Image by Mitch Goldstein and Anne Jordan from walking.designcrit.com

Delightful Confusion

Most designers I know are intelligent, well educated, and have amassed extensive knowledge about design, art, music, and many other topics. The majority of designers spend 13 years in standard K-12 education (in the USA), and then go on to get their undergraduate degrees in design, art or disciplines in between. Not a few of them go on to receive graduate degrees in art and design, and a couple even continue to a PhD. In 20+ years of education, designers are exposed to a tremendous amount of stuff — from simple things like counting and spelling, to complex ideas of semiotic theory, philosophy and visual language.

With all this knowledge and information we acquire, one of the most useful things to learn is learning what you don’t know. Learning to be confused. Learning that you do not know more than you do. Not only is this useful, it can be — and should be — a pleasure not to know. We should enjoy and revel in our ignorance. Confusion can be delightful, because it opens us up to making wrong decisions, and that allows for more opportunities to make interesting mistakes. Often the worst thing a designer can do is start at the end: This must be a book. This must look like Armin Hofmann. This must be “punchy” or “pop.” This must be X. This must be Y.

We need to start at the start. The design process begs for tangents, wrong directions, incorrect assessments, and silly diversions. Inside of the intangible complexities of the design process is where magical things can happen. Just before something falls off the cliff into the pit of irrelevance, it has a moment of potential greatness. There is a threshold of delightful confusion, where to one side lies greatness, and to the other side lies nothingness. The best way to approach this moment is to be confused — to allow the process to provide discovery, to take tangents and distractions forward and see what happens. “I thought it might be cool” is a perfectly good reason to try something silly. Another good way to think about it is “why not?”

This then correctly begs the question: “What about deliverables”? “What about what my clients want?” This is the question that contextualizes the design process — this is what gives us a foil to work against in order to serve the needs of the design, the needs of ourselves as makers, and the needs of the client. It is relatively easy (and I believe also extremely valuable) to simply make for the sake of making. However, when we can take these ideas of confusion and use them in to make purposeful outcomes that the design process comes full circle. Ideally we should be able to approach this threshold of delightful confusion in our design process, while applying it what we are making to create things that we want as creators, and our clients want as outcomes. In my own research, how we get to this middle place between purposeful artifact and internalized discovery is an interesting question I am always trying to answer.