“Write what you know.”

Budding writers are regularly thrown this bone.

It’s a suggestion borne of fear.

“Write what you know” is a succinct way of saying that writing isn’t too hard; just take what’s already in your head and put it onto paper. What’s so hard about that? Everything you need is already rolling around in your noggin. You’re already a genius! Just prove it to the world!

At least this is how most people read this advice, rendering it awful.

A few think it through and derive great rewards for it – write what you know. So to write you need to know things, and to know things you need to study them, experience them, or develop them mentally.

But few do. Few realise that the work part in “writing what you know” is developing the latter stuff, not the former, the knowing, not the writing.

Most of us like to have our maniacal egos tickled just the right way, and like to think that we already have everything we need for greatness; everything we need to produce great work.

Writing and Designing, Lovely Bedfellows.

I love to read. I love how words can be sewn together to elicit the most intoxicating of emotions and ideas.

I love it in the same way I love design, and I continue to be amazed by how similar the two pursuits can often be.

So while I was recently thinking about this often misused piece of advice of writing what you know, I wondered what the design equivalent would be.

I was saddened to realise what it was, as it’s what I’ve been doing for years.

Design What You Know.


Design What You Know Works.

Design What You Know How To Design.

Design What You Know Has Been Done Before.

Design What You Know The Client Will Like.

Design What You Know Is In Style.


Too familiar.

If I have issue with the idea of writing what you know as popularly meaning to not explore, not advance, not grow who you are, to not develop experience and knowledge and understanding of the world or of people or of whatever before you start to write then … then what of design?

To design what you know is to do what you know works, and not because you’re experienced enough to know what the right solution is to this problem, but to repeat a solution you’ve used before.

It’s to plant your weakened legs into the mud of “good enough,” eyes glued to an ocean of “it’ll do.”

Focusing on the Know

To Design What You Know is to limit exploration. It is to use the ideas that you brought to the table. It is to provide a solution for client A that you’ll be just as comfortable providing to client B.


Unless you take what the good writers take from this idea and focus on the knowing, not the writing.

Unless we allow our good tastes and knowledge inform us, to show us what we don’t know, what we haven’t learned or experienced yet.

Unless we allow our good heads to tell us when those things we don’t know would be perfect for the job before us, then go ahead and start to know the details of what they are and how they work.

Unless we follow our fears towards certain solutions, those that scare us not because we don’t know how to do them but because we know how perfect they are.

Unless we take the brief that “design what you know” gives us and change it, the way we often should, to better suit the requirements.

How about:

“Design What You Do Know, But First Know What You Don’t”

Learn what you don’t know, then use it.

“Design What You Don’t Know.”

That’s better. I’ll go with that one.

Because if you don’t, you’ll stagnate, like I have. I’ve caught it early enough, it’s only been a few years, and I can see where I’ve fallen behind and am working on fixing it.

But if you don’t do it, if you don’t catch it early enough, you’ll offer up the same dry solutions for the next forty years.

For years I gave solutions that were good enough, ones the client might be happy with, but really, just couldn’t complain about because I’m an in-house designer that doesn’t charge.

But I don’t care about my clients. Not with this. I could keep doing exactly what I’ve been doing, playing make-believe designer. I could keep avoiding challenges.

But I care about me as designer, so I must challenge myself. I must find the pain points and push on them until I have the knowledge to offer a solution, and then use that knowledge to give it a design.

I can’t worry about what’s comfortable and quick and easy. I can’t design with what I already know.

You might be in the same place. I hope not, but I’m always amazed at how many put their hands up and say “me too” whenever I say something honest.

If you are, I guess the only piece of advice I can offer is something along the lines of:

Design what you don’t know.