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Do I need to know everything before starting the design process?

Ambiguity doesn’t have to be a roadblock; it can be turned into growth opportunities for you and your design skills.

Whether you are a seasoned designer or just starting out, you probably have run into creative briefs with very limited information, something like “designing a pitch deck based on these PDFs” or “designing a dashboard” without much more details. It could be quite daunting in this situation, considering your performance as a designer is on the line.

How can you get the ball rolling? How do you not stress out? If you find yourself struggling with ambiguity, you are welcome to try a few things that helped me and my team.

Start design process with questions

First off, you definitely need to ask about file formats and deadlines if they aren’t clearly outlined. This might seem trivial, but having that information early on can greatly help you plan the whole project effort. Taking that pitch deck design for instance. If the client wishes to be able to update text and even mix and match slides by themselves later on, you might be better off delivering an editable PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation instead of a PDF file.

Once you have the basic information, take a few minutes to analyze the request. You don’t have to read between the lines - not that there are many lines to read per se, but sometimes what’s not explicitly stated contains a great deal of information that you can lean on. What is expected of the material? Where is it going to be used? Who is the target audience? What do they care about and what are some of their preferences? Asking questions like these can help remove some uncertainties while gaining substance that you can use later to validate and support your design decisions.

Work with assumptions and explore options

Edge cases can help you look at the problem from different angles

If you can’t get answers to all the questions, some assumptions can help ground your thinking and design decision-making. In our practice, when we don’t have all the information, we find it helpful to start the design process with some assumptions to frame the problem. With that, it becomes easier to explore and evaluate initial ideas. Sometimes even your client doesn’t have a clear picture, and it can work to your advantage to offer conceptual solutions - it’s usually beneficial for a designer to bring solutions to conversations, especially for the exploratory types of projects.  

It also helps to consider some edge cases early on. They don’t necessarily represent the majority of use cases, but edge cases can help you look at the problem from different angles and reveal the scale of design problems. Oxo successfully designed a better peeler for everyone when designing for people with arthritis. That “edge” led the team to the discovery of a common denominator among real people.

Keep an open mind and keep iterating

Most importantly, once you start the design process, let go of the “shoulds” and focus on discovery. It means that what seems true now might not be valid in a few hours; what you are doing now provides an angle that may be hidden from you otherwise. Things may change quickly, so treat every one of your attempts as steps that bring you closer to the real solution to the core problem.

Meanwhile, seek feedback often if you can manage. It doesn’t mean bothering your teammates every 5 minutes, but maybe as soon as you think you have a clear direction along with your research and assumptions. By doing this, you can start gaining insights from real people and help build a healthier collaborative environment. With feedback, go back and iterate. In our experience, when dealing with ambiguity, it is more revealing and informative when we treat the design process as a discussion; there is no right or wrong. Clarity is what matters.

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Even though we tend to favor certainties, those things aren’t always available for design projects. Ambiguity in design could well mean opportunities - if you take a deep breath, calm down, and keep iterating.