Humble Know-it-alls

“They are total know-it-alls.”

I often ask homeowners, integrators, architects, and others if they have ever worked with a lighting designer. Most homeowners have not, and many do not know that we exist.

The story is different for those in the trade. And in residential lighting design, from the responses I receive, there are know-it-alls everywhere.

Let me define know-it-all (KIA, no relation to the automaker) as I understand it from most of the tales. The KIA is likely to be one of a small handful of lighting designers, maybe even the only lighting designer, in the area. The KIA fights vehemently for their own way, regularly showing off their knowledge by perhaps not too patiently explaining why the suggestion to use that other downlight is ridiculous. The KIA has an answer for everything, always a reason (or ten) why their own idea is not just the best way to move forward but the only way to move forward.

I have heard these designers referred to as abrasive rude jerks and other words not suitable for young audiences.

And I might finally understand why there are so many KIA lighting designers out there. I’m thinking about training to be an abrasive rude jerk myself.

Lighting design is an esoteric science and art that takes years, even decades, to master. Being a professional lighting designer requires constant learning, countless meetings with manufacturers to understand the intricacies of thousands of products, digestion of a steady diet of trade magazines and science abstracts and updated standards. Successful lighting designers spend years acquiring skills no one else has, absorbing knowledge that no one else has, and developing tools and techniques that no one else has. And why shouldn’t they? So does everyone good at their job, whether it be lighting designer, high school teacher, stone mason, or brain surgeon. If you’re good at your job, no matter what your job is, then you know things no one else does.

We bring all this to the table when we are hired as a lighting designer for a project. In the commercial sector, lighting designers are most often retained by architects who understand and value the lighting designer’s expertise and contributions.

In the residential sector that may not be the case. Instead of being seen as highly skilled experts, we’re often perceived as Know-it-alls, jerks who just want to overcomplicate the project, slow it down, and make it cost more- all so we can stoke our own oversized egos.

We may bring all of our expertise to a specification and choose a particular product to recommend that we find to be the best value and solution for a project. We choose downlight A instead of B because we’ve toured the factory, seen the manufacturing process, tested the fixtures ourselves against countless others, reviewed the color quality, and fit it into place using decades of knowledge of both the technical and the physiological aspects of light. We carefully place the fixtures on a plan based on their geometrical capabilities, aiming angles, beam spreads, lumen outputs, and other technicalities. We write a fixture schedule with countless numbers and letters that add up to a specific code.

And then someone on the project says “why do we need that? Can’t we just do this instead?”

And, at first, we patiently explain why 3500°K is a color temperature more popular in commercial environments and thus will likely not match the residential decorative fixtures and leave the space feeling cold. We might attempt to teach them what took us years to understand, that “white” does not exist in light but is relative, that our eyes and brain subconsciously perform a white-balancing act called lateral adaptation that renders white relative to its surroundings. Huh? We explain that 3500°K might look fine in a controlled environment, but it will look yellow up against some other white lights, or blue up against some other white lights. That it will look fine during the day, when you don’t need them, and ugly gray at night when you are trying to relax. And that’s just one aspect of the light…we haven’t even touched beam angles versus field angles, adjustability angles and setbacks from walls and aiming heights and dimming technologies and CRI or TM-30 or….

Eventually, our patience can run out and we become KIA-jerks. We can only take being dismissed and distrusted so many times before we get cranky. Before we become abrasive. Some folks won’t attempt to understand our position, so we’ll just tell them “fine, do it your way but I wash my hands of this mess” and storm off into the proverbial sunset.

We are Know-it-alls. So are you, in whatever your business is. Hopefully, you are in a job where others treat you with respect for your knowledge, your work, your experience, your expertise.

We are know-it-alls. That’s why we’re hired. The jerk part? That happens when you don’t trust us to be the experts we are.


I’m hoping there is another way. I have to be a know-it-all, a KIA, or I won’t be any good at what I do. Is it possible to be a Humble KIA? To maintain patience even when I’ve run out? To explain, again, why I make a certain recommendation? Our team is known for being on the humble end of the spectrum, not the jerk end. I work hard to get along well with everyone I meet. But balancing humility and my job can be difficult.

I tell you what, I propose a deal. I’ll commit to staying humble if you’ll commit to trusting my expertise.

Then, together, we can make the world a better and brighter place.

3 thoughts on “Humble Know-it-alls

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  1. I sympathize. I wonder if the emotion that leads to KIA syndrome is a matter of taking things personally that aren’t personal. If I know something that “Bob” doesn’t, namely that I have something important to offer, and I fail to persuade him, I suspect it’s for one of two reasons. 1) I didn’t articulate my message well enough (which doesn’t seem to be your problem) or 2) because Bob and I do not share a world view and thus what’s important to me is not important to Bob. Shifting someone’s world view is possible, but is a much bigger endeavor. And it can only be done if Bob is interested in changing his world view. It reminds me of politics. Making a case for a detailed policy change is a lot harder when the audience doesn’t share your view of what government’s job is. Is it about trust or respect? Maybe. But that seems like an unnecessarily personal interpretation that leads to irritation. Instead, that audience has taken a different journey that has lead to different priorities and beliefs. And the more they see your world view as “too far” from theirs, the less they will take up the message. Sorry. I know this is long and I am a total stranger. But I see KIA constantly. From people who are good people who know a ton of great stuff. Just like you. And I think it’s an unnecessary waste of talent/gift to become frustrated by this natural situation. Help those you can. Learn from those you can’t. And keep doing the excellent work you’re doing. Thanks for all the great content you’re sharing. Love it!


    1. Catherine, thank you for the excellent commentary. I appreciate the idea that it is not always a trust/not trust issue but may be simply different world views. We’re constantly trying to do what we perceive as our best job, but that may not be what the client actually wants. Your comment gives me hope that we can avoid becoming KIAs ourselves if we do a better job of educating our clients “what they are in for.” I find myself often saying “this is what we think you should do, but it’s your house and your decision.” I don’t like that approach, and perhaps we could change it to an inquiry: “is there a reason you would not do this?” might open up a conversation that would help us see their worldview better. Hmm…lots to think about. Thank you!!


  2. Hi David,

    Good post and I just finished your LD&A article. Keep up the good work and I hope you and your family are doing well in Wisconsin. I’m retiring from the Agency on April 29th so I’m sure we will raise up a milk shake in honor of the occasion. But rest assured I’ll still be reading your articles with the thought that I knew that guy!

    Bob Dozier, LC KSA | LIGHTING & CONTROLS|CENTRAL ILLINOIS C 309-242-0377 | |


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