Why designers shouldn’t be smart

Recently Bruce Mau came to our office (I know, right?!). Bruce is known for his writing, including several “manifestos” over the years, and he asked everyone in the room to write their own manifesto in 3 minutes (he said he used to give people 6 minutes and they were all finished early).

The first line in my manifesto was “Be the dumbest person in the room”, which got a laugh from Bruce and prompted some followup questions from people around me. I’d written it as a bit of a lark, but the more I think about it, the more important I think it is. So why is it important for a designer to be the dumbest person in the room?

First, of course, it means that you’re always around people you can learn from. Great design is based on collecting insights from the world. If you are the expert in the room, where will you get your new insights? Always surround yourself with people whose experience and knowledge exceeds your own in important ways.

Being dumb also keeps you humble. Every designer knows how it feels to watch someone try and fail to use your design. The biggest temptation in that moment is to tell yourself “that’s just one person, and really this test isn’t representative,” and write off their experience as a fluke. After all, didn’t Steve Jobs ignore his customers? (Nope, and NOPE). But Henry Ford did, to poor results). Your confidence has to come not from your own opinions, but from the success real people have with your product.

Finally, when designers rely too much on their own experience and knowledge, they get lazy. When I’ve worked on a problem for a long time, and feel like I know it well, I’m less likely to do the research legwork needed for inspiration, less likely to ask other people their thoughts, and more likely to settle on the first idea that comes to mind. Conversely, a brand new problem forces me to start from scratch, with eyes and mind wide open to new possibilities (the next line in my 3-minute manifesto read: “When you get too good, start over”).

So really, the problem isn’t with being smart–it’s ok to get good grades, kids–but with acting smart. The best designers I know approach problems with the openness, humility, and excitement of a child seeing something for the first time. They acknowledge and work against their biases, and never let their intelligence get in the way of the right answer.