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Navigating Ambiguity

Creating Opportunity in a World of Unknowns

Illustrated by Reina Takahashi
Photographs by Andria Lo
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A thought-provoking guide to help you lean in to the discomfort of the unknown to turn creative opportunities into intentional design, from Stanford University's world-renowned d.school.

Navigating Ambiguity reminds us not to run from uncertainty but rather see it as a defining moment of opportunity.”—Yves Béhar, Founder and CEO, fuseproject

A design process presents a series of steps, but in real life, it rarely plays out this neatly. Navigating Ambiguity underscores how the creative process isn’t formulaic. This book shows you how to surrender control by being adaptable, curious, and unbiased as well as resourceful, tenacious, and courageous.

Designers and educators Andrea Small and Kelly Schmutte use humor and clear steps to help you embrace uncertainty as you approach a creative project. First, they explain how the brain works and why it defaults to certainty. Then they show you how to let go of the need for control and instead employ a flexible strategy that relies on the balance between acting and adapting, and the give-and-take between opposing approaches to make your way to your goal.

Beautiful cut-paper artwork illustrations offer ways to rethink creative work without hitting the usual roadblocks. The result is a more open and satisfying journey from assignment or idea to finished product.
Andrea Small is design leader, strategist, and educator. As a former d.school teaching fellow, she and her cohort created award-winning education experiences. Currently she teaches at the d.school and leads storytelling and design strategy for Samsung Research America's R&D Innovation team. Andrea has worked with some of the world's most iconic brands, including Nike, Nivea, Facebook, iRobot, Starbucks, and Herman Miller. View titles by Andrea Small
Kelly Schmutte is a designer, educator, and entrepreneur. At the d.school she designs learning experiences with lasting impact, reimagining the future of higher education (Stanford 2025), creating life tools for high schoolers, and building out the Navigating Ambiguity curriculum. Kelly teaches core d.school classes alongside d.school founder David Kelley. She and her ballet shoe start-up, PerfectFit Pointe, were featured in the New York Times. View titles by Kelly Schmutte
The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known as the d.school, was founded at Stanford University in 2005. Each year, more than a thousand students from all disciplines attend classes, workshops, and programs to learn how the thinking behind design can enrich their own work and unlock their creative potential. View titles by Stanford d.school
What Is Ambiguity?

The first step to understanding ambiguity is to define it, which is a delightfully existential challenge we’ve been pondering ourselves for several years. Let’s attempt to disambiguate ambiguity, shall we?

According to “the internet,” the definition of ambiguity is:

a: the quality or state of being ambiguous
b: something that can be understood in two or more possible ways

The word ambiguity comes from the Latin ambiguus, which was formed by combining ambi- meaning “both ways” and -agere meaning “to act.” Ambiguity is about holding two ideas at the same time and understanding something in more than one way. It’s about dualities, multiplicities, and active interpretation.

All cleared up? No? We’re shocked.*

Tasseography is the practice of reading patterns in tea leaves (or coffee grounds or wine sediments) left in the bottom of a cup. You can “read” the tea leaves by allowing your imagination to play around with the shapes suggested in their arrangement. You might see a country, a heart, or a raven. Or read deeper . . . is that an apple? Or the Apple logo? Does it mean I need to limit my screen time? Am I reading too much tea?

Ambiguity is a layer of meaning people apply to perfectly unambiguous stuff. When you read the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup, the cup and dregs are not ambiguous. Ambiguity lies in the multiple meanings that you might derive from their arrangement. It emerges from the many ways you interpret reality. But before you settle on one interpretation, ambiguity gives you permission to be creative. As soon as you choose an interpretation, ambiguity naturally evaporates.

Our response to ambiguity—both our interpretations and our emotional response—is not objective. It’s deeply connected to experience, context, history, and character. What you see might not be what anyone else sees. What you see today might be different tomorrow.

Ambiguity ≠ uncertainty.

Ambiguity may contain uncertainty, but they’re different. Dictionaries define uncertainty as something that is not clearly or precisely determined; something unknown, vague, indistinct, or subject to change. Uncertainty implies that there is something to be certain about. An absolute truth or fact exists. It’s more black and white.

