Episode 13 – Embracing Ambiguity

We talk about how Ambiguity and Confusion can be a path to creative courage, deep empathy and happy accidents.

Some of the topics we cover:

What is ambiguity?

Ambiguity in the Design Process.

Ambiguity in the Design Career.

Designing ambiguity into products.

What Ambiguity is not an excuse for.

How to make ambiguity work for you.


The talk by Mitch Goldstein:

The article from Fast Company which has an analogy for ambiguity versus uncertainty:

Sushi talks about the video game No Man’s Sky and quotes the game reviewer Jake Swearingen


Angie:  Hi, this is Design Lota, the podcast where we talk about life as Indian Designers. I’m Angie.

Sushi: I’m Sushi. And, We are back!

Angie: I know, finally! How’re you feeling about Season 2 Sushi?

Sushi: I’m really looking forward to it, considering some of the interviews we have lined up – portfolios, street lettering, entrepreneurs…and of course more deep discussions between us.

Angie: I’m happy to get the ball rolling again too! And speaking of deep discussions, you’re gonna love today’s topic, which gives a lot of scope for those chai time endless discussions

Sushi: Ah. Takes me back to season 1 and also to design school days! What are we talking about?

Angie: So, it all started when I watched a talk by Mitch Goldstein called Delightful Confusion. He was talking about how confusion and ambiguity can be a resource in design education, or even education in general. We will of course link to that talk…but it got me thinking about ambiguity as a positive if not absolutely necessary resource.

Sushi: Delightful Confusion. Sounds both delightful and confusing to me. I listened to that talk too – I do agree about how the ‘finished’ stage of a product or design is glorified among designers while most of the thinking and struggling happens in the beginning and middle of projects – the confusing bits when we are still putting the pieces together.

Angie: Absolutely. Although these days it’s nice to see a lot more emphasis on showing process and mistakes made along the way in portfolios, design blogs, even interviews. So, to get some clarity on this topic of confusion…

Sushi: I see what you did there.

Angie: The possibilities are endless! What do we mean by Ambiguity?

Sushi: When not everything is clear or well-defined…the land of the unknown!

Angie: I would also include tangents and distractions that pop up, which on the face, are not seemingly useful to the cause…

Sushi: Right. Mitch also talks about this essay by writer Grace Paley called The Value of not understanding everything. That was so interesting. I really liked the quote from the essay “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write”

Angie: Yes, that state of mind could be useful for designers too – knowing that you don’t know and also to be comfortable with it – or at least to exploit it and not avoid it. I wrote a blog post once called the dilemma of prior knowledge – about how once you are aware of something it’s hard to become unaware of it and look at it in a new way and this can be a limitation sometimes.

Sushi: I think it can also become a comfort zone, where you like the predictability that comes with clarity – which can be useful depending on the phase of the project you are working on. But nothing like fresh eyes to trigger those interesting creative thoughts. Angie, why do you think we need to train ourselves to accept ambiguity?
Angie: Maybe because of the uncertainty that comes with ambiguity – we want to start at the end and work backwards. This is also something that is passed on to us in our education system where we study with the end in mind instead of making room to chance upon ideas and good distractions.

Sushi: Contrast that with some of our design courses that were more open ended – you know the kind where they give you a block of material and tell you to ‘go crazy with it’? I…kind of never really enjoyed those. I’d be dying to know exactly what to do so that I could plan and actually get something done.

Angie: Maybe it wasn’t so much the ambiguity itself that killed the fun, but the lack of constraints. Somehow as humans we’re used to facing hurdles in everything we do, so we suddenly feel lost with no strings attached. And that’s where the balance between clarity and ambiguity comes into play. I was reading about how children who are given resources for unstructured, independent play become more creatively courageous.

Sushi: Ah yes, those fresh, untamed minds…they just take what is given and make things up as they go. But do you think it’s also because they are provided with an environment inside which that open-ended play is safe and encouraged?

Angie: I like how you said safe. Sometimes we are afraid to think creatively because of vulnerability, fear of judgement or even failure. Here again, making those dedicated time slots and non-judgemental spaces within which you can “go crazy” can help get creative value out of ambiguity.

