Knowledge is power, but so is curiosity

As design researchers, it is often our job to build foundational knowledge on areas of uncertainty, whether that be for our clients or within our own R&D. While knowledge is undoubtedly valuable to our work, it’s important to recognise that it can become a barrier if not used carefully. This thought piece explores the relationship between knowledge and curiosity, and how it might hinder our desire to learn.

What role does knowledge have in exploring the unknown?

We know the value of knowledge and what it brings, but what is it? Knowledge can be defined as an accumulation of data, information, and expertise that is gathered through learning and experience. When we explore areas of uncertainty, understanding a topic or challenge can lead to a better understanding of the questions or challenges at hand, and therefore in the long run lead to more suitable and effective solutions. Knowledge has an essential role in this discovery process, but there are other key ingredients, such as intuition, creativity, and curiosity. The relationship between these is dynamic, as each enhances the other to effectively see information from a different perspective.

Knowledge is the vehicle
At the core of building an understanding of the every day, there is a foundation of knowledge. It acts as a compass, guiding us through exploring the unknown by providing context around the area of uncertainty.

Intuition is the guide
Intuition is the gut feeling which draws upon tact and experience. If we trust our intuition, we can explore hidden connections within an area of uncertainty that reasoning may not.

Creativity is the fuel Creativity allows us to connect unrelated data points, encouraging us to break free from conventional patterns and come up with innovative ideas.

Curiosity is the steer
The mysterious nature of something being unknown can spark a childlike curiosity within us, which can steer exploration into unconventional directions. It propels us to dig deeper to uncover the layers beneath the surface of the unknown and pushes us to challenge assumptions.

Why can knowledge hinder curiosity?

The existing knowledge we have can be a barrier towards gaining new knowledge. Here’s why.

Making assumptions based on existing knowledge: As we become experts in a particular field, there’s a natural tendency to have confidence in our knowledge. Being too confident can discourage us from questioning established beliefs and exploring alternative explanations. The more we think we know, the less likely we are to embrace the uncertainty which is required for genuine curiosity. Making assumptions based on existing knowledge can be comfortable and convenient.

Fear of being wrong: As our expertise grows, the pressure to maintain a perceived level of expertise can deter us from asking questions or exploring areas that may question our knowledge. We also may find ourselves unknowingly seeking information that aligns with our existing beliefs, inadvertently closing the door on different sources of information. Curiosity suffers when we prioritise reinforcing what we already know over exploring the richness of the unknown.

So what can we do to help us avoid this?

Keeping in a state of enquiry by asking why: A simple solution to this is having the ability to stay in the question. Curiosity is a state of enquiry, so if we put our assumptions and previous knowledge aside, we will maintain a curious spirit. This is something we can lose if we stay in our bubbles, as our life experience allows us to assume what we do not know or what we do not ask.

An example of this is asking follow-up questions to participants, an interview technique called ‘laddering’. We may receive a response back which is expected, so our interest in asking why might be quite low. It’s so easy for the researcher to assume; based on their knowledge and experience, what this follow-up response would be. Failing to ask why is simply a missed opportunity. Another technique used is the ‘five whys’, which suggests you must ask why 5 times in a row before you can get to the bottom of something. We should always ask why, no matter how predictable we think the answer might be. By definition, the opposite of assumption is curiosity. If we let our existing knowledge prevent us from asking why, we prevent ourselves from gaining new knowledge.

we should always ask why, no matter how predictable we think the answer might be

Keep yourself open to the idea of being wrong: What we know today might be wrong tomorrow, and physics theories are tangible examples of this. In history, theories around light have evolved drastically. Sir Isaac Newton believed light is comprised of coloured particles, Christiaan Huygens believed light is a wave, James Clerk Maxwell predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves, and Albert Einstein more recently believed light is a photon. This journey of different discoveries and theories on the same concept demonstrates that what we may believe today, can be easily disproved tomorrow. Even scientific knowledge is momentary.

If we believe we know everything about something, we are simply lying to ourselves. As design researchers, we’re always looking to answer the why, but if we’ve already made assumptions about what the answer is, we will not have the urge to inquire. Knowledge can close the door to inquiry if we are not open-minded. It dampens our curiosity, which can be detrimental to finding the unexpected.

The art of looking sideways: Being a fish out of water can have its benefits. Being out of place or unfamiliar with a particular situation or environment can be disorienting and discomforting, but being (or pretending to be) an outsider can allow you to zoom out very easily. ‘Defamiliarization’ can be a useful mindset to adopt when exploring the everyday unknown. A technique used frequently in design research is ‘making the familiar strange, and making the strange familiar’. There’s a balancing act between becoming an expert on a topic so you have some understanding of the challenge, but adopting a temporarily naive mindset will help you maintain curiosity that will encourage you to ask questions which an expert might overlook, and consequently miss out on key information. Taking the role of ‘unknowledgeable’ can help avoid holding biases or assumptions.


Most of us know the phrase ‘knowledge is power’, which is credited to philosopher Sir Francis Bacon. The idea behind this statement is that knowledge empowers people by providing them with the information and understanding needed to make informed decisions, solve problems, and succeed. Yet, with power comes the responsibility to use it wisely. Embracing curiosity is an effective approach to managing the power of knowledge, and design research provides valuable methods for cultivating and sustaining curiosity. By unravelling the mechanisms of curiosity, design research services as a safeguard against complacency and arrogance, fostering humility and openness to continue learning.


Curiosity as a practice | Julie Pham | TEDxBellevueWomen

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2013) Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York; Harper Perennial. 

Matthias J. Gruber, Bernard D. Gelman, Charan Ranganath. States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit. Neuron, 2014

By Ed Louch