Learning to Embrace Ambiguity

Studio Lernert & Sander X de Volkskrant, Cubes

Thursday is Brown Bag day at Pier 31 Technologies.

We all meet for about one hour, usually during lunch time; one person is in charge of running the session and presenting a topic, sharing knowledge and information about it. So far, we have covered a variety of subjects, from brainstorming names for apps to git commands, from the advent of Web Summit in Lisbon to the startup scene in Brazil.

This knowledge sharing process is not always as linear as it might seem. For us, the Brown Bag isn’t just an informal company meeting but a chance to learn together — and that does not happen by simply sitting in front of someone who is pouring information over you. As our experience suggests, the best Brown Bags happen when unexpected debates arise, when sensitive questions are explored, when people’s opinions differ.

That’s exactly what happened during one of our latest Brown Bag sessions. Our resident designer Ivan, inspired by two projects he was working on at the time and driven by his own passion for cooking, decided to explore the connections between these two highly creative domains: Cooking and Design, subjects which inevitably invite a certain amount of controversy and debate.

Looking at the subject from the users/eaters point of view, Ivan narrowed it down to the essential features of each domain: Edibility for Cooking, Usability and Readability for Design. Just like customers in a restaurant ultimately want to eat and appreciate the taste of their meal (no matter how Instagrammable it might be), the visitors of a website need to immediately understand it in order to use it effectively.

Image credit: Alamy

The presentation then proceeded to examine the actors involved: Designers & Cooks, the figures who act “behind-the-scenes” to deliver a final product to the users/eaters. To kick off this section, Ivan selected a quote by celebrated US designer Milton Glaser:

“Computers are to design as microwaves are to cooking.”

It quickly became apparent that the quote perfectly fit the context: food and design were there, together with a powerful analogy and the right amount of ambiguity to ignite a lively debate.

It turned out that not everybody read the quote in the same way. The main interpretations were two:

  1. a “positive” one: computers democratised tools, thus making the design process faster, more affordable and available to everyone; this had a significant impact on the life of amateurs and professionals alike;
  2. a “negative” one: technology certainly has an impact on design, but computers are not really necessary to create a great (edible, usable) product; they might even end up corrupting the essence and qualities of that product

Most likely, Milton Glaser’s goal when formulating this sentence was making people question his words — and perhaps this is what made the quote particularly suitable for our Brown Bag. According to the legendary designer, ambiguity is “a basic tool for perceiving reality”: we should not fear it, but rather embrace it and use it as a key to interpreting what surrounds us. It feeds our thoughts, providing us something that is necessary to the development of our mind.

Does this mindset clash with the principles of simplicity, clarity and persuasion that design often relies upon?

Not at all. Milton himself offers an example with the ubiquitous and iconic I Love New York (I ❤ NY) logo. One of the reasons why it became so popular and widely imitated is the fact that everybody can grasp the meaning of those three letters and that symbol. It is incredibly simple and effective. However, several stages of interpretation and degrees of knowledge are required to get there: the “I” expresses the first person singular in English, N and Y stand for New York and the heart shape signifies love. Our brain has to go through all these levels of analysis in order to interpret the design. As Milton Glaser puts in in his essay on Ambiguity & Truth:

The human brain is a problem-solving organ, a characteristic that probably is at the center of our dominance over other species. The brain frequently remains inert until a problem is presented to it.

Apparently, Milton came up with the idea for the logo while on a taxi ride, and quickly sketched it on the back of a paper envelope. A rather microwaveable approach for a gourmet designer.

Milton Glaser, I (Heart) NY concept sketch, 1976, MoMA Collection

This, at least, seemed to reassure us and put an end to our discussion. There was no right or wrong interpretation of the words we had dwelled on, they simply served a higher purpose: engage us and provoke our thoughts. Just like the I ❤ NY logo, or the particularly appealing presentation of a dish.

Arguably, the very first step to initiate the entire process was facing our doubts and not being reluctant to discuss them openly.

After all, how many great ideas are born out of general consensus?


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