Uncertainty might look like:

Why am I getting issues of Domestic Rabbits magazine?
Will I get the job or not?
What if the ferret hates the new rabbit?
Will my rent check bounce?
When will they respond to my email?
Does this mole look normal?
When will the quarantine end and my life go back to normal?
Will life ever return to normal?

With ambiguity, on the other hand, there’s no singular, correct answer. It allows for layers of meaning on anything. No absolute truth or fact exists. Your mind is free to explore—and to imagine possibilities that are unknown or don’t currently exist.

Ambiguity might look like:

What could this sheet of blank paper become?
What can I learn from new contexts and cultures?
What happens when I step outside of my comfort zone?
What if I am neither thing? Or both?
What happens when I allow contradictory data to exist?
What are the different ways I can interpret something?
How might I respond to fluctuating timelines or constraints?
After months of starts and stops and highs and lows, what shape will this book “it” take?

In philosophy and art, ambiguity and uncertainty are decidedly different. In this book, we blur them together a bit because the words uncertainty and ambiguity are intertwined in our lexicon, and untangling semantics isn’t our goal. In general, when we refer to ambiguity or uncertainty in this book, we mean holding multiple ideas or possibilities. We also say not knowing, the unknown, the gray area, or the _________. For the purposes of this book, we break our own rules, we keep it vague, we keep you guessing. Some might say we practice what we preach.

Even if ambiguity and uncertainty are decidedly different on paper, they are not very different in the brain. Perhaps the terms intertwine because humans also intertwine their reactions. As you’ll read, the brain often reacts to ambiguity as if it is uncertainty.

Educator Guide for Navigating Ambiguity

Classroom-based guides appropriate for schools and colleges provide pre-reading and classroom activities, discussion questions connected to the curriculum, further reading, and resources.

(Please note: the guide displayed here is the most recently uploaded version; while unlikely, any page citation discrepancies between the guide and book is likely due to pagination differences between a book’s different formats.)

Navigating Ambiguity reminds us not to run from uncertainty but rather see it as a defining moment of opportunity.”—Yves Béhar, founder and CEO of fuseproject
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About

A thought-provoking guide to help you lean in to the discomfort of the unknown to turn creative opportunities into intentional design, from Stanford University's world-renowned d.school.

Navigating Ambiguity reminds us not to run from uncertainty but rather see it as a defining moment of opportunity.”—Yves Béhar, Founder and CEO, fuseproject

A design process presents a series of steps, but in real life, it rarely plays out this neatly. Navigating Ambiguity underscores how the creative process isn’t formulaic. This book shows you how to surrender control by being adaptable, curious, and unbiased as well as resourceful, tenacious, and courageous.

Designers and educators Andrea Small and Kelly Schmutte use humor and clear steps to help you embrace uncertainty as you approach a creative project. First, they explain how the brain works and why it defaults to certainty. Then they show you how to let go of the need for control and instead employ a flexible strategy that relies on the balance between acting and adapting, and the give-and-take between opposing approaches to make your way to your goal.

Beautiful cut-paper artwork illustrations offer ways to rethink creative work without hitting the usual roadblocks. The result is a more open and satisfying journey from assignment or idea to finished product.

Author

Andrea Small is design leader, strategist, and educator. As a former d.school teaching fellow, she and her cohort created award-winning education experiences. Currently she teaches at the d.school and leads storytelling and design strategy for Samsung Research America's R&D Innovation team. Andrea has worked with some of the world's most iconic brands, including Nike, Nivea, Facebook, iRobot, Starbucks, and Herman Miller. View titles by Andrea Small
Kelly Schmutte is a designer, educator, and entrepreneur. At the d.school she designs learning experiences with lasting impact, reimagining the future of higher education (Stanford 2025), creating life tools for high schoolers, and building out the Navigating Ambiguity curriculum. Kelly teaches core d.school classes alongside d.school founder David Kelley. She and her ballet shoe start-up, PerfectFit Pointe, were featured in the New York Times. View titles by Kelly Schmutte
The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known as the d.school, was founded at Stanford University in 2005. Each year, more than a thousand students from all disciplines attend classes, workshops, and programs to learn how the thinking behind design can enrich their own work and unlock their creative potential. View titles by Stanford d.school

Excerpt

What Is Ambiguity?

