Ambiguity and Design

Image by Carl Hastrich: Another diagram communicating conceptual process.

I’ve moved into a position where I can do strategic design research, which I need to explain online as things settle down in the new year. Ever since starting this blog I have been exploring the key questions around innovation and the various processes, recently some big ah-ha moments are occurring that are weaving these thoughts together.

What really is design anyway

Sometimes I can be a bad ambassador for design. I can’t relate to people who don’t see the critical need for design thinking tools. When I meet someone who assumes that designers only wrap pretty skins around functional objects my eyes glaze over.

The reality is that contemporary design process is much more about making sense from ambiguity. It is a rigorous, systematic methodology for gathering insights and reading between the lines of what people say they want, and what they really need. There are of course rigorous methodologies for developing and implementing solutions to problems, but the real value lies in identifying what the problems are in the first place.

Clarity in Confusion

Reading a recent article in Fast Company I fell in love with the definition of complexity and ambiguity by Dev Patnaik, CEO of strategy firm Jump;

“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.”

Business magazines are regularly mentioning that ambiguity is on the rise in current business and this begins to make it all clear to me.

Designers have been comfortable with ambiguity for ever. Compare schools of design with other disciplines and one of the first things you will notice are the open-ended nature of the project briefs. Design thrives on diving head first into an enormous topic. This is exactly the central point for injecting design methodology at the beginning of a project, rather than the end.

Good design will ask weird questions directly to your face, and not be satisfied by the first answer. Good design will uncover a broad complex network of insights and needs, and then articulate it all such a way that everyone can engage.

If Kanye West Gets it, So Can Business

I’m looking for ways different people are framing the need for design and then out of nowhere Kanye West says:

“Scientists and Designers need to unite and directly affect government.”

It seems that Kanye recently burst open a twitter manifesto of design and change, ranging from evolving schools to picking up from where Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs left off. I’m never sure if Kanye West is the best person to have in your corner, but having a well dressed slightly crazy ambassador is always entertaining…

Selling Ambiguity

One of the biggest innovation opportunities right now is navigating ambiguity. By explicitly communicating where it exists and facilitating a pathway towards actionable steps to solve problems within that space, designers have tremendous value.

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2 Comments on “Ambiguity and Design”

  1. i have to say i find the endless competition for innovation sort of desperate. i’m drawn to biomimicry because it provides a basic reasoning and framework, or roots, for design exploration. you can take it in many different directions of course, but you’re beholden to certain laws and processes and the fact that you’re designing on planet earth. i have a problem with forced innovation for its own sake, or for profit’s sake. everyone seems to want to be the newest zuckerberg and become the new hot fad. what happened to creating a quality product or a solid business platform or seriously considering the triple bottom line before launching your exclusive, brand-new i-thingy, e-site?

  2. Justin Morris says:

    I totally agree with you in regards to forced innovation.

    As designers I think it is not just our job to innovate, but just as importantly, to mediate our ideas. A lot of clever ideas, don’t think of the end of the road impact. Like you said, jut for fame or recognition.


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