On the Greatest Fear of the Book-Smart Person: Can You Pull It off in Practice?

I was once raving about a piece of professional literature to a senior designer when she told me that she had learnt most things by doing. I wondered if I should also leave the books alone and stick to learning on the job. Perhaps she knew better, she was my senior after all.

For some reason, I haven’t forgotten about this conversation. Perhaps because it brought up a fear of mine: What if I’m just a book-smart person who can’t turn her knowledge into anything useful?

What’s more, designers are known for being very hands on. Does learning by reading make me a lesser designer?

But then again, when you’re just starting out, what should you base your methods on? Your gut feeling?

A cat sitting on a pile of books inside a cartwheel.
A book-smart cat who can hopefully also pull it off in practice. Or perhaps push it off. Photo by Micky White on Unsplash.

If, like me, you prefer reading about whatever topic you’re working on, you bump into a new problem: You might become convinced that the smart people who wrote those books are actually right. And now you want to spread the message. But remember, you’re a junior.

Consider the following conversation:

“I think we should do it this way.”


“Because I read it from a book.”

When you talk like this you risk coming across as a know-it-all. Even worse, you yourself have no idea if you can pull it off in real life.

So what can you do? You can experiment. If you get the chance.

Luckily, I’ve had managers who trust me. They’ve allowed me to go and try it out. As a result, I’ve learnt that the book people tend to be on to something.

Over time, I’ve grown more confident in being the person who not only does but also reads things. Today, as a customer insight specialist, I regularly apply knowledge acquired from books. Here are a few examples:

I’m not claiming that applying knowledge learnt from books is easy. But if you try your best, you often derive benefits nevertheless.

So to learn by doing or to learn by reading?

Here’s one way to think about it:

Instead of asking an “either – or” question, maybe we should be asking “when” or “to which degree” questions.

Gut feeling is a great thing if you have at least a decade of experience. But before you get there, I think it’s a good idea to base your suggestions on research or professional literature — even when you don’t tell people that that’s what you’re actually doing.



Fascinated by all things design and human behavior. Especially curious about how and why we make the decisions we do.

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Riikka Iivanainen

Fascinated by all things design and human behavior. Especially curious about how and why we make the decisions we do.