Sushi: And maybe spending more time in that non-judgemental space can even help us reduce our biases that so easily creep in when we are in our comfort zone of having everything figured out. And as we’ve discussed last season – the absence of bias can lead to deep empathy

Angie: Absolutely, and this can bring out some meaningful solutions – while making us better designers and also better human beings, of course 🙂

Sushi: Yes! So less bias, fresh ideas, maybe even humility – what’s not to like about Ambiguity?  I know we usually stumble into it

Angie: (Haha) there’s that classic illustration of a tangled scribble on one end, unravelled on the other end.

Sushi: But do you think we can consciously make ambiguity a resource in our design process?

Angie: The design process is itself a way to bring more clarity with each step and refine solutions based on various constraints that we encounter. And to dive in, we need to start with getting comfortable with and accepting ambiguity.

Sushi: I read this article on Fast Company recently that made a distinction between ‘complicated’ problems and ‘ambiguous’ problems and they had a very interesting analogy –

“Uncertainty is when you’ve defined the variable but don’t know its value. Like when you roll a die and you don’t know if it will be a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. But ambiguity is when you’re not even sure what the variables are. You don’t know how many dice are even being rolled or how many sides they have or which dice actually count for anything.”

Angie: Sounds familiar. I think being exposed to ambiguity often can help us to ask better questions to clear up the fog. So, getting used to the confusion to make way for clarity!

Sushi: But when it comes to clients, I think we need to be tactful in how we expose this ambiguity. I once made the statement “I don’t know yet” during the early stages of a project during a client meeting, and this did not go down well with them!

Angie: I wonder why!

Sushi: I think clients want to believe that you’re the person who will know exactly where to hit the nail and get it done with. Sometimes it’s also because of how designers are perceived…

Angie: Yes, a patient seems to have more “patience” with a  doctor as tests are done and possibilities are eliminated to arrive at an eventual diagnosis.

Sushi: Or when a plumber checks for a leaky pipe. They somehow look like they know what they are doing. But a designer is almost never viewed as a problem-solver. So, when we ask questions that can help us unravel the ambiguity, we either come across as ignorant or judgemental. It might even backfire because they could refuse to even accept that there is a problem in the first place.

Angie: So, again we need the skill of educating the client about what we’re doing and why.

Sushi: And maybe also not say “I don’t know yet”!

Angie: Well, I would read the client and then take that call! But yes, we must say whatever communicates that we are on track and this is how the process works.

Sushi: Here’s another question I’d like for us to discuss – Is there ambiguity in the design career? And if yes, is it a resource?

Angie: Choosing a career – design or any other does come with some confusion. Not everything is revealed for us to make a completely informed decision.

Sushi: A lot of us do “follow our passion” and end up in the design field but maybe it is a constant process of making decisions in the face of ambiguity and confusion

Angie: If it’s any comfort, a lot of creatively courageous experiences  I have had have been when I didn’t know enough or wasn’t sure if everything was going to work out.

Sushi: You mean, like how we started this podcast?!

Angie: This is a shining example!

Sushi: You know, as much as I’ve tried to run away from ambiguity, I’ve fallen deep into that pit with regards to my career. I think this is a symptom of being interested in everything. I’ve always had a tendency to just dive into things without mapping out the “steps to success”. And I’ve found that when I do plan and map things out, it never turns out the way I plan. And I’ve come to terms with that on some level.
Angie: Yes, plus, so many other variables come into play if you consider changing technologies and new career options that can come up.

Sushi: Yeah, there are new technologies being introduced everyday, which make a lot of things easier, and also make a lot of new things possible. This means that job descriptions are constantly evolving, and terminologies are being thrown around…I find it quite confusing, and frankly I feel terribly underqualified everytime I see new stuff added to the list of “skills expected”.

Angie: That’s true. But also, I think lifelong learning is much more accessible today with so many online resources, not to mention getting inspiration and career mentorship of sorts. If we are open to the non-linear career graph, it could be quite refreshing and result in happy accidents…

Sushi: Yeah, I agree. I think taking up side projects or fiddling in work that you’re not qualified for can help us fall into these happy accidents. The more of an expert you become, you tend to not take risks. These happy accidents tend to happen when you don’t know enough.

