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Ambiguity and design

Ambiguity is a key part of design. It points us to the uncomfortable gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ which is where I believe design adds most value.

As I described in my blog post ‘Seniority in design’ the more senior you get the more you will have to learn to handle ambiguity.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition is interesting here, describing ambiguity as: “The quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness.”

For designers, I believe ambiguity means being able to hold opposing or different ideas in tension at the same time. It is:

  • not having the answers before you start. Responding to research and insights accepting that there are still unknown, unknowns
  • taking intuitive leaps to explore different ways of solving a problem or shaping a product, service or experience. Working in this way opens up new ways of thinking and opportunities because you’re willing to think more creatively
  • being bold enough to hold strong opinions and ideas while working to prove yourself wrong. This means being open to different and opposing models or actions
  • holding and developing ideas that are in tension with how the world and existing models work today. This means not only treating ideas as being in tension with each other. We also want to understand the tensions between the future models we’re creating and the world we intend them to be part of
  • being confident enough to let go of detail when dealing with complex systems. This means being open to asking the question: how would we design this if we started again today?
  • being prepared to work around or challenge existing constraints and how things work right now, which is where the space for creative thinking is required.
  • The future is ambiguous because it’s full of unknowns, and it has the potential to be shaped by sets of radically different ideas.

    There are many directions and possibilities open at every level of design from policy, to organisations and services. To summarise, this means increasingly working with what you don’t know versus what you do know, and being more creative and capable of making progress happen in challenging situations – most probably, increasingly as part of complex systems.

    Design should be good at holding things in tension. We deal in simplicity and complexity at the same time. They are opposite states but we must learn to hold onto them both.

    As a designer I’m rarely trying to win the argument. I’m trying to find ways to bring together or find resolutions through seemingly opposite ideas, opinions and the different positions people are taking.

    Designers deal with ambiguity best by being hands on. It’s the willingness to put ourselves into the world that we’re trying to shape, and then being open to how it will shape us back through our ideas, values and thinking.

    Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.