Navigating Ambiguity, The Super Ability
"At the d.school we endeavor to enable our students in eight core design abilities so that they might develop their own creative confidence and also inspire others, take risks, and persevere through tough projects throughout their lives."
- Carissa Carter, d.school Director of Teaching and Learning, “Let’s Stop Talking about THE Design Process”
For now, let’s talk about just one of those eight abilities, the super ability — navigating ambiguity. This essential ability involves recognizing and stewing in the discomfort of not knowing, leveraging and embracing parallel possibilities, and resolving or emerging from ambiguity as needed. Navigating ambiguity is essential for both problem-finding and problem-solving.
Designers are already fearless explorers of uncertainty. Projects, process, and people are inherently ambiguous but designers find patterns in information. They re-frame problems, examine possibility, and make meaning. Ambiguity makes creative work extremely challenging to do well but can also lead to the greatest opportunities.
So how do you know when you’re deep in the woods with no map and navigating ambiguity?
- You feel comfortable holding multiple directions of a project in parallel
- You ask or surface more questions than answers
- You identify and explore opposing tensions (and potential outcomes) for your work
- You navigate the steps in your project based on where you are and where you’ve been (vs. adhering to a specific process or “plan”)
- You reframe the nature of a problem and pivot in the course of a project if necessary
- You let go of a predetermined solution at the outset of a project
Navigating ambiguity - super ability though it is - is still just one of the eight core design abilities. In the past few years, we've made a concerted effort to empower students with flexible ways of thinking that build on process and focus on abilities. We have tools and activities to introduce students to the whole family of abilities on our Introduction to Design Abilities Suite resource page. Together, these eight abilities encourage learners to take the ingredients they’ve been given and craft their own recipes. Bon appétit!
Read more about the other Design Abilities.