Expertise and keeping it simple

You may have heard the story of the expensive production line and the repairperson? It goes something like this: There was a factory, in which a massive production line was clanking day and night. Every minute of interruption in use cost a fortune. One day the machine got broken, and a repairperson, a qualified professional, was summoned in a hurry. He took a quick glance at the machine, tightened a bolt, and the machine started grinding again. As the repairperson presented his (undeniably large) bill, the factory owner protested: “But all you did was tighten a bolt, and it took you two minutes to do!” The repairperson replied: “Sure. But I knew exactly which bolt to tighten, and this saved you hundreds of thousands.”

The original story may have been slightly different in detail, but the essence remains the same. This must be a familiar phenomenon in all professions requiring expertise. In the field of graphic design, the accuracy of a design decision doesn’t get immediately valified by a machine coming back to life, as in the story. Of course, the effect and ROI of design can be measured afterwards, but in the moment when design decicions have to be taken, we are left to our experience and intuition—in other words, expertise. And sometimes that expertise says the best solution for the design task at hand isn’t that mind-blowing awesome illustration after all, but a compact colour surface and two words. To give an example. (Of course, there’s always some place to be found in the world for mind-blowing, awesome illustrations!) Often in these cases, the seemingly simple solution has to be much more carefully justified to the client. And how can it cost as much as the illustration that takes hours or days to make?

It takes trust from the client’s behalf to accept that the simple visual solution that “everyone could make” is sometimes the best one, and also worth paying for. To be more precise, the understanding of what to do and when is worth paying for. This is an undisputed fact in many fields of expertise. In my experience, when it comes to design, it still regularly needs to be reminded of.

And if memory serves, the factory owner in the opening story was ultimately quite happy to pay the expert’s fee.