Making do when you don’t know what to make.

A designer’s guide to embracing ambiguity

At IDEO.org, we improve the lives of people living in poor and vulnerable communities through design. On any given day, we could be designing programs to raise sexual health awareness among teens in Nigeria, creating tools to enhance financial literacy in the US, or building a digital platform that tracks customer satisfaction in refugee camps. And more often than not, we start a project without knowing exactly what it is we’re going to make.

But not knowing the answers at the outset isn’t something we’re afraid of. In fact, it’s a critical part of our design process to remain open to many possibilities. We embrace ambiguity—so much that it’s become one of our core values. We see the cloudy moments in a project before we know what we want to design—a space where multiple, sometimes contradictory, ideas coexist—as creative fuel. It’s the place where we thrive.

But being comfortable with the unknown isn’t so easy when you’re starting out. It’s not a secret skill locked away in our DNA—it’s the product of practice. So, how do you master the art of embracing the great unknown? Here’s some advice from some of the creative voices I admire:

1. Trust the process

What we, as design thinkers, have, is this creative confidence that, when given a difficult problem, we have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before.

David Kelley

IDEO has long been known for giving away our secrets. Founder David Kelley says it’s because we know we can use that same approach to come up with a million different answers. The design process, which encompasses cycles of research, synthesis, ideation, prototyping, and execution, is a solid foundation for working through through tough, ambiguous problems. The more we trust the process, the less daunting these ambiguous asks will feel. Just trust the process and your ability to come up with an answer.

2. Stay present

When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

Bucky Fuller

I like Bucky’s barometer. Make the best possible solution you can—if you succeed, you’ll know because it is beautiful. But resist the urge to worry about the outcome up front. Force yourself to stay present. Self-consciousness can hamper creativity. Instead, focus on where you are right now and work it out.

3. Listen intently and stay curious

A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world.

Susan Sontag

I think Susan Sontag’s words ring true for any creative discipline. When you are in that fuzzy unknown space preceding a solution, look around you. Life gets busy and its noise can distract us from seeing the answer right in front of us. I say: stay alert, keep your eyes open, and listen before you speak. When you don’t know what the answer is make sure you’re asking many questions and looking at things from multiple angles. Ask “why” more often. See what moves you, then learn how it works.

4. Trust your gut

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Victor Frankl

Victor Frankl talked about how important the space between what we see and what we do is. This is the space where our intuition lives. How we decide what to do informs our growth and our freedom. Don’t forget to listen to your experiences, trust your intuition, and zoom out to see what really matters.

5. Understand your constraints to challenge them

The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.

Orson Welles

Welles understood that his filmmaking would not suffer from constraints like a limited budget, a tight timeline, or subpar technology.  If anything, these limitations would narrow down and elevate his creativity. The same is true in design. Without constraints, you can explore forever, but you might find yourself spinning endlessly.

No matter what challenge you’re taking on, learn the constraints that apply to you, but don’t forget that with confidence, curiosity, and intuition, you can break them to arrive at bold, unexpected solutions.


This piece was adapted from a talk by Adam Reineck at Nairobi Design Week 2018.

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