Design’s knowledge-application gap

I've worked with numerous designers over the course of my career who could talk design proficiently, critique design well, and identify great design... but couldn't actually produce great design themselves. What are the reasons for this?

Here are just a few:

✣ Failure to convert knowledge into impact.

The advent of endless information on any topic — Wikipedia, YouTube, social media, and so on — has produced perhaps the widest gap between knowledge and the application of knowledge humanity has ever seen. I call this the "illusion of progress." We've watched a gazillion videos on pottery and therefore consider ourselves as having progressed to the expert level without ever having thrown a pot.

✣ Superficial mastery.

See point above. Abundant information, much of it mediocre at best, has created a quantity vs quality problem. I'd much rather have my designers do a deep, careful study of Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style (all 366 pages) for example, than consume dozens of YouTube videos or hundreds tweets and assume they know everything there is to know about the application of typography principles.

✣ Dunning–Kruger effect.

Overconfident + underskilled. There are lots of ways to interpret the Dunning-Kruger effect, but relevant to this discussion is this idea of being proficient (real or perceived) at identifying poor execution by others, while struggling to identify poor execution by one's self.

For all of the above and other reasons I haven't listed, the remedy is almost always one or all of the following:

– More reps. The only way to close the gap between knowledge gained and knowledge applied is to do the hard work of applying knowledge, over and over again.
– More critiques. Every team I've led has held weekly or bi-weekly design critiques, supplemented with ad-hoc critiques initiated by team members throughout the week. This isn't a silver bullet but it's a critical component to increasing great design outcomes.
– Work under a mentor. Being self-taught is admirable. But what's more effective 9 times out of 10 is working under the watchful, guiding eye of a lead designer, design manager, or design consultant. The mentor must be a great designer or the same issues here will be passed down.
– Do the hard work of studying (and then applying) high-quality resources. Rather than dumping a link list of resources in this post that I consider "high quality" on various design topics, I'm willing to bet 95% of you reading this haven't yet studied Elements of Typographic Style from cover to cover. If this is you, start there. Then apply what you learn in your next project — and every project after that.

Close the gap. You got this.