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The Value of Expertise

We live in a time when intermediaries are at risk, and designers like me will soon be shelved to a romantic period of the past. Designers are intermediaries like bankers, like teachers, like real estate agents, lawyers and nutritionists. Of course, every business faces disruption at some point. My grandfather’s dry cleaning business was disrupted by the invention of polyester in the early 1950’s. The difference now versus then, is the speed and breadth of disruption, fueled by global competition and an ever expanding internet. In today’s volatile and disruptive environment, young entrepreneurs look for ways to disrupt virtually every market segment, replacing intermediaries and specialized businesses with on-line technology services that support a do-it-yourself culture that misleads people to believe that professionalism, education and experience are unnecessary.

The issue is not indifference to established knowledge; it’s the emergence of hostility towards such knowledge. This is a new phenomenon in American culture, and reflects the aggressive substitution of expert opinion and established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other.

One of the reasons that claims of expertise grate on the American psyche is that specialization is exclusive. When we study an area of knowledge and spend our professional lives practicing in a specific vocation, we not only forego expertise in other subjects, but we trust that other dedicated professionals know what they’re doing in their area of expertise as we do in our own. Otherwise, our highly evolved society breaks down into islands of incoherence, where we waste our time in poorly informed second-guessing instead of trusting each other. True expertise, the kind that is built around knowledge on which others rely, is an intangible but recognizable combination of education, talent, experience, and peer affirmation. Each of these is a mark of expertise, but most people would rightly judge how all of them are combined in a given subject or professional field when deciding whose advice to trust.

So, what makes the experts stand apart from others in their profession? One difference is aptitude or talent. Talent is indispensable to any expert – and particularly, to a designer. Talent separates those who have gained a degree from profes- sionals who have a deeper “feel” or understanding of their area of expertise. While some people have cleared the wickets of entry to a profession, they’re not particularly good at it, and their expertise will likely never exceed the natural limitation of their own abilities. This is where experience helps to separate the credentialed from the incompetent. Sometimes, market shifts sort out untalented or unskilled would-be experts. While professional stock brokers make mistakes, for example, most manage to make a living. Amateur graphic designers, on the other hand, rarely can earn enough money to survive. Likewise, bad teachers will receive bad evaluations, lousy lawyers will lose clients, and athletes who are not willing to train will fail to make the team.

Every profession has its trials by fire, and not everyone survives them, which is why experience and longevity are reasonable measures of expertise. Expert designers stay engaged in their profession, continuously improve their skills, and learn from their mistakes. Over the span of his or her career, an expert designer maintains a high level of competence, that when coupled with wisdom gained over time, their value becomes a formidable asset to any client, customer, investor or patron.

The idea that “everyone can be an expert” is inherently dangerous. It’s true that almost anyone with particular skills can develop specialized knowledge to which others may choose to defer. The trouble, however, starts when people believe that knowing a little about something means that you’re an expert. Knowing things is not the same as understanding them. Comprehension is not the same thing as analysis. And, while there are self proclaimed experts, they are rare exceptions. More common are the opportunistic people seeking quick entry into a complicated field like design, but who have no idea what they don’t know. In the end, expertise is difficult to define, and experts are hard to tell from professional imposters. However, its important for us to distinguish between those who have ankle-deep knowledge with a particular subject and professionals whose knowledge is definitive. No one’s knowledge is complete and experts know this better than most. But education, training, experience and knowledge provides us with the means of identifying an expert from the rest.

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