The Road to Expertise

By John Dilworth · November 2, 2011

“Not-knowing is true knowledge, Presuming to know is a disease. First realize that you are sick; then you can move toward health.” –Lao-tzu, 6th century BC philosopher

When I graduated from college, I remember feeling a sense of completeness. I had finally accomplished all that I needed to know to begin my career as a successful designer. Gone were the days of arguing with professors who must have been out of touch and just didn’t “understand” the current trends in design. I had done well in school, I received honors and awards, my GPA was commendable—I felt like I could do anything. I believed that when I was handed my diploma, I was somehow magically qualified as an “expert” in the field of design.

After a couple weeks at my first job, I got my first scolding for not knowing about “curly quotes.” This was the first of many brushes with reality. In four years of study, how could I have missed such a fundamental typographic detail? At my next place of employment, I remember arguing with the HR department about my “experience.” I had graduated three years previous, but had listed five years of experience on my resume. After all, I had worked as a graphic designer for two years while I was in school. Five years of experience and the title and pay of a Sr. Graphic Designer was much more appealing to me than that of a Jr. Designer. I felt like I deserved more and that I was smarter than I really was.

The reality is, I was barely a novice designer. I had less design experience than a three-year-old baby has life experience. I had some brilliant moments, as do our little ones, but I was in no position to think I had reached any level of expertise. Many years later, I’m just now thinking that I may be getting close to my teenage years, still decades from the status of “expert” I thought I had gained with my college degree.

What makes someone an expert?

Expert is not the same as “raw talent.” There’s a myth that expertise or design skill is something that you are born with. Individuals may develop a passion for design at a young age, and may demonstrate extreme skill, but expertise is not given to anyone who hasn’t put in their time. Design of any kind is difficult and complex. After crawling out of college, you can’t expect to take off in a full sprint. There’s still lots to learn.

We often look at the great musician, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a prodigy, who “magically” became an expert musician as a teenager. We forget that he began his path to expertise at the age of four. Had we started our design careers at age four, with a father’s strict regimen of theory, practice and design exercises, we might have also found ourselves so close to expertise during our teenage years.

Expert is also not the same as “famous.” It is easy to confuse celebrity with expertise. We often assume that designers who win lots of awards and receive constant praise are experts. Famous designers may or may not be experts. The road to famous and the road to expertise are different roads.

Bryan Lawson compares the design expert to a chess master who can intuitively look at the game board and know the next move. The master doesn’t need to evaluate the possible outcomes for every piece on the board, and rehearse every potential move by the opponent, he just knows what to do, and he is usually right. Becoming an expert means that you just know.

“An expert is a man who has stopped thinking — he knows!” —Frank Lloyd Wright

Expert designers can look at problems within their domain and instantly and intuitively know and execute the right solution. Experts rarely make mistakes, they seem to have the ability to make the most complex problems look so easy that we will mistake it for magic.

How do we get on the road to expertise?

In the field of design—just like anything else—there’s lots to learn, lots to remember, and lots of “doing” to be done. You’re also going to need lots of time for practice, and for gaining valuable experiences.

The first step is to make sure that we are learning the right things, remembering the right things, and doing the things that will help us improve. We are all capable of getting better at what we do, so we should take advantage of the opportunity before us.

Albrecht Dürer, the greatest German artist during the Renaissance, made this very clear when he said:

“Nevertheless there is no rational man so dull but that he may learn the one thing towards which his fancy draweth him most strongly. Hence no man is excused from learning something.”

We all have time, and we can either use it to get better at what we do, or we can use it to do something else.

Learn the right things

The passing of time alone can’t make us experts. We need to make sure that we are learning and doing the things that will put us on the road to expertise. In a general way we should focus our energies around three important areas: theory, precedent, and experience.

“If we want to sharpen our reason by learning and to practice ourselves therein, having once found the right path we may, step by step, seek, learn, comprehend, and finally reach and attain unto something true.” —Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)

Learn the theory of design

If our goal is to be expert designers, we’ve got to be experts in design theory. We need to know the language of design. We need to know the language of design simply in order to be able to carry on a conversation and discuss the profession with other designers. Design vocabulary, principles, methods, and an understanding of historical end theoretical practice are essential. The ability to talk about design in an intelligent and simple way to other designers as well as potential clients is a skill that each designer should aspire to improve upon.