Angie: And happy Accidents make Happy Designers. So there’s T shirt quote from this episode!

Sushi: Haha! Well said!

I also wanted to talk a bit about what ambiguity is not.

Angie: Yes, this acceptance of ambiguity cannot be an excuse for designing confusing, frustrating or meaningless products or experiences. Though we could intentionally design ambiguity into products to provide experiences of mystery and wonder.

Sushi: Sometimes, a design intended to spark that very wonder could lead to confusion and ambiguity about how use it. Like this very strange but beautiful wash basin I came across at a hotel. It looked really fancy but I had no idea how to turn on the water! After what seemed like minutes of trying to figure it out, I settled for a paper towel.

Angie: Ah, that thin line between delight and frustration. I’ve seen non-linear story books that can have multiple endings or interpretations.

Sushi: I love those, but again here, the variables are defined – there are a set of possible endings that the author has mapped out. But sometimes it can be more have you heard of this video game called No Man’s Sky?

Angie:  No, what’s it about?

Sushi: I don’t play a lot of video games, but I was really excited to see the trailer. This is a procedurally generated game- which means planets, landscapes and elements are randomly generated using an algorithm…which means new scenes are generated as you wander around.

Angie: Wow, that sounds fascinating. How do you win the game?

Sushi: Its supposed to be open ended, so the only real task is survival. There are all these dangerous species and poisonous substances that get generated too.

Angie: That’s a lot of variables! I don’t know if I would survive!

Sushi: Yes, so while this was a really cool achievement in the technical sense, and the graphics were stunning, it didn’t live upto the hype, because eventually the game became kind of monotonous. One game reviewer wrote that, “While you could procedurally generate 18.6 quintillion unique planets, you couldn’t procedurally generate 18.6 quintillion unique things to do.”

Angie: Also I guess most players don’t want to deal with the ambiguity of open play, but enjoy having specific challenges and tasks. I think it’s important for us as humans to feel a sense of autonomy – where we are given a chance to trust our instincts and engage our imagination. I see your point about going overboard with it but when it’s carefully constructed it can be quite delightful.

Sushi: Like the Wacom pen that works as an eraser when you instinctively flip it around!

Angie: I was surprised that the Apple Pencil doesn’t do that.

Sushi: Maybe Apple wants you to trust your instincts as an artist and didn’t want you to erase your work

Angie: Also there are areas where ambiguity is not helpful is in specialized careers that require you to know and understand the domain – like healthcare or finance where the stakes can be high.

Sushi: It would be a good idea to have teams of expert and novice combinations to get interesting solutions.

Angie: Yes, those fresh set of eyes can give room for constructive skepticism.

Sushi: So, to use ambiguity as a resource consciously we would need to flip how we think about it.

Angie: Yeah I think it’s important to be aware of it instead of trying to avoid it or fight it – get used to it because it’s not going away!

Sushi: I mean, I understand its value but if I had a choice, I would pick the non-ambiguous path.

Angie: I struggle with it too, but there is a small part of me that gets excited whenever there is ambiguity – this could be nothing or this could be.. Magic! Haha

Sushi: So, between the two of us I guess we could actually get something done if we put our minds on it together 😛 Oh wait. We did.

Angie: I may or may not admit to how long we took to create the content for this episode. But we rode this one out and I think we learnt quite a lot, Sushi!

Sushi: We did! So listeners, accept ambiguity – learn to switch between the two ways of thinking – blue sky (or no man’s sky!) or within constraints – whether self made or circumstantial!

Angie: So, ambiguity is a friend too, like feedback – though together they become ambiguous feedback and that’s not very useful!

Sushi: Speaking of feedback, in our next episode, we’re talking portfolios. Join us, as we talk to someone who has written a whole lot about it.

Angie: Tweet to us @designlota and tell us all about your love hate relationship with ambiguity!

Sushi: Until then, bye!


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