Uncertainty is the engine of design. Most people dislike uncertainty and structure their personal and professional lives to avoid it. What makes a designer's work powerful is the ability to embrace the state of not knowing and use it to find solutions. The best designers are able to structure uncertainty and are willing to immerse themselves in it.

Design is a process, but an emergent one. There’s an art in bending to meet the needs of the problem being solved without completely losing your way and descending into randomness. Find certainty too soon and you’ll restrict the possibilities. Find it too slowly and uncertainty begets anxiety and endless noodling. The key is having a plan and knowing when it’s appropriate to start “knowing” things.

Don’t Start Knowing Things Too Soon

If the solution is so clear that you are certain of it from the inception of the project, you are either a savant or what you are facing isn’t a design challenge. Sometimes a clear-headed assessment—especially from an outsider’s perspective—can make the solution obvious. This is rare, though. More often, we think solutions are obvious when we haven’t taken the time to understand the real nature of the challenge, or even asked ourselves if the challenge at hand is the one that really needs to be solved.

If you allow yourself to become certain too soon, there’s a good chance you’ll start to engineer the process to get the results you already have in your head. You’ll spend all your time focusing on slight variations of the same concept, or find reasons to throw away information that doesn’t fit your existing perspective. If you’re doing design research, you’ll start asking leading questions that coax your subject into the answers you’re already sure are the right ones.

Created by the British Design Council, the double diamond model has become a common way to visualize the divergence and convergence of thought that takes place during design. You first define your problem, then diverge in your thinking, and finally converge on something definable. You repeat this process when designing a solution. To preserve uncertainty in a design project, force yourself to do the divergent thinking. This should be a natural part of your workflow, but setting aside linear time or creating exercises that encourage divergence reinforces its importance.

Understanding your existing perspective at the genesis of a project can keep that perspective from trampling all over your design. Start by writing down everything that you are sure of—not about the solution, but about the larger problem environment. If you are working as a team, make sure that each piece is something on which all can agree. Ask yourself whether any of these insights are prescriptive, and if they are, set them aside as hypotheses to test. If they are not, print them out and stick them on the wall. This reminds you what intellectual luggage you carried to the project, and gives you a clear point from which to diverge.

Don’t Start Knowing Things Too Late

Design flourishes within constraints. Use this to your advantage. Every project needs a defined timeline. Even if vagaries and challenges in the process mean it will likely change, a timeline gives you an understanding of what needs to be decided in order to keep things on track.

If the danger in failing to diverge is premature certainty, the danger in failing to converge is a lack of focus. Eventually your diamonds become open ended triangles, and the sheer volume of possibilities you are considering becomes detrimental—so much so, that it can even provoke a sense of panic. If you begin to feel that the problem is too big, it’s probably because you’ve made it so.

Chunking things up can help mitigate the paralysis that huge design challenges can create. Every challenge is built of components. Examine each component individually and find certainty on small things. Big solutions are the byproduct of well-considered little decisions. Chunking helps drive the momentum of design.

You can also maintain your focus by developing a set of explicit questions that you are trying to answer. Put them at the core of your project, and add or subtract from the set only when absolutely necessary. As you progress, it’s important that certain tenets of your work become sacrosanct. This prevents a moment of anxiety from derailing everything.

Knowing When to Start Knowing

Every designer is looking for that moment of inspiration when it becomes blindingly obvious that we’ve hit the mark. That moment is a beautiful thing, but chasing the dragon of that adrenaline rush is dangerous—it doesn’t come along that often. Frequently, we have to move forward without that feel-good tingle.

Like an athlete getting a sense of “feel” through repetition, the way to hone this sense is practice (and in this case practice structuring uncertainty through process). Trust the process enough to allow for uncertainty without anxiety. Flex it enough to move on when the unique circumstances of your project call for it.

Justin Kunkel

By Justin Kunkel

Former Director of Research & Experience Design

Published on February 17, 2015