Dunning-Kruger effect

I’ve always been mystified by seemingly intelligent clients who insist on counterproductive design solutions. Instead of deferring to the talents and wisdom of experienced designers, they regard designers as hired hands to implement their bad ideas.

I had always attributed this to a combination of ignorance and narcissism. But many of these clients and employers are neither stupid nor especially narcissistic, so I always felt there must be a more complete explanation.

Recently, I stumbled across a psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which might explain some of what I’ve been missing. It’s a well-researched and studied concept developed by two Cornell University psychologists.

Here’s a link to one of many articles about it: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dunning-kruger-effect

I’m paraphrasing, but in essence, many people who know only a little about something do not yet know enough about the subject to grasp the extent of their ignorance. Their rudimentary knowledge gives them unwarranted confidence in subjects that are beyond their current understanding. Sadly, it’s this ignorance that prevents them from being able to recognize their ignorance, which sets the stage for them confidently making bad decisions while discounting experienced experts who could have prevented it.

Quoting from the article, “Those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it,”

When plotted on an X-Y axis, it looks something like this:

As the graph shows, those most vulnerable to the Dunning-Kruger Effect start out with no expertise in a subject and, understandably, have no confidence in their expertise.

However, after learning just a little about a subject, their confidence skyrockets to a point where they assume themselves to be experts without realizing how much they don’t know. At this point, most of these people also assume they know enough about a subject to have no reason to pursue it further — stuck at the level of much confidence but little expertise.

The studies indicate that when prompted to learn more beyond their superficial understanding, they soon begin to realize how much they don’t know and how complex the subject is. This causes their confidence to drop almost as fast as it rose. If they stick with it long enough, they will gain experience and more realistic levels of confidence.

I haven’t yet decided how to use this information when dealing with overconfident clients and their bad design ideas. Maybe it’s a matter of designers carefully and constructively speaking about design considerations that are slightly over their clients’ heads. I’m not suggesting talking down to clients, I’m suggesting, instead, speaking to them with an air of confidence and expertise that elicits additional questions and requests for clarification. It’s in these kinds of conversations where designers can demonstrate the kind of expertise and proficiency that might cause reasonable clients to realize they’re talking to true experts whose judgment can be trusted.


Nice find. It would explain quite a bit.

Thanks B. This is a hugely significant aspect of the current American psyche, when American society is viewed as a whole. Much of the perceived philosophical division in politics, finance, medicine, nutrition, lifestyle, ethics, and general intellect can be attributed to positions taken up and then blindly taken as fact due to this effect.

This definitely doesn’t apply to just clients. LOL.

1 Like

Yeah. I tried to keep it focused on design, but I think you’re right — it’s a huge problem in general that is affecting American society. Today’s technology, in part, makes it easy to live in a world where a partial understanding of the issues is reinforced as being the complete picture by whatever communication/news/social silo one chooses to be in.

It’s an oversimplification, but it’s as though half the country understands only half the arguments for and against most any controversial issue. Meanwhile, the other half of the country only understand the other half of the issues. Each polarized side ends up being totally confident that they’re right while remaining ignorant of how their own ignorance keeps them from seeing the bigger picture.

1 Like

Really enjoyed your post Just-B!

Being an older guy, I like resurrecting old words and expressions I don’t hear much anymore and feel should to be preserved for younger generations. Words like “know-it-all”, which happens to describe the type of person we all have to deal with occasionally. And certain truisms still ring true, such as, “a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous” or “the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know”.

I’m a pre-press tech, so I no longer have to deal with clients. But for you and your colleagues in design, I can see the challenge. I would think by letting your client air his thoughts and then diplomatically explaining whether it’s tenable or not would be the way to go. If it isn’t, you could ponder the suggestion and reflect that you could do it that way, but here are the pitfalls. Is it worth it to you? Now here’s what I can do to come close to your vision. All the while you could be getting a little technical, showing him he’s not the expert he thought he was.

Again, my job is different. I am asked to do in-house design jobs for my boss and he pretty much wants what he wants. But when I know there’s a better way to achieve his idea he gets some elucidation. Again, thanks for this post . . .fascinating psychological study!

1 Like

I doubt there’s a way to do that without it feeling insulting. Defiantly wouldn’t mention the effect by name.

First thing that comes to mind: Tool for manipulation.

I’m not so sure about that.

In the past, I’ve purposely dumbed down the jargon and even avoided mentioning certain lesser concerns. Sometimes I’ve put those concerns into more colloquial language that avoids the risk of the client not fully understanding what I was saying.

For example, I might ask a client, “Should I assume you want the booklet printed using full color?,” Then I’d tease out the remaining details over the ensuing conversation in a roundabout way.

Instead of doing that, I could simply ask, “Do you want the job printed offset using 4-color process or were you considering and extra 5th spot ink for the solid areas? The job’s big enough to warrant a web press over sheetfed. Do you want me to explore that option? Also, do you want to spend just a little extra for an aqueous flood coating or would you like to go with a more expensive UV? We could likely saddle stitch the book, but we’d need to reduce the stock weight and add a couple of pages due to signature count differences. Either are doable, but if we go with perfect bound, it will delay the job by a few days since the printer would need to subcontract it out to a bindery. Each has it pros and cons. Do you have a preference?”

