Ignorance is Bliss for a Creative Mind

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Ignorance is Bliss for a Creative Mind

The saying “Ignorance is bliss” originates in Thomas Gray’s poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” (1742).
The quote goes:

“Where ignorance is bliss,
’tis folly to be wise.”

Face it: you were better off not knowing that, weren’t you?

Generally speaking, ignorance is a detestable state of mind. The more knowledge you have, the better equipped you are to deal with life. But ignorance itself doesn’t equal stupidity. For instance, I view myself as someone who is smart enough to realize his huge capacity for stupidity. I know there are massive gaps in my cultural and general knowledge. I would define my intellectual state as, at times, unaware. But who am I kidding? In some areas of life, I’m just plain ignorant, even if not by choice.

Many people would view this as a flaw or a hindrance, but it’s simply human nature. There isn’t a person on this planet who knows everything, despite the plenty I’ve met who think they do!

The fact that I’m aware enough to recognize my own ignorance gives me an immediate advantage, especially in design or any creative pursuit.

A lack of knowledge in any field can be a fantastic catalyst for learning. If I have the opportunity to work on a project that involves a subject I know nothing about, I jump at it! It’s a perfect chance to fill in a few of my mental chasms.

Still, while I may benefit from this opportunity, is it fair for the client?

I would argue that they benefit more than I do. How many clients have you had who have asked for a “fresh” approach to their industry or business?

A person who knows nothing about a subject is far more likely to approach it from a new angle than someone who is hindered by the “received wisdom.”

Obviously, this can be risky in some projects, and the level of success will vary from person to person. To be an effective “clueless” designer, you need the self-confidence to learn quickly and proficiently enough to accomplish the given task. You need an almost insatiable thirst to learn and improve. Most importantly, you need to feel comfortable looking stupid.

Here are a few tips for embracing and using ignorance to your advantage.

Never Be Afraid to Show Your Ignorance

A lot of people fear looking stupid. People don’t like to look weak or ignorant, especially in the workplace. This might have to do with the atmosphere of competition at most offices and studios. Freelancers perhaps have a bit more freedom, but appearing less than brilliant in front of a client is never a good thing.

Ken Reynolds Comic

Let me give you a small example of ignorance in the workplace. You are asked by your boss to make copies of a document and get them back to him in half an hour. This isn’t strictly your job, and on the few occasions that you were shown how to use the photocopier, you were so distracted by the odd scuff marks on the paper tray that you didn’t really take in the instructions. What do you do?

  • Option 1

    Wing it. Tell your boss it’s no problem. Try your best to complete the task. You’ll probably end up screaming at the photocopier and giving it a good kick (which explains how those scuff marks got there). Ultimately, you fail to complete the simple task because you were to proud to admit your ignorance.

  • Option 2

    Tell your boss that it’s no problem. Then spend the next half hour going from person to person in the office asking for help. You might get the job done, but you’ve displayed your ignorance to everyone in the office.

  • Option 3

    Come straight out and admit to your boss that you don’t know how to use the photocopier. Then ask if someone could show you how to do it. You might look stupid for five minutes, but you would make a worse impression by not completing the simple task in a timely manner.

Options 2 and 3 are fine in my eyes, but I’d always go for the full-out admission of ignorance. I don’t see any reason to be embarrassed for not knowing something, as long as you are willing to learn and improve.

Ask Questions (Endlessly!)

This one goes hand in hand with the last example, because asking a question is in itself an admission of not knowing something.

Questions come in all shapes and sizes: silly, obvious, insightful and, my personal favorite, awkward.

Asking a question that seems silly or obvious is better than leaving it unasked. Otherwise, you might be starting a job based on your own unfounded assumptions about the client and their business, possibly resulting in a lot of wasted time and a big slice of embarrassment.

When you’re working with clients, questions are good. It shows you have a healthy interest in the subject. You display a desire to learn and to discover things for the client’s benefit. Questions are the easiest way to gain insight into how a person thinks. The tricky part is figuring out the right questions to ask.

