Women in design share keys to creative confidence

We recently hosted our fourth Women in Design: Creative Confidence event, featuring top women design leaders: Kate Aronowitz from Wealthfront, Dana Cho from IDEO, Amanda Linden from Asana, and Kristen Spilman from Dropbox.

In an intimate and candid conversation, these women shared some of their tips to increasing creative confidence, as well as their personal challenges with taking risks, dealing with negative feedback, and managing stress. Below are a few of the stories and insights that emerged.

How to take more risks

Research suggests girls outperform boys in school in large part because they’re better at doing their homework and following instructions (1). This presents a unique challenge for women who graduate and begin working to design innovative products, which requires risk-taking and questioning constraints.

We asked the panelists to share stories of breaking rules and taking risks. Dana Cho from IDEO shared a time when her team co-opted a luxury suite and turned it into an art gallery during a meeting with a potential client. “We kept asking ourselves,” said Dana, “‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’” We might get fined, it might get awkward, and when we went through the list, we realized it wasn’t that bad.” Taking the risk initiated an interesting dialogue and her team ended up winning over the client.

One company hired Amanda Linden to redesign their product but didn’t want her to change the logo. She decided to direct a few explorations of the logo at the end after the redesign. At that moment, it became apparent to everyone that an updated logo made the most sense. Amanda shared this insight: “There’s a richer conversation that happens when you bring your idea and their idea and you look at them side-by-side.”

Sometimes, rules are self-imposed like when Kristen Spilman from Dropbox assumed their new playful human-like illustration style would definitely not touch the business product. After a lot of testing and listening, however, she realized that following this initial constraint would limit development. “It’s always OK to surface vulnerability and say, I was wrong. Let’s ditch [that rule], and see what happens.”

Other key insights:

  • Request to do an exploration when clients or team members push back on a direction.
  • Be transparent about the risk you are taking and the measures you will take to mitigate it.
  • Constraints are a starting point, but with any good reason, you can break away from them.

How to deal with negative feedback

As designers who pride ourselves on what we create, receiving negative feedback can be difficult. Being a female designer may add some extra challenges: women are more likely to receive negative performance evaluations (2); often for the same performance) and are also more sensitive to criticism (3).

Two of the speakers shared times when they received negative feedback. One was told she didn’t have enough vision and the other was called “polarizing.” In both cases, the feedback hit hard and the women did their best to understand where it was coming from. A main take-away: it’s possible to counter feedback with small steps over time, instead of expecting you or others’ perceptions to change overnight.

Other key insights:

  • Create space around negative feedback by staying curious and talking to a lot of different people about it.
  • Don’t assume negative feedback is bad, but an opportunity to grow and learn.

women in design: creative confidence event

How to manage stress

Our leadership potential relates to how resilient we are in preventing and treating stress. In the world of startups and innovation, stress is rampant. What’s more is that women are more likely to report feeling stressed than men are and use completely different coping strategies (2).

When asked about stress, Kristen mentioned the importance of learning to say no when you have a lot on your plate already. Though stress and deadlines motivate, it’s not a sustainable way to work in the long-term. For her at Dropbox, she’s been learning to empower and trust her design team to make decisions without her. She shared: “When you feel like it’s all about you, you can’t scale.”

Kate Aronowitz from Wealthfront, on the other hand, encouraged emerging designers to say yes to opportunities, even if they feel like they can’t do them. Amanda helped reconcile these seemingly contrasting views: Are you saying no because you realistically don’t have the time, energy, and resources? Or is it because you’re afraid and don’t think you can do it? If it’s the latter, then it’s better to go for it.

Another antidote to feeling pressure is to remind yourself that you are part of a team. Dana shared, “I’m most stressed when I think it’s all about me and feel an individual pressure to perform.” For a high-stakes project, she had to present to the CEO and the board. She looked around the room and realized the board was on her side and rooting for her success. She also saw how proud her team members were of the work they had all done together. She realized it wasn’t about her, but a greater vision they were all aligned with.

Other key insights:

  • Manage your energy levels throughout the day (e.g., meditate, eat well, exercise).
  • Locate your stress-venting buddies and confidants in the workplace.

We appreciated the vulnerability of our panelists, who were willing to be genuine examples of creative confidence for designers in the audience. After all, Kate confessed she’s still working with her fear of giving very formal slide presentations. Kristen also shared that she’s still learning how to deal with stress. “Don’t be afraid,” she concluded for us, “We’re all just figuring this out together.”


  1. Why Girls Tend to Get Better Grades Than Boys Do. The Atlantic. September 18, 2014.
  2. The abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women are described differently in reviews. Fortune. August 26, 2014.
  3. Learning to Love Criticism. The New York Times. September 27, 2014.
  4. Stress and Gender. American Psychological Association. 2010.

If you’re interested in more insights about the latest design tools and methods, check out Bridge and keep in touch before applications open September 15th.

Photos by Cory Maryott.