Double Meanings can be Cowardly

How can ambiguity be used negatively as a device to perpetuate racism?

Photo by Matt Alaniz on Unsplash
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Date Added: 
June 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

This powerful OpEd by Doug Glanville entitled "I Was Racially Taunted on Television. Wasn’t I?" frames the role that ambiguity plays in perpetuating racism (and, I might add, misogyny and other -isms).  Mr. Glanville, a former MLB player and respected sports commentator, describes an experience of being subjected to a racially charged, but ambiguously defined, hand gesture during a game.

It reminded me of the discussion that we had at a event on the topic of ambiguity that had to do with privilege and power, and how leaders (and others in power) sometimes use ambiguity and uncertainty in order to keep people guessing or destabilize an opposition force.




I read this piece recently and shared it with several colleagues, which resulted in a rich discussion.  One idea that came up was the different ways we can use ambiguity.  As designers, when we talk about navigating ambiguity, it's often in the context of using it in our own work and process.  We choose to take a leap of faith and immerse ourselves in ambiguity for inspiration.  We make ourselves vulnerable and live in uncertainty for the sake and promise of discovery.  These discoveries help us form clear points of view that inform solutions to meet user needs.  We aspire to land in place of disambiguation, an elegantly resolved solution.

This article raises another very different way ambiguity can be used -- not as a tool for one's own inspiration, but as a way to intentionally introduce (or subject) someone else to ambiguity. There are very specific cases where designers might choose to create an experience or piece of art for an audience that is intentionally ambiguous. When thoughtfully created, they can be a technique of freedom and power that gives more agency to the viewer to layer on their own meaning or use.  But ambiguous words, gestures, and actions can also be used to do just the opposite: to strip power from people for the sake of dodging truth or accountability.




I think this piece could serve as a great example of how to start a discussion around the different ways we as designers, and as hopefully thoughtful citizens, can use ambiguity.  We can certainly seek it out and introduce it in our own work as a way to embrace new opportunities.  We may also choose to use ambiguity in how we interact with others.  If it's the latter, we need to be very thoughtful of how ambiguity can be a double-edged sword in either promoting or threatening agency and power.

Design Abilities Used

These abilities surfaced in the context of our discussion around the various ways people can use ambiguity.  In general, being sensitive to your audience and how an ambiguous experience, action, or word might be received will help you design and build communication that is clear and considerate.


Submitted by:

Sarah Stein Greenberg
Sarah Stein Greenberg
Executive Director, Stanford

Design Abilities Used

Communicate Deliberately
Learn from Others (People and Contexts)
Build + Craft Intentionally
Learn More about Design Abilities 


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