Philly Creative Guide

Here's the Thing

Bill Haley

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Ambiguous
by Bill Haley, 1 Oct 2009

Bill Haley is President, Interactive of Allied Pixel (, an integrated media production firm specializing in the convergence of HD video, web and interactive media. He is also an evangelist for He can be reached at [email protected].

Our world values specificity. "Can you be more specific?" Well yes, what I mean is that people don't seem to like it when we're vague. That's why we have pediatric endocrinologists who order Pumpkin Spice Frappuccino Blended Créme with Chocolate Whipped Cream at Starbucks.

But sometimes it's good to be ambiguous, especially if you're a creative type.

Let's say you're working on a website. Your designer asks for some creative direction so she can begin working on design mockups. Now, you can respond by saying that the logo should go here, and it should be 60 pixels wide, and a photo of a guy with a drill should go there, and the whole thing should be done in shades of blue, and she should use the Helvetica Neue typeface.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Ambiguous

That's some pretty specific direction, and you can be pretty sure that you'll get just what you asked for.

However, there's a good chance the designer has different, and (dare I say) maybe even better, ideas than you. If you lock her into your own preconceived notions about what's right, it's quite possible that you are doing a disservice to the project and the client. You are robbing it of valuable creative firepower.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Ambiguous

That's why you might want to start with a more vague starting point. You might talk about the emotion of the piece – confident, or serene, or zany – and sprinkle in a few particulars, like color palettes or text treatments. But try to allow as much creative freedom out of the gate as possible.

I realize that drives some people crazy. Your designer may pump her fists on the table and exclaim, with dramatic pauses for emphasis, "You're... not... giving me... a whole lot... to go on, Chloe." The proper reply, of course, is to smile, lean over and whisper, "Yes. That's... why... they pay me... the big bucks."

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Ambiguous

The greener the person, the more likely you are to get that sort of panicked response. That's just one of the many reasons it's so nice to work with grizzled creative veterans. Verging on being one of them myself, I take great pleasure in exchanging as little concrete information as possible with my creative cohorts. Our discussions are often little more than allegorical fables, facial distortions and grunted animal sounds. Eventually, you develop a creative vocabulary that's based more on ideas than words.

That's when the real creativity starts. That's when the fun begins.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Ambiguous

Now, ambiguity from your client is another thing. We've all pulled our hair out with clients who are unable or unwilling to clarify their expectations. They can't say what they want, but they can sure tell you what they don't want. The dreaded "I'll Know It When I See It." With clients, ambiguity is a bad thing. (Unless your client is really integrated into the creative process. In those rare cases, the rules above apply.)

I hope I've been clear about all this.

Print Article Brought to you by: Bill Haley | President, Interactive of Allied Pixel