Love for the Uncertain: How Designers Wield Ambiguity
Years ago, in the ‘90s, my team and I were tasked with designing an almost unheard-of project—an interface for a series of interactive touchscreen kiosks.
Touchscreens unheard-of? It sounds crazy in the light of 2017, but back then touch screen experiences were cutting edge technology that hadn’t yet reached the mainstream. With only top tier airlines and banks using them, there were very few examples the team could reference to inform our thinking. So, we did what designers do. We got curious.
Each day we met in a war room to exchange ideas and learn about the medium, to work through technical questions and to become users ourselves. We pushed through the discomfort of starting from scratch and moved through a process, one that took bits and pieces of nothing and created something. By leaning into the unknown, we were able to pull concrete ideas out of the obscurity of ambiguity. This process, one that I fondly call the creative process, stirred in me a love that’s lasted over 20 years.
During a career of confronting ambiguity and working through it, I’ve found that if you’re brave enough to take it on, then you’re in a position to lead. If you can see ambiguity as opportunity—as a place to listen, get curious, research and think—you can establish vision, organize a group of people and give them the confidence they need to co-create. Designers who see ambiguity as a space that points of view and intuition can fill allow ideas to coalesce in many ways—by moving a group of people through a verbal process towards an aligned vision, or by guiding a group of people from divergent to convergent thinking or even through cultivating and expressing a vision individually. But as satisfying as working with ambiguity is, I also understand that not everyone gets excited by it. For some, ambiguity can be downright terrifying—a La Brea Tar Pits of sorts, where there’s no way out.
That’s where experience comes in. Throughout my career, I’ve watched uncertainty unfold and work get done. I know in my bones when ideas will manifest and come to fruition. But I also know when they won’t. When we’re faced with ambiguity and don’t know how to navigate, it’s easy to duck, avoid and stall. That’s what causes self-limitation and complete halts of the creative process.
In fact, I recently worked with a company with this exact problem. Facing a daunting project, the team elected to put false timelines in place that weren’t tethered to business objectives but rather driven by an internal desire to show progress. They viewed research as an impediment to speed. And rather than solidifying their goals up front they simply opted to move ahead in a blind momentum—no foundation or footing. They found beginning very difficult.
So, I shepherded them through the process of navigating ambiguity. And what it came down to was this: you don’t need 20 years under your belt to handle it, all you need is a little wisdom.
Here’s what I recommended:
These wise words are borrowed from famed artist and experimental composer John Cage. To me, they elucidate how sometimes the act of simply starting is more important than where or how you’ve chosen to do so. First ideas don’t have to be winners—oftentimes they won’t be—but ideas evolve. Eventually you find the right one. Recognize beginning as an act of courage and let the process lead.
Ask clarifying questions
Nuggets of ambiguity should be addressed head on. Walk through ideas verbally and ask to go deeper with your teammates and clients. It’s ok to not know the answer yet, but declaring that for the larger group helps everyone see the same picture. As a whole, clarification is reflection. It’s refining ideas and garnering alignment.
A magazine article title, a walk to the store—good ideas can come from anywhere, especially in the beginning of a project. Entering into ambiguity with a beginner’s mind and a lack of preconceptions will allow you to avoid the common pitfall of being an “idea killer.” Generously consider all ideas fairly and use curiosity as the fuel to examine them.
Know your s^&*
This means starting from a researched frame of reference. When my team and I began our process of designing for the interactive touchscreen kiosks, we started by getting curious about how the medium worked. We then set about auditing the few examples already in existence and challenging ourselves to become the users. With an informed point of view in our pockets, we feathered our nest by giving ourselves a foundation to work from.
Sharpen your goal
So much about navigating ambiguity is crystallizing your purpose. The clearer your goal, the faster a plan for how to get there will manifest. That means putting time in up front to articulate, discuss and share thoughts about the why and what. The how always follows.
Give them what they asked for AND something they couldn’t see
Clients often come to me prepared with a solution to their problem. Their expectation is to see their idea come to life. But, as a designer, your skills and training may be telling you there’s a better solution. Give the client what they ask for—it’s hard to reason people out of their expectations. Then, show them something they couldn’t see. A better font, color or concept. It’s much easier to evolve the conversation once you’ve earned trust by showing them you heard their ideas.
Since problem-solving lies at the root of design, start with the problem and always propose solutions. Oftentimes in an ambiguous situation, people throw more and more problems on the fire. Proposing solutions means verbalizing paths to move the thinking forward, even if they are “bad” ideas. It’s about having the courage to say, “what if” or “let’s try this” and shine a light on those possibilities.
Listen, really listen
There’s a huge difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is taking in words. Listening is processing them. When we design, it’s important to listen, not simply hear. That saves us from the mistake of preconceived notions—which often convolute projects and timelines, rather than clarify.
Don’t get too attached
Designers put themselves into their work—there’s no way around it. The trick is to recognize that an idea is only worthy if it truly serves the goals of the project. Otherwise it’s a stepping stone or an idea for another project. This simple reframing allows the work to evolve and progress.
There’s no perfect way to design. Sometimes it means speaking up, other times it means simply beginning. Each new project I embark on is its own journey. The best thing you can do is locate certainty in yourself and/or your team to charter these waters together. Let go and enjoy the ride.
At the end of the day, creating something from nothing is a designer’s distinct pleasure. We fill blank slates and empty drawing boards by articulating vision and cultivating substance. Then we make artifacts and experiences that allow people to see and engage with the world differently. Through all my years working as a designer, I’ve learned that making great work means leaning into the obscurity—but not getting stuck there. In the case of the ‘90s touchscreen project, fear and doubt threatened to mire us, but wisdom and curiosity were the ropes we used to climb back out. From that experience, I learned that by wielding ambiguity, you’re in a powerful position to pull something from nothing and begin to love the unknown.