The Value of Knowing What You Don’t Know

The best clients realize the designer — or plumber, mechanic, doctor, et al — can do something they, themselves, cannot. They respect others’ expertise.

I am looking for openly ignorant clients. Brilliantly deficient people who know what they do well, who can use what I do well.

It’s neither weakness or ignorance to admit deficiency. Actually, quite the opposite. Recognizing personal shortcomings, and understanding there are abilities others possess that you do not, is a vital skill for an effective leader. Relying on others’ expertise will make your collaboration better. The trust that comes from skilled associations builds a better team. Those effective teams can create a stronger foundation and deliver better results.

I was inspired to write this after seeing Louise Fili speak at the Typographics conference in New York early this month. For the uninitiated, Ms Fili is a living legend of Graphic Design. Her work in restaurant brand identity, menu design, and food packaging is peerless. She also has an eye for talent. Louise Fili has launched successful careers, including those of the brilliant Dana Tanamachi and Jessica Hische.

At the Typographics conference, Louise was part of an esteemed panel that included her husband — designer and author Steven Heller, and another married pair of living legends — Seymour Chwast and Paula Scher. The moderator of the panel was another well-known graphic design talent, Roger Black. Roger led the conference. The combined experience of these five individuals is more than two centuries — dwell on that.

Roger Black asked the panel, in light of their experience and history, “What’s changed?” Louise offered this, “My clients today believe that they can do what I do.”

This is a troubling phenomenon.

Take the Red Pill.

We have an almost limitless access to information. The danger of that unfettered access is that there are those who will conflate access, or familiarity, with expertise — or even skill.

I almost wrote talent in place of skill in that last sentence. “Talent” is a dangerous and dismissive word. Referring to expertise as talent, denigrates ability and accomplishment by writing off skill as some fluke of DNA. Talent is nothing without practice and proven performance. Talent may be the innate impetus to create, and practice can lead to expertise. The only way talent is recognized is through skill and accomplishment.

When I am working on a project that has many components — complex production coordination, live action photography, sound recording, animation, editing, music creation — XK9’s best results come from when I do none of those things. I supervise them. As a Creative Director, I oversee the work and hire collaborators who excel at those other things. My role is to design and guide the outcome — to use my expertise to provide the best communication I am able to deliver for my client.

Curiously, familiarity with process, can lead some to be less impressed by what a skilled professional can do. As Louise Fili said, some clients may even believe they can do what the skilled designer has trained years to do. I have been creating a group of illustrated portraits I call Comics of Comedy. I have recorded and shared videos of my process of making these drawings of comedians in Adobe Illustrator. A friend cautioned me, “Aren’t you worried about showing how you make these?” If it seems easy, that’s probably because I’ve practiced, and I’ve sped up the video 10,000%. The clients I want to work with understand it’s not Adobe Illustrator creating these drawings.

I recently created a short video for my client Mike Fyall, Marketing Lead at URX. Mike needed a video that would illustrate to app developers the capability of URX’s AppViews — technology that allows contextual links to other apps within mobile app experiences. The convoluted nature of that last sentence gives you some idea of the challenge I was faced with. User experiences needed to be presented and explained with text — so the benefit of AppViews was made clear. Later Mike shared that he and his colleagues at URX agreed that the video was their best explanation of their product. My humblebrag was, “Well, that’s what I do.”

Perpetual cost-cutting and the blurring of what qualifies as expertise has led more clients to do things internally they once hired experts for. “Taking it in-house” is akin to saying “passable is good enough.” If we wish to excel in our chosen fields, good enough should be unacceptable. Admit to yourself and your colleagues that your work deserves better. It should be great.

The value of knowing what you don’t know is that it may result in the right kind of humility. You can acknowledge and respect someone for skills they possess and you may rely on them and trust their expertise. Know what you don’t know about graphic design and video communication — and hire me. Or someone like me. But preferably me.

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