I wouldn’t just throw out a string of stuff like that since it would come across as weird and off-putting. Still, very few clients would be able to answer most of these kinds of questions without, first, having to ask a dozen other questions.

What I’m really saying is there are ways to politely, diplomatically and constructively counter know-it-all clients by tossing questions their way that force them to ask questions in return. This might provide designers with an opportunity to demonstrate their expertise while helping clients realize that the designers they’re working with know their stuff and that relying on their expert judgment is probably a good decision.

Your example is with printing and I’m not sure how well it represents fields like graphic design, advertising, or branding, that are of a more subjective nature.

For graphic design the problem is often twofold: the effect you mention and undervaluing the profession itself. It’s commonly seen more as mere decoration than a core competency. So a client could overvalue their own ideas and opinions and undervalue the cost of a bad outcome.

As experienced designers, we often make the kinds of decisions you’re referring to through a combination of that experience and the intuition we develop over years of practice. The intuition, though, isn’t an arbitrary knack we have that’s useful to make cool stuff — at least it shouldn’t be just that.

When I’ve analyzed those intuitive decisions, I’ve found that they’re anything but arbitrary or subjective, Instead there are solid reasons behind them that our intuition provided a shortcut in seeing. All those reasons can be put into words and explained to clients.

For example, we might choose orange but the client prefers blue.

We could explain to the client that orange was chosen because it contrasted with the majority of the competitor brands that used blues and greens. In order to stand apart on the supermarket shelf, orange will be useful to create the visual contrast necessary for that to occur. We could also explain that orange is a more active color that advances rather than recedes — again, making it situationally preferable when competing for attention with its blue-green competitors.

In addition, we could say the ads we discussed that are being planned for the product launch take a more aggressive approach using action-oriented imagery. That action, from a psychological perspective, needs to be carried over to the product packaging itself to create synergy and recognition between the two. We don’t want to risk a psychological disconnect with the advertising at the point of purchase. Instead, we need to carry that more aggressive personality all the way through to the final sale, which is why we’re recommending orange instead of blue.

If we’re talking about the D-K effect and perhaps an undervaluing of graphic design as a core competency, we might give perfectly logical reasons for design solutions and they could still be ignored because of the effect (their confidence in their own view) and their views about the value of design (doesn’t matter much). The effect only explains their overconfidence, not how to work with it.

For the hard cases, I think only bottom-line sales data might be convincing, and there’s no way to show that in advance.

I’m not proposing fool-proof solution — just a possible strategy that otherwise reasonable people might respond to. As you put it, there will always be the “hard cases” who don’t trust anyone’s judgment but their own.

Even though the effect itself doesn’t explain how to counter it, the data from the effect does suggest an approach, which is why I included the graphic. It seems part of the effect is a rapid fall from overconfidence when presented with additional information that takes them into an area where their superficial expertise becomes apparent. I suppose the obstinate ones might double down at that point if they saw it as challenge instead of an expert sharing learned advice.

Ah, I didn’t see your point so clearly up til now. D-K effect perhaps!

I imagine there could be a number of methods to employ your strategy. I’ll probably have ample opportunities to try some in the future, unfortunately.

This thread is great. I’ve been trying to find my way in the design world and even with my little experience I’ve experienced this D-K effect lol. I really appreciate it because it solidifies that this is primarily a people mentality/personality issue not a workplace issue (to say of who caused it).
I haven’t worked freelance so I understand this could have serious repercussions for that position but I’ve always just been honest with customers. Similar to what @Just-B said I’m careful with my choice of words, to not be condescending, check that they understand what we’re talking about and I take any opportunity to give further explanation. If there’s even a ‘yellow flag’ that they misunderstood then I reiterate in a follow up statement or question.

1 Like

Ha! Yeah, same here. It’s not like I’m an expert on this either. So here I am explaining something that I only learned about a couple of days ago. :wink:

Indeed - this is a problem we had with the Brexit vote here in Britain. You have emphasised the negative effect, as most people do, having experienced it - it is perhaps more easily defined as ‘the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know’. The concomitant is of course the less you know, the easier it looks.

People don’t want to believe something is complicated - they don’t trust anyone who claims to know more than they do and want to believe there are simple solutions. It makes life easy. And it makes life easy for leaders, political and religious, offering facile solutions.


Wow very interesting.

Ok, got about to the end of the first paragraph in the first article,
which, in itself, displays a form of Dunning-Kruger effect. First it categorizes with a very broad brush, then it goes on with little regard or attempt to understand views from the opposite side. While the article may go on to present some kind of facts, my initial observation that the article is using trigger words to rope in a like-minded subset audience while insulting the opposition, is all I need to stop reading.

I’m imagining the New Yorker to be a subtler version of the same.

I only linked to that article (among others) because it was a concise explanation of the (purported) effect found by the original researchers. I didn’t see it as the writer staking out a position.

There is research referenced in other articles that explore possible problems with the original study related to socio-economic biases, cultural influences and the mathematics used to quantify the results.

However, most subsequent studies I ran across, supported the general findings of the original paper — even those that found some fault with details and methodology. I didn’t really run into opposing viewpoints from other researchers — just additional information and criticisms of some specifics.

©2020 Graphic Design Forum | Contact | Legal | Twitter | Facebook