With plenty of practice, a good deal of experience and a total lack of self-consciousness, you will get the most out of the questions you ask.

Self-Initiated Learning

Recognizing the things you are ignorant about does no good if you are unwilling to improve yourself. Ignorance is only useful when used as a motivation for self-improvement. It should be used as a tool.

To a certain extent, we begin every new project with a certain amount of ignorance, even if the subject matter is a passion of ours. Every job and every client is different from the last, so a certain amount of learning is always needed. But this process can work on a grander scale.

Think of something you have no deep knowledge of. For me, it’s sailing. If I were asked to design a logo for a company that makes sails, I would be quite stumped on where to start. This is the fight or flight moment of the design process. You can either dig in and find a solution or give up, citing lack of market knowledge. The latter is not a good enough excuse. For starters, your client has enough knowledge of the market for both of you. It’s up to you to get it out of them.

Learn by Reading Books

Then it’s time to cast a wider net. After recognizing your ignorance, it’s time to do something about it. This means tackling the dirty part of design, which people tend to ignore, even though it would be impossible to create without it: research.

Immerse yourself in the project and everything it touches on. Look at the company’s competitors and its previous images and logos. Spend days in the client’s offices and shops. It’s up to your creative mind to see something in there that no one else sees, and then figure out the best way to communicate that. If you go in with a blank slate, with no pre-conceptions or typical assumptions, you will be shocked by how much easier it is to soak up information.

Be Honest About What You Don’t Know (Yet)

One of the principles on which I try to run my business is honesty, especially concerning the things I can’t do or don’t know about. Hopefully, this won’t seem odd to most of you. If I decide to outsource a task, I will always tell the client. I will make the case that I don’t have the expertise to do the task, so I’ve passed it on to someone who I’ve worked with before, someone I trust. I always give the client the option to contact them directly, but more often than not, they would rather pay me to be the middleman.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t burst into client meetings and confess all of my shortcomings. But if asked about something that I don’t know about, I’ll be up front and honest about it. Displaying my ignorance in this way helps me build trust and, hopefully, lasting relationships.

I treasure the things I don’t know yet, because each is a learning experience. If you ever think you’ve learned everything, then you’ve just stopped trying. And if a creative type has stopped trying to learn, then their work will become stale and repetitive.

Ignorance needs to be embraced. Whenever you discover a gap in your knowledge, view it as an opportunity to learn something new, and sell it as a genuine chance to create something surprising and unique for the client.

I’d like to hear your opinions on the subject. Are you scared of being exposed as ignorant? Do you put enough effort into research? Are you honest with clients about your shortcomings? Are you stuck in a rut because you’ve settled for what you know and haven’t faced up to what you don’t?

(al)

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Ken Reynolds is a graphic designer and illustrator living and working in Suffolk, UK. He runs his own design blog, arrogantly named after himself, where he writes articles on design, blogging and freelancing. You can stalk him via twitter.

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  1. 1

    Very good and beautifully styled article!

    When clients ask for something I’m not experienced with (yet), most of the time I’ll admit my ignorance. Sometimes however I’ll take a little risk and spend some extra (often unpayed) hours to learn something new and interesting. This way I’ve quickly acquired very useful knowledge that otherwise, without the necessary deadlines, would have taken much longer to learn.

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  2. 3

    I’ve always said that the three most powerful words in the English language are

    “I don’t know”

    but they better be followed immediately by

    “but I will find out”

    I always look for this type of honesty when hiring. It can make for a very valuable employee.

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    • 4

      I agree. It’s good to admit shortcomings, otherwise expectations might become high and you WILL lose face if they find out you actually dont know anything about it… but if you’re willing to learn you express some reassurance and initiative and all the good stuff that makes clients giggle :)

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  3. 6

    Hi, it’s intresting topic. But for myself I really like to solve problems myself rather than ask someone for help. I think when I get problem solved by myself it’s solution stays in mind longer. It can get more time to accomplish but like I said it stay it mind. On other hand sometimes asking is better way, like in the example when we have a limited time in office. The next thing is when someone trying solve problem for himself there can appear some other little problems to solve, then our knowledge is much wider.

