Many times we are in situations in which we aren’t familiar with what the other person is talking about, we don’t know the book someone is describing, or we simply don’t know the answer to a question, but instead of saying so, we just say nothing, smile and nod as if we knew or respond with another question to hide our ignorance. Why is that we try so hard to mask our lack of information, particularly during work situations? Recently, I read the book ‘I don’t know’ written by Cohen (2013) in which she explains that situations like this are very common, because, socially, we judge those who don’t know the answer, and we worship those who do know it. And we are exposed to this social dynamic since a very early age.
An essential part of information designers’ job is making sense of messy situations by constructing an understanding of those situations. For that, they read, conduct research studies, and gather information from clients or other parties involved in those situations. In order to gain the necessary understanding, these activities involve the asking of key, complex, and even dumb questions, and to openly flag when something is unknown or needs further clarification. However, the simple act of saying: ‘I don’t know what X means. Can you please explain further?‘ is not always easy.
Clients are not necessarily fully familiar with how information designers work, and they expect to have hired ‘someone who knows what they are doing’ (McGuinness, 2013). The words ‘I don’t know’ are often understood as a sign of ignorance, and this word seems to have a negative connotation or being used as an insult when what it really means is the lack of information or ‘the state of being uninformed‘. Consequently, it is not uncommon that even the more experienced information designers seem reluctant to ask questions, partly because this is unexpected.
This situation can be represented with the following equations of knowledge, where having more experience in something would equal having more knowledge about that something, and consequently being less ignorant:
Notwithstanding, these equations do not represent most real life experiences. Having been working on something for 35 years (just to say a number) and being regarded as the gurus of a field does not necessarily equal being fully informed about related or unrelated topics to that field of expertise, or having always the right answer in the right moment.
Imperfect knowledge and creative ignorance
In some cases, to avoid appearing uninformed, we avoid unfamiliar situations or deny not knowing a fact by responding with a defensive attitude or with a question. ‘We are reluctant to reveal ignorance’ explains Cohen, even when we know that the lack of a key piece of information during an interview or lack of familiarity with a particular topic during a meeting can affect the way we make decisions and make us feel anxious. To some extent, this is because when we admit that we don’t know something, we loose power or we think we will be seen as less powerful.
This type of ignorance (‘imperfect knowledge’) is different from ‘creative ignorance‘ which is more related to not knowing what to do and lack of inspiration. Creative ignorance, although not openly discussed with a client, is often welcome among creative professionals and artists, and is seen as a component of the design and problem-solving processes; on the other hand, imperfect knowledge is seen as lack of expertise in doing a job or being qualify for doing a job. While this scenario can be sometimes true, not knowing something does not necessarily make us less experienced or capable of doing our job. Experience provides the skills to identify ‘all sort of concrete clues, processing them subconsciously and at great speed, and then acting on them—without ever articulating or even being aware of [the] thought process.’ For information designers, experience provides the rationale, the principles, and skills to identify patterns, connections, and eventually make sense of situations. In some cases, more experienced designers often rely on their ‘intuitions’ (as a substitute for knowledge) because intuition is actually ‘a pattern-making process, a means by which we use previous experiences to categorise and interpret unfolding events.’ In other words, prior acquired knowledge is used to solve current situations but it is used at a subconscious level. However, this does not mean that being highly experienced should imply being familiar with all situations that may arise, or knowing all concepts clients are describing. Rather, it should involve to openly and confidently saying ‘I don’t know’ because our knowledge will always be imperfect. Asking questions is an essential skill to gain an understanding and get successful results.
For different parts of the process, imperfect knowledge and creative ignorance are necessary to become a good information designer. Ways to deal with both types of ignorance are similar: starting each project with fresh eyes, setting aside assumptions and being curious. Saying ‘I don’t know’ and admitting ignorance is a skill that all information designers should practice from early in their careers, as it is the path to learning and understanding. Asking questions should be:
a) honest and b) in the spirit of opening ourselves up to hearing, to learning, to receiving. When we say ‘I don’t know’ under these conditions, the words can forge connection, healing, growth (Cohen, 2013:70)
‘Real wisdom begins with training an honest eye on one’s limitations: on we don’t know‘ (Cohen, 2013)
– Cohen, L.H. (2013) I don’t know. New York: Riverhead Books
– McGuinness, M. (2013) The Joy of Creative Ignorance: Embracing Uncertainty In Your Day-to-Day