The first step to understanding ambiguity is to define it, which is a delightfully existential challenge we’ve been pondering ourselves for several years. Let’s attempt to disambiguate ambiguity, shall we?

According to “the internet,” the definition of ambiguity is:

a: the quality or state of being ambiguous
b: something that can be understood in two or more possible ways

The word ambiguity comes from the Latin ambiguus, which was formed by combining ambi- meaning “both ways” and -agere meaning “to act.” Ambiguity is about holding two ideas at the same time and understanding something in more than one way. It’s about dualities, multiplicities, and active interpretation.

All cleared up? No? We’re shocked.*

Tasseography is the practice of reading patterns in tea leaves (or coffee grounds or wine sediments) left in the bottom of a cup. You can “read” the tea leaves by allowing your imagination to play around with the shapes suggested in their arrangement. You might see a country, a heart, or a raven. Or read deeper . . . is that an apple? Or the Apple logo? Does it mean I need to limit my screen time? Am I reading too much tea?

Ambiguity is a layer of meaning people apply to perfectly unambiguous stuff. When you read the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup, the cup and dregs are not ambiguous. Ambiguity lies in the multiple meanings that you might derive from their arrangement. It emerges from the many ways you interpret reality. But before you settle on one interpretation, ambiguity gives you permission to be creative. As soon as you choose an interpretation, ambiguity naturally evaporates.

Our response to ambiguity—both our interpretations and our emotional response—is not objective. It’s deeply connected to experience, context, history, and character. What you see might not be what anyone else sees. What you see today might be different tomorrow.

Ambiguity ≠ uncertainty.

Ambiguity may contain uncertainty, but they’re different. Dictionaries define uncertainty as something that is not clearly or precisely determined; something unknown, vague, indistinct, or subject to change. Uncertainty implies that there is something to be certain about. An absolute truth or fact exists. It’s more black and white.

Uncertainty might look like:

Why am I getting issues of Domestic Rabbits magazine?
Will I get the job or not?
What if the ferret hates the new rabbit?
Will my rent check bounce?
When will they respond to my email?
Does this mole look normal?
When will the quarantine end and my life go back to normal?
Will life ever return to normal?

With ambiguity, on the other hand, there’s no singular, correct answer. It allows for layers of meaning on anything. No absolute truth or fact exists. Your mind is free to explore—and to imagine possibilities that are unknown or don’t currently exist.

Ambiguity might look like:

What could this sheet of blank paper become?
What can I learn from new contexts and cultures?
What happens when I step outside of my comfort zone?
What if I am neither thing? Or both?
What happens when I allow contradictory data to exist?
What are the different ways I can interpret something?
How might I respond to fluctuating timelines or constraints?
After months of starts and stops and highs and lows, what shape will this book “it” take?

In philosophy and art, ambiguity and uncertainty are decidedly different. In this book, we blur them together a bit because the words uncertainty and ambiguity are intertwined in our lexicon, and untangling semantics isn’t our goal. In general, when we refer to ambiguity or uncertainty in this book, we mean holding multiple ideas or possibilities. We also say not knowing, the unknown, the gray area, or the _________. For the purposes of this book, we break our own rules, we keep it vague, we keep you guessing. Some might say we practice what we preach.

Even if ambiguity and uncertainty are decidedly different on paper, they are not very different in the brain. Perhaps the terms intertwine because humans also intertwine their reactions. As you’ll read, the brain often reacts to ambiguity as if it is uncertainty.

Guides

Educator Guide for Navigating Ambiguity

Classroom-based guides appropriate for schools and colleges provide pre-reading and classroom activities, discussion questions connected to the curriculum, further reading, and resources.

(Please note: the guide displayed here is the most recently uploaded version; while unlikely, any page citation discrepancies between the guide and book is likely due to pagination differences between a book’s different formats.)

Praise

Navigating Ambiguity reminds us not to run from uncertainty but rather see it as a defining moment of opportunity.”—Yves Béhar, founder and CEO of fuseproject

Photos

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additional book photo

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