Granted, what you just imagined is the perfect or ideal instantiation of ambiguity, but it doesn’t always work that way. There are times when art falls flat or even reifies an existing structure of meaning. But in that case, which you might think of as propaganda, I would suggest that the object is non-ambiguous if for no other reason than that it would screw up my argument — but, hey, at least I can I admit it, right?
One of the best examples of ambiguity in literature, my favorite form of art, is Le città invisibili. Good gods, what a book! I’ve read it. I’ve wrestled with it. I’ve sought to find meaning in it. And each and every time I encounter it, I find something new, something that expands my horizon.
Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing (5).
Brilliant! I sense that there’s meaning here, profound meaning even, but the text forces me to squish it out like a sopping sponge.
The Catch-22 of Design
I’m an academic turned UX researcher and writer, however, and the question for me is what does aesthetic ambiguity have to do with the everyday objects that I encounter?
In Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug argues that good design is literally — and I’m not using that figuratively — the opposite of aesthetic ambiguity. The confrontation with art asks us to co-create meaning. It purposely confounds so that it can stretch the boundaries of our categories, of that which is known.
Design doesn’t confound, however. If it does, then it’s referred to as bad design. Good design is intuitive, invisible, and effortless. It remains hidden so that the user can get on with her day. It’s both practical and useful.
And yet, design still falls within the garden of aesthetics because it’s also supposed to be “pleasing,” both visually and kinetically. Designers, in other words, don’t get very far if their designs are ugly, even if their design is highly functional, incredibly useful, and user-centered.
Though this might be contentious, I would argue that designers aren’t judged on function. They’re judged, rather, on form. If it ain’t beautiful, it ain’t gonna sell— hence, the portfolio skim. “Yeah,” the hiring manager says after ten seconds, “I’m not really feeling it.”
Designers are artists or at least they’re judged as artists but without the ability to wield one of the tools that makes art what it is — ambiguity.
The Design of Ambiguity
But here’s the thing. Perhaps I’m conflating “art” with “design.” It’s not that design is crippled or less than art because it strives to hide, whereas art oftentimes calls attention to itself. Maybe it’s that design is its own art form or practice separate from the goals and aims of art.
The question is can this distinction be teased out and clarified so that art and design can be encountered on their own terms? As it’s been pointed out, all too often, that the line between art and design is blurred.
If we continue to judge designers as if they were artists, while also utilizing the most common definitions and understandings of art, then we fall into a strange conundrum. Mark Getlein suggests that the principles of design are “almost instinctive,” “built-in,” “natural,” and part of “our sense of ‘rightness’” (121). This seems to suggest, however, that design can only ever reify systems and structures of meaning, which, at best, verges on the aesthetic definition of propaganda, and, at worst, negates inclusive practices in design. I mean, whose sense of rightness or what natural condition are we talking about?
It’s the very ambiguity that we discussed above, however, that exists to combat both propaganda and exclusion. This, of course, is where the overlap between art and design is most strained.
On the one hand, art pushes the boundaries of what is known to stretch or increase our understanding of the world. Art, at its best, grows reality.
On the other hand, design risks irrelevancy if it pushes beyond what is already commonly accepted. As someone who enjoys Material Design, I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve searched for standardizations on material.io. I search because it’s accepted. There’s no room for ambiguity when designing with Material in mind.
And yet, designers create products that are shaping the world we live in every day, and their products utilize the concept of ambiguity to do the shaping. Whether it’s a technology that solves a once unsolvable problem, augmented reality, or even virtual reality the products themselves birth new categories of human understanding and create previously unforeseen ways of navigating the world — and they do it through “invisible design,” a construct that inverts the aesthetic notion of ambiguity.
Design has the potential, in other words, to create ambiguous experiences without calling attention to itself, which is a common trait of artistic ambiguity.
So maybe that’s the difference. Where art foregrounds itself and intentionally calls into question the boundaries of experience, design hides within the object to make experience more fruitful, engaging, and meaningful. Where design pushes the boundaries of the known world is only a tangential goal embedded within the relationship between object and human interaction.
So if ambiguity has any place in design, then perhaps it’s in considering that magical moment when a human interacts with a well designed and well-crafted object and the relationship between thing and world shifts.
Whatever the distinction between the role that ambiguity plays in art and design, I find myself endlessly fascinated by the soil of ambiguity that enriches and births the garden of aesthetics.
A garden, frankly, that I hope to lose myself within for a long, long time to come.