasted time.

Solution: find the right support

Immerse yourself in helpful, engaging and inspiring design communities. Dribbble is one example of an unhelpful community (generally speaking, of course) because the overall audience is catered to towards designing for likes, not users.

Instead, reach out to designers that you personally admire. Make friends with designers who give you honest and useful advice to help you improve, and reassure you that following the latest design trends doesn’t necessarily make you a brilliant designer. Great designers don’t follow others blindly.

It’s certainly not an overnight solution, and in more serious cases of anxiety, there might not ever be a permanent solution. We’re all different, and we all require different levels of support, some of us on bad days, and some of us most days.

With a genuine, helpful community you’ll have that support, and not only will you improve as a designer, but you’ll believe it when somebody tells you that you’re improving. When you’re not feeling anxious, trust me, you’ll care less about being the cool kid, and more about the users you’re designing for.

A supportive team and a productive feedback workflow like Sympli also helps to!

Conclusion

Even if you’re not the type to feel anxious or unconfident, you’ve probably come across somebody that does. If 1 in 4 individuals suffer from a mental disorder or temporary anxiety on a semi-regular basis, you probably came across somebody in need of some reassurance today. If designers have high-IQ levels, and high-IQ relates to an increased likelihood of issues with mental health, that number could be even higher. Be nice, be helpful, be supportive. Don’t be an ass in comments.

If you do suffer from a mental disorder of some kind, even if it’s only temporary, remember that you’re not alone. We all have doubts about our abilities sometimes, but with the right environment, we can benefit from the right support.

A mental disorder is not what you have, it’s who you are.

Note: I’m not an expert on mental health. There’s probably a lot more to be said on the topic, and by those with much more knowledge than I, but hopefully there’s enough here to provoke some discussion, raise some awareness, and offer some support to those who need it — on behalf of the Sympli team, thanks for reading.