You Suck at Design (Here’s Why)

It is sometimes amazing to me how self-critical I am in my work. At times it’s almost paralyzing to the point of stopping me from moving on. This design filter is sometimes at a level that I might not ever be able to get any work past it. The good thing is that it always pushes me to do better and learn more. Looking at your own skills is a tough thing though. I always thought it was just the way I judge myself, and how I doubt what I can do. That is, until I discovered the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

“In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” –Bertrand Russel

Dunning-Kruger Effect

In 1995 a man robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. He walked in wearing no disguise and was captured on the video surveillance cameras. The footage was broadcast on the news that night and he was captured less than an hour later. When the police showed the robber the footage he couldn’t believe it. He muttered something about, “But I wore the juice.” He was apparently under the impression that by rubbing your face with lemon juice it would make it invisible to video cameras.

This story shows how much our knowledge and understanding of even the most basic things in life affects our reasoning and abilities to perform. The Dunning-Kruger effect relates to how we assess ourselves on metacognitive level. It states that those who are not knowledgeable, or incompetent at something like design, are unable to evaluate their work. Makes sense right? If you don’t understand say, the rules of grammar, then how can you accurately assess how good you are? The most interesting part is how the incompetent folks tend to way overestimate their skills and abilities.

As you grow at that skill, you begin to better evaluate your skills. Again, pretty logical reasoning here. If you know more about something, you know more about what you are doing wrong and how to improve it. Now it gets interesting again on the skilled side of things. Those who are highly skilled, or even experts at something tend to under-evaluate their efforts and skills. So, as a designer you might know what the hell you are actually doing and still think that you are just average or a little below that. You fall prey to a false-consensus effect. Basically assuming that since you performed well, your peers all must have too.

Understanding this is fascinating on a few levels. I think the part that is unrelated to design is that I finally understand the people on American Idol. We’ve all seen the videos of the guy singing so terrible that you laugh, and feel embarrassed for them. Then after he finishes the judges basically say something clever and that he needs to pick a different career. There are certain times when they are just getting some attention, and others where they really believe that they are amazing singers. This helps explain how that sort of thinking happens in how those singers evaluate their own talent and skill.

So, back to design. I think there are two observations that I have based on this effect. Competition in the design industry and a lack of feedback.

Competing With the World

It’s more challenging to be a designer today than any other time. Never before have we been able to look so closely, so instantly at each others work and skills. It used to be you compared yourself to the guy in the cubicle next to you. Sometimes you’d have a local award competition for agencies and see the work of colleagues there… once a year. Today with communities like Dribbble we are comparing, dare I say competing, with everyone in the world.

I think that it is easy to get caught up in this competition. It causes a second or third thought before you put something out there. I ask myself is it good enough? And the answer is that I’ve seen a lot better. So this might be the Dunning-Kruger effect at work. I think more important is that we need to focus on the success this brings our clients and the pride we get from doing a job well done.

With other designers we can discuss the emotion and feeling of a design, cry together at the reveal of the iPad, and gush over a beautiful icon. In front of the client we need to be able to stand up and tell them why our design solution will meet their needs and goals. Some things are going to be less than exciting projects. Put aside the competition and fear of failure. Face the feedback.

We Suck… at Feedback

I’m not the first to bring this up, and won’t be the last. The design community is very good at patting each other on the back and offering encouragement. You could say that is a sign of a fantastic community, which I think 80-percent of me feels this way. On the other side of that is the lack of negative feedback. This doesn’t help anyone. It really propels incompetence since the unskilled will never know that they suck. Also, considering the D-K effect, they will go around thinking they are better than what they are.

I’m just as guilty as anyone else with this. It is hard to give critical feedback. You’re always afraid that person will get angry or take it the wrong way. In the same breath it’s hard to hear someone say you are doing something wrong. We tend to attach ourselves to our work, and something seen as an attack on our work is an attack on us. I think we need to get over this. No one gets better by just pretending that everything is great. And if you get negative feedback, take it as an opportunity.

I consider the negative feedback more important than any “great job.” It’s nice to receive recognition, but if there’s too much I begin to wonder what I am missing. Of course that could be the Dunning-Kruger effect at work.

What Matters

There are many other factors that relate to how well you are able to perform and evaluate yourself. If you are great at basketball then it’s not just knowledge alone that makes you good. There is a physical side that involves training, endurance, and reflexes.

For me the takeaway to all this is that continuing to grow your skills is important and always will be. The self-doubt you sometimes have doesn’t make you anything but a modest human. Just try not to let it hold you back too much.

For more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect read Why the unskilled are unaware (PDF)