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Imposter Syndrome with Jennifer Daniel

Posted by

Perrin Drumm

Published on

July 8th 2019

This week on Imposter Syndrome we talk to Jennifer Daniel, creative director for Google's emoji program. Previously, she was a graphics editor at the New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek. Jennifer lives in Berkeley, California.

You went to Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Did you always know you wanted to go to art school?

It was my mom’s idea, actually. I thought I was going to go to a big university and become a lawyer. I think she always wanted to go to art school, but she got her degree in zoology. So she was deeply involved in that path for me. Both my parents are incredibly supportive, probably to a fault. And I don't know why, because growing up I did nothing to indicate that I wanted it or deserve it or could live up to those expectations. When my dad dropped me off at debate competitions in high school, he’d say things like, “Tear their heads off and spit down their throats!” They pumped me up. Which has given me this inflated sense of ego.

“It was my mom’s idea, actually”

You enrolled in MICO the same year Ellen Lupton and Abbot Miller joined the faculty.

Wow, that was a long time ago. That was 2000! I studied under Abbot and Ellen, who was patient with me all those years. Our syllabus was basically her next graphic design book.

Was it as amazing as it sounds?

And it was like four years of summer camp.

How did you land on graphic design as a major?

I was outside my dorm doing a freshman year assignment where we had to draw a self-portrait. For whatever reason I decided I would draw myself as a Unabomber on a postage stamp—

Wait, what?!

Yeah, and this other student came by and saw what I was drawing and had the same reaction. The point is we became friends after that, and he was the first person I met who said they wanted to be a designer. He also had a computer, and he showed me how it was a thing that you could use to make art, not just a thing you checked your email on.

That’s when it clicked, with the computer?

That’s what did it for me. You know, when you’re a kid you read books that show different occupations, like being a farmer or a teacher or a police officer. That's what I thought my options were. Honestly, I didn't understand that there were all these other nuances of expertise that you could study. So while I had seen graphic design before, I’d never heard it called graphic design.

At MICA, I fell into it because it turned out I was really bad at drawing and there was this program called graphic design that allowed in people who are not good at drawing. And I discovered this whole new medium I didn’t know existed.

After MICA, you spent 10 years working at the New York Times. How’d you swing that?

I was an opportunist. I didn't have a clear vision of what I was going to do, but I knew who I wanted to be around and where I wanted to go, and that was New York. I'm from Kansas, but New York had always been this presence in my life. So in my sophomore year, Nicholas Blechman [the current creative director of The New Yorker, and previously an art director at the New York Times] was a guest lecturer, and in one class he spoke about the history of political art and illustration and I was like, Ohhhhhhh, you can do graphic design and illustration and it's about the news.

It was a revelation.

Is that not a common experience in college? To continually have your world expanded?

It certainly was for me. Isn’t that the point?

Yeah, I knew there was something relevant in the world that I wanted to be part of and contribute to, and when I met Nicholas I thought, okay, I read the newspaper. I have opinions. What if I could combine them? So at our midterm review, he looked at my portfolio and took out a poster and asked if he could have it. And I said, you can have it if you give me an internship.

Did it work?

Yes! That summer I went to New York and lived in my grandmother’s attic in Flushing and commuted into his office in Chinatown every day.

“So at our midterm review, he looked at my portfolio and took out a poster and asked if he could have it. And I said, you can have it if you give me an internship.”

That’s commitment. How did it go that summer?

I remember being so nervous at first. Nicholas asked me to answer the phones, but I was so nervous on the phone that I couldn't say anyone’s name.

You were so nervous that you forgot the names of the people you worked for?

No, I would combine their names. So instead of saying Christoph Niemann or Nicholas Blechman, I’d say Nicholas Christoph, or something like that. And it got so bad at one point that Nicholas told me I didn’t have to answer the phone anymore.

Were you intimidated by the people, or because it was your first graphic design job?

It was everything. They were all so generous and lovely and such great human beings, and I didn't want to disappoint them. I didn't want to make any mistakes.

When did it get better?

I was there for three months, and for the first two I never asked for the bathroom key because I didn't know where it was. I just pretended like I didn't have to pee.

What? When did you pee?

I just waited until someone else had to pee and then I snuck into the bathroom after them. I wanted to give them the impression that I was exactly what they needed, and that's crazy! It’s not healthy. When I finally did ask for the key, Nicholas was like, what have you been doing this whole time?

I guess it worked out in the end, because you interned there every summer throughout college. Was it a seamless transition to the New York Times?

After graduation I moved back to Kansas with my boyfriend. Then one day Nicholas called me and said he was going back to the Times and he needed an assistant and was I available? I said, when do you need me? He said could I start that Thursday? So I hung up the phone, broke up with my boyfriend, and I booked a ticket to New York.

And you stayed for a decade. When you arrived though, a fresh young grad from Kansas, did you feel like you still had some proving to do?

At that point I had grown so much. I remember writing in my LiveJournal about how I owned the place and I was drinking a cup of coffee and eating a bagel with my feet kicked up on the desk before anyone else was in the office. It just felt like I really belonged there.

And yet just a few years beforehand you were too afraid to ask for the bathroom key.

Because the Times was so big—it felt like I could be invisible. Whereas the studio was only four people and I felt hyper-aware of my presence. And the job and Nicholas… everything was just awesome.

Did that sense of self-confidence grow steadily from there, from job to job?

I would not describe myself as confident. Others have described me that way, but I always try to figure out what it is about that gap…

…between your perception of yourself and others’ perception of yourself?

Yeah, yeah. I wish confidence was this line that just continued upwards, but it's much wigglier than that. It goes forwards and backwards and up and down all the time. I'm always deeply aware of the audience I'm speaking to, and second-guessing whether I should have said something or not. I constantly feel like I'm overanalyzing what I'm doing. I don't know if it's because it brings me comfort—because I'm going through these steps and figuring out where it could have gone wrong, and where it went right, and what I did, and what I could have done.

But one thing I don’t do is compare myself to other people. I don't know why, and I don't know where it comes from. My husband and my best friend are in the same field as I am and are both far more talented than me, and I don't feel any intimidation. I feel a healthy competition, but I don't feel competitive. I've never felt like I need to beat anyone. I really believe that’s because everyone's been so generous with me and my weirdness. I hope I can return that feeling to other people.

What would you say to people who don’t have that innate sense of self-assurance? If you’re not born with it, how can you find it?

The first thing to do is to have your people. I don't know if this was unique to the era I came up in, but there weren’t many women for me to look up to. It turns out there were, but I just wasn't aware of them. But now, I have a group of people who I admire and who I go to. When we accomplish a goal or when we’re suffering, we lift each other up. And it isn't just blowing smoke up each other's ass. We are there for each other.

And those people—however many it might be, it could be one person, honestly—but those people won't give confidence to you. You really do have to figure it out for yourself. But they will remind you and be there while you build up that confidence for yourself. It’s an ongoing struggle. No one ever finds it. There’s no ah-ha, self-actualization! Even after this interview I’m going to have a glass of wine and over-analyze what I said.

If you enjoyed this check out Skill-up + Grow with SuperHi. Next in Imposter Syndrome is our interview with Eric Hu, global design director at Nike.