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The Things I Don’t Know Give Me Comfort

At a meeting the other day, a client painted a verbal Euler diagram of two sets: what he knows he doesn’t know, and what he doesn’t know he doesn’t know. He spoke of the former set as a more fathomable space, given its finite nature.

I, however, got to thinking how both of these sets, or rather, the existence of both these sets is a singular source of comfort for me. Also, I felt it only fair to temper the Codesign blog, bursting as it is with musings drawn from formidable experience, with a healthy dose of zero insight from a fresh graduate.

You see, for quite a while, design—especially graphic design—struck me as just a whole lot of common sense. ‘Design thinking’ (unrelated: if you know of a vaguer term than ‘design thinking’, DM me) seemed like the only coherent way to approach any problem, and nothing about it struck me as requiring ‘specialisation’. Why exactly have designers cornered this territory, claiming to know More, know Better?

I entered the discipline of graphic design with great skepticism and concern: it all seemed like one giant con. Confronted with the same challenges and constraints, I reasoned, wouldn’t anyone arrive at the same solutions? What, then, would make me a better candidate than the ‘lay’people to address real-world problems? (Here, of course, I’m imagining hordes of people just chomping at the bit to start setting type and calibrating colour. Who wouldn’t be?)

As is no surprise, my first true introduction to the nuts and bolts of the field set me straight. I found mentors and signposts that showed me that there is, indeed, an objective within the subjective; a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’. There are rules to know, and knowingly break. There are, in fact, libraries of literature and tremendous technique to dive into. Clients may not always know the know-how to expect from their strange, colourbook-toting hires, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there, waiting to be internalised.

It was this discovery of my blithe, blundering ignorance that finally put me at ease. I was at the bottom of a well-worn mountain, and in climbing it there was Expertise to be gained. The peak may soar ever-higher, but in the chase of it I might leave this dastardly imposter-syndrome behind.

So, it seems, there is in fact some validity in thinking of these mountain-climbers as Better. Better than the non-believers, languishing in the valleys of poor readability and unresolved logos and bumpy curves and context-less communication. Better in narrow and specialised ways, but still, better. The scope—and need—for expertise exists, and like any other kind of expertise, it can be learned.
And after all, to be able to point at something and, with certainty, say, “That—that is what I’m good at”… well, isn’t that what everyone wants?

Every day, there is more that I know I don’t know. And what I don’t know I don’t know is something I’d rather not think about on an empty stomach. But I find solace in these unknowings. Bring them on, I say. By and by, as I feel my way through the dark, I may become an expert on these esoteric matters, needed by some people, sometimes.

And for all its specificity, that’s still a difficult, rare thing to be.