The Power of Doubt

One of my heroes in life and art is Milton Glaser. He’s a designer, artist, teacher and thinker.

Glaser is an advocate of inquiring about meaning, encouraging us to be mindful of slipping into surface-level observations and assumptions about, well, everything.

Here’s a snippet from an essay he wrote about ten things he learned throughout his career as a designer. My favorite is #8: “Doubt is better than certainty.”

“It makes me nervous when someone believes too deeply or too much. I think that being skeptical and questioning all deeply held beliefs is essential. Of course we must know the difference between skepticism and cynicism, because cynicism is as much a restriction of one’s openness to the world as passionate belief is. They are sort of twins. And then in a very real way, solving any problem is more important than being right…one of the signs of a damaged ego is absolute certainty.”

This advice applies to every corner of our lives. As designers, technologists, researchers and business professionals, we should embrace doubt. We need the confidence necessary to doubt our work, our thinking, our beliefs, and invite others to doubt us. Welcome the questions. Be wrong, learn and apply those learnings quickly.

I've always been suspicious of the certainty inherent within statements like “good design” or “innovative technology.” These words are subjective and harrowingly formulaic. Best practices are not stamps of certainty. They’re a culmination of experiences that meet a particular set of success metrics. Break them…carefully. (And be prepared to tidy up the mess afterwards.)

As we seek to understand targeted groups of people, sweeping assumptions — absolute certainties — are damning. Beyond satisfying our physiological needs, there is nothing certain about human behavior. We’re only aware of 5% of our conscious decisions. The rest is taken care of in the quiet of our unconscious mind, an ever-changing landscape of uncertainty. So just because customers made purchases from a mobile device last month doesn’t mean the trend is certain to continue. Insights from data are powerful, but they can be a trap door for disenchanted certainty. There is so much data can’t do — and will never do.

Designers, marketers, strategists, horse whisperers, all of us need to build up our stamina for asking questions so we don’t cower from voicing our doubt, despite mounting evidence or public opinion.

Certainty leads to stagnation. Doubt leads to learning which leads to iteration. And iterative learning, iterative creating and iterative testing mean we’re in a constant state of evolution. That we’re getting better and smarter. That we’re in motion.

There are many nuggets of brilliance in this short feature on the designer Milton Glaser. Check it out.