What's This? (Ambiguous Object Exercise)

How do we stoke imagination with real-world examples from students?

Kelly Schmutte
Tried and Tested
Activity, Game
No items found.
Purpose for Students
Experience It
Date Added: 
June 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

This exercise was used by the 2015/16 d.school Teaching Fellows at the beginning of the Navigating Ambiguity Design Muscle pop-up.

Let go of the “right answer”: We sometimes struggle with ambiguity because we’re trying to find the correct solution when one might not actually exist. In other instances, we latch onto our first ideas because our brains would rather settle on an answer than stay in ambiguity. Use this warm-up exercise to have participants practice detaching from the “right answer” and drawing on their interpretative skills.




In a team or with a partner, take turns making up different stories for ambiguous objects. This warm-up helps to get the juices flowing and primes a team for ideation.

Pre-task: For this exercise participants will need to bring in a seemingly “ambiguous object,” an object with a form or function that would stump someone.

  1. Pair Up and Switch Objects: Remind participants not to reveal what their object is or does. Keep it a secret, which they can share at the end of the exercise.
  2. Make Introductions: Have them get to know their partner (but NOT their object).
  3. Tell a Story: Going around the group, have them introduce each other and make up a story about their partner’s object. Have fun with it. How might it be used? By who? Where? When?
  4. The Big Reveal: At the end of the working session, have participants reveal the true meaning or function of their objects. Waiting for the reveal helps them practice embracing the ambiguity!




This activity was a great way to stoke imagination—and to introduce students to each other and to facilitators. It's engaging and memorable to share a personal object—and often we learned something entirely new from the weird objects brought forth.

One build on the game is to have a pair of students rapidly pass an ambiguous object back and forth for a minute, seeing how many unique interpretations they can come up with for it in a set time period (ex: 60 seconds).  Thinking with your body, and acting out what the meaning might be is fun and humorous, and also stokes imagination!

Design Abilities Used

Learn from Others: students see how others engage with the ambiguous objects and take guesses at what they are. We can't predict what others are going to say or do in response. We can learn a lot about others reaction to ambiguity.

Experiment Rapidly:  in the rapid-fire version of the game, we see see how the constraint of time can help us generate more ideas or possibilities than we think.

Move Between Concrete and Abstract: students are constantly having to look at a literal, physical thing, and use their brain to abstract different possible meanings.  Designers have to be adept at doing this fluidly, all the time.


Designed by:

Andrea Small
Andrea Small
Past d.school Teaching Fellow

Design Abilities Used

Learn from Others (People and Contexts)
Experiment Rapidly
Move Between Concrete + Abstract
Learn More about Design Abilities 


To the best of my/our knowledge, this resource is in the public domain.

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