Ignorance Is Bliss For A Creative Mind

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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 … More about Ken ↬

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Many people would view ignorance as a flaw. In this post, Ken Reynolds says that ignorance needs to be embraced: Whenever you discover a gap in your knowledge, view it as an opportunity to learn something new and create something surprising and unique for the client.

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.

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.

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?

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (al, mrn)