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  4. 7

    Nice article Ken. It was wonderful reading it here.
    This reminds me of a quote by Lao Tsu – “The more you know, the less you understand”

    But more often, we designer’s fail to understand that fact that you have discussed above. Maybe we are scared to be ignorant. However I believe – doing something which you are not so sure about, will welcome more problems for you than accepting the fact that you are ignorant.

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  5. 8

    Hello,

    Nice article. I admit when I don’t know how to solve the problem client asked me to to. It’s better this way some times because you don’t keep the stress of the deadline, but sometimes it`s good for learning new stuff. All we can do is ASK and learn the answers!

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  6. 9

    You’re taking the words out of my mouth.. I DO admit my ignorance by asking a lot. Normally.

    In the past view years, I managed to gain a widespread basic knowledge about so many things, just by listening to other people and nod every now and than, acting as if I’d have even the tiniest clue what they are talking about.

    In the last 2 years tough, I realized, I could know so much more, if I would have admit my ignorance and ask the person speaking. You would be surprised how much people love to talk about subjects they love. And how little they know about things, they don’t love, but talk about.

    I finished my studies and started working half a year ago. Sadly in my company I had to learn the hard way, that they don’t appreciate that “thirst for knowledge”. They expect their workers to be “quenched”. In every subject concerning IT, Design, Web, Hard- and Software in total, productivity systems and much more.

    Unfortunately at work I have to act again as if I know everything and learn these things more slowly therefor. Otherwise I’d loose my job. And no, I’m serious about the last sentence. -.-

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  7. 10

    Good read – love the cartoon – makes me think of a few of my fave sayings…
    “I don’t know but I will find out”
    and
    Ask a question and sound like a fool for a minute or don’t ask and stay one forever!
    And
    How to stay in control of every conversation – ask the questions.
    And
    Everyone loves knowing the correct answer (it starts in the classroom) so be sure to ask what you know they already know first. They are secretly poking the air thinking pick me pick me!

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  8. 11

    I agree with alot in the article. Asking questions is good, even the stupid ones. Best to get things clear and get the work done properly instead of being ashamed and doing a bad job (and getting more ashamed of that huh!)

    It’s tough though, it’s not easy !

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    • 12

      By the way, in addition. Is it not true that in our business (if you work with clients) you will HAVE to ask questions. Even the ones who are in the clients eyes incredible ridicilious stupid. Because you have to understand what they want, which direction to take, what their business is about which ideas they have, etcetera?

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  9. 13

    Great article! I feel that honesty, in all areas of personal life and business, is always best. I believe that it’s my ignorance that’s allowed me to constantly excel. Besides, I love the feeling of completing a task/project that, prior to working on it, I did posses the knowledge to complete…

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  10. 14

    Great read, I can really relate. I work for a company as a web developer, but all the above still applies. Sometimes I’ll be asked to do something that I really don’t even know where to start; but my boss generally gives me these kind of projects as a challenge or test. More often then not I’ll need to go and get clarification and where to start. But admitting your ignorance is far better than wasting company time going down the wrong track.

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  11. 15

    Thanks for the article. I highly value ignorance in certain design contexts. It means I’m not ‘infected’ with the current ways of doing things.

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  12. 16

    exquisite refresher for somebody who’s starting to grow cynical in the corporate design world.

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  13. 17

    Very good article… as the saying goes: “the more I know, the more I know that I don’t know”. We don’t know everything. Ignorance is not a sin, but persisiting in ignorance … is a proof of stupidity…

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  14. 19

    Nassimbwa Catherine

    December 6, 2011 10:04 am

    Very informative piece: i like the part when u say Ignorance should be used to motivate one….its a tool…to learn more.

    just great

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  15. 20

    Awesome article!!!

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  16. 21

    Great article. I couldn’t agree more. Not perfect is good. I never front and act like I know everything nor do I brag about the talents that I do possess. I believe it’s always best to be humble and acknowledge your shortcomings. As long as you are willing to advance and seek new information that is what’s most important. Creativity takes courage.

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