Design theory is most successfully gained in the design or art classroom. A good visual design or art program will have a time-tested method for teaching “design theory,” “gestalt principles,” “typography,” “color theory,” and other important topics to the aspiring designer. Most design schools follow a curriculum based on western ideals of design that cover the Renaissance as well as Modern and Contemporary design theory. Design schools present the best opportunities to learn this knowledge in-depth.

Theory may also be learned through individual study. There are many good books to read (enough for a lifetime), but nothing can really make up for the intensive training and education which can be gained in a good design program. If you have completed a Bachelor’s degree in something other than design, and haven’t had the opportunity to learn design theory in a structured learning environment, consider a Master’s degree. If you don’t have the opportunity for formal education, get your hands on some good books and start reading—that’s one of the things they’ll have you do in school.

Build a pool of precedent

To truly be experts in design, we’ve got to know about and remember how other design problems have been solved. We can then use that knowledge to solve similar problems and avoid making mistakes that have already been made. Without a large pool of precedent, we may end up making costly mistakes or re-inventing solutions that others have already figured out. Knowing how similar problems have been solved in other situations opens doors to finding even more creative solutions, and being able to remember those things when you need them will make you a more effective designer.

We need to take every opportunity to build our personal pool of precedent. A college education is a great start. College provides a wide range of experiences and established courses designed to fill our pool of precedent. A comprehensive study of history – especially art and design history – provides us with critical time-tested examples of how design has affected humanity. If we really want to be experts, we’ve got to know how history has influenced art.

Precedent is also acquired through personal research and study. We should search out the best information in trade magazines and web sites to stay up-to-date on the latest trends and methods. We should take every opportunity available to build our personal pool of precedent. Travel, reading, visiting museums and traveling to cultural centers are excellent ways to add to our knowledge. The more we learn, the more we’ll be able to recall when we need it most.

Gain Experience

Theory and knowledge about design are important, but they are almost useless if we don’t have experience. Knowing how to turn all that theory and knowledge consistently into useful and creative output requires experience.

Experience in the work place, and a thorough knowledge of the history of one’s specialization is indispensable, both for imparting information and for one’s well being. —Paul Rand, Confusion and Chaos: The Seduction of Contemporary Graphic Design

To become experts, we need to have many design experiences. By solving difficult problems, we develop and learn how to do it better. If we’ve done it before, we will know how to do it again. Experience and practice build design into our bones and help hone our intuition. Experience is the magical ingredient that we find in people who just seem to “know” what needs to be done.

Experience doesn’t come in equal doses as time passes. It is possible for one person to have more experience in a year than another. If you are spending most of your time watching TV, or watching others gain experience, you are not gaining experience. If you are passive in your workplace, and doing only enough to get through the day, it might take you a hundred years to gain the expertise that others can gain in a decade.

We need to realize that if we are in control of our experiences, we can use them to propel us down the path of expertise, or we can use them to keep us on the sidelines. Experience is about becoming a participant and not just a spectator.

Experience is a critical component to expertise. There are many things in the periphery of design that can only be gained through experience. We can’t learn in the classroom how to predict design success, but through experience, we can begin to predict and anticipate which design solutions will be most effective.

Paul Rand wrote about the importance of experience in his essay “A Designer’s Art”:

“For the most part, the creation or effects of design, unlike science, are neither measurable nor predictable, nor are the results necessarily repeatable. If there is any assurance, besides faith, a businessman can have, it is in choosing talented, competent, and experienced designers.”

Moving down the road

If we are able to put these things together: a solid mastery of design theory, a convincing study of history and an awareness of current trends and movements, along with years of active experience, we may very well achieve the title of Expert. The thing to remember is that moving down the road is more important than the ultimate destination. If we are moving in the right direction, we’ll get to where we want to go.

The road to expertise is one that is best taken deliberately. We can’t hitch a ride, and we can’t get by using the expertise of others for very long; we can’t be passengers. If we want to move down the road to expertise, we’ve got to take control. We’ve got lots to learn, lots to remember, and lots of practicing to do. We’ve got to learn that there’s lots that we don’t know and lots of things we haven’t done.