Designing in Ambiguity — part 1

Four mindsets for navigating uncertainty

February 11, 2022
6 min read

In a recent talk, I gave for The Fountain Institute I asked designers whether they liked designing in ambiguity.

Graph showing who likes designing in ambiguity — 15 love it, 12 hate it, 41 say it depends.

22% like it, 18% hate it, 60% said it depends. It’s a crude poll I know, but regardless of the results, I’d argue that some level of ambiguity is the default in design, especially if you’re in the strategic part of the process.

So what is designing in ambiguity?

Ben Holliday in Ambiguity and Design describes it in a few ways which I like:

  • Not having the answers before you start
  • Taking intuitive leaps
  • Being bold enough to have strong opinions while actively working to prove yourself wrong, and;
  • Holding ideas that might be in tension with how the world and existing models work

In my own words designing in ambiguity is…

A scenario or environment where there are multiple paths forward, but not a single right one. When you need to make decisions without having all the answers.

In this piece, Ambiguity and the Design Process, Pedro Canhenha poses an interesting question — Is it a designer’s job to remove ambiguity, live with it, or use it as an advantage?

I think it’s a bit of all of them, depending on where you are in the design process and what the constraints are. But ultimately a designer’s job is to help people make informed decisions despite the ambiguity.

So if ambiguity is here to stay, how can we navigate it? Here are four mindsets that have helped me.

Four mindsets to navigate ambiguity

1. Childlike curiosity 👶

As a proud uncle of four kids, I always admire their curiosity. But this is something that fades for many people as we become adults. Part of it is natural — not everything is as new as when we’re 5 years old — but there are different ways to react to information, and we can choose how we react.

In ambiguous environments, I believe that coming in with a sense of childlike wonder is going to help you see it as a source of excitement rather than being overwhelmed.

Julia Galef has a similar idea that she calls the “Scout Mindset”. Amongst other traits, scouts are, first and foremost, curious. They’re more likely to feel pleasure when they learn new information and intrigued when they encounter something that contradicts their expectations. (Her TED talk is well worth a watch btw!)

Some of my niece and nephew’s many lego creations — showcasing their curiosity and imagination

When I watch how my niece and nephew approach a lego set, I notice how they just dive right in. They don’t overthink, they just start making. This is curiosity too — going where your imagination takes you. This is a useful way to respond to those clients that say “I’ll know what I want when I see it”

As my former colleague and mentor, Elmer Zinkhann says “It’s a designer’s role to make things tangible, to allow something to be critiqued”. It’s up to you as a designer to put stuff out there to get a reaction. It’s like shining a torch in a dark forest, do it enough and eventually, you’ll find the path.

So, when you encounter ambiguity in a project. Be more childlike, be curious and try things out, even if you think it might be wrong.

2. Think like a scientist 🧑‍🔬

In his book Think Again, Adam Grant talks about four different modes of thinking:

  1. 🧑‍🏫 The Preacher: When you try to persuade others to your way of thinking
  2. 🧑‍⚖️ The Prosecutor: When you try to prove someone else wrong
  3. 🧑‍💼 The Politician: When you take whatever position will please your audience
  4. 🧑‍🔬 The Scientist: When you favour humility over pride and curiosity over conviction. You look for reasons why you might be wrong, not just reasons why you must be right.

I’ve certainly been guilty of the first three, and when collaborating with influential and domineering stakeholders, you need to be brave to overcome the politics. Even in environments that value experimentation, you may still hear phrases like “validating assumptions”. When you think like a scientist, you go a step further and look for evidence that will disprove your assumptions.

Of course, you can’t always prove or disprove everything with the scientific rigour you’d like, but for the riskiest assumptions, it’s essential to have this mindset. As Adam Grant suggests in Think Again, blind commitment to critical assumptions was one of the major factors that brought down Blackberry and helped Apple to rise to the top.

The four modes of thinking — preachers, prosecutors, politicians and scientists

3. Systems Thinking 🌐

This is about seeing individual elements as part of a bigger whole and more importantly how they connect to each other.

You may not know it yet, but you’re already thinking in systems when you’re synthesising research findings or mapping out the journey of a product. When you think in systems you embrace the complexity, and you look for points where you can positively intervene, instead of oversimplifying.

Systems mapping applied to company culture

In my previous role, I was designing lots of products that involved company culture. This is a good example of a complex system made up of interconnected elements that change organically and autonomously. By mapping it out visually it helps you to transform something vague into something tangible and to draw boundaries, so you can focus on the things you can influence. As Leyla Acaroglu says, when you learn to swim, you don’t start in the ocean, you learn in a pool. Systems thinking allows you to see the whole picture, but boundaries help you start where you’re comfortable.

If you were to try to bring design thinking into your company culture, what elements and relationships would you leverage?

P.s. I’m still very much learning about this. I’d highly recommend reading Thinking In Systems by Donella Meadows and Leyla Acaroglu’s Systems Thinking courses on The Unschool of Disruptive Design.

4. Growth Mindset 🌱

Lastly, when everything is ambiguous, having a growth mindset will help you remember that it’s temporary. While you might not have the clarity you need to make informed decisions right today, tomorrow is another day.

The idea of a “Growth Mindset” was originally coined by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset. Here’s a graphic to explain what it means:

Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset

So while a certain amount of scepticism is healthy and useful for designers, in a startup or other highly ambiguous environments it’s important to direct this energy towards tackling the major risks and creating plans to find the answers. A growth mindset will help you do this.

So now you know how to think, this will help you persist through the uncertainty. What about when you’re in the thick of an ambiguous project? Mindset alone won’t be enough.

Well, fear not, check out Designing in Ambiguity — Part 2, where I’ll give you 8 tried and tested tactics. See you there! 🚂

P.s. Thanks again to elisabeth.graf for the feedback & input.