Is Clarity the Path to Enlightenment?

While revisiting the notes I jotted down when I read Buxton‘s Sketching User Experiences I stumbled across this line of text:

Clarity is Not Always the Path to Enlightenment

It’s the chapter heading for a few pages that describe the necessarily ambiguous nature of sketching as it pertains to design. I especially love one of the chapter’s key ideas: ambiguity is evocative. (Buxton 115)

I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the first readings we did my HCI theory class. An Yvonne Rogers reading. The one in which she expressed concern at HCI’s growing too big too fast. An adolescent growing up. Searching for identity. Grasping in all different directions for meaning. Directionless and, as such, confused and at risk of spiraling into greater confusion and dissonance.

“Do we try to stem the tide and impose some order,” Rogers asks, “or let the field continue to expand in an unruly fashion?” (Rogers 2)

Does there need to be a consensus of purpose? Does there need to be a uniform set of criteria by which we can assess HCI’s contribution(s) and value to knowledge and practice? (Rogers 1)

I think about these questions often. But I think about them relative to the cohort as a group of designers within the field and about myself as a designer within the cohort within the field. And I’ve come up with (not surprisingly) no conclusions. Only observations and more questions.

Think about the field as a design. What is our experience of it? Our interaction with it?

HCI is an incredibly complex thing and its identity is necessarily ambiguous; like a sketch. It enables those who work “within it” to design. Imposing order — pinning down “an” identity — works only insofar as it allows for evocation and mystery.

Buxton, quoting Gaver, Beaver, and Benford, writes of ambiguity in design:

their use of ambiguity makes them evocative rather than didactic and mysterious rather than obvious. (Buxton 115)

When I think of our field, I think of it as a place to explore. To play. To discover. To create!

Can such a place exist with clear structure, purpose, and direction? Of course! Sketches have structure, purpose, and direction. But they are still ambiguous.

If you want to get the most out of a sketch, you need to leave big enough holes. (Buxton 115)

Perhaps HCI’s metamorphosis from a “confined problem space with a clear focus that adopted a small set of methods to tackle it … into a more diffuse space with a less clear purpose,” (Rogers 1) is — in part — the field’s response to sketching. The field is made up of designers and designers are in conversation with their sketches. Does that mean that the field itself is in conversation with sketches, too?

The more I sketch, the more I come to understand my own complexity as a designer. The more I grow to embrace that complexity. The more I want to explore. To play. To create…



Buxton, B. (2007). Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design. San Francisco: Elsevier.

Rogers, Y. (2012). Hci theory: Classical, modern, and contemporary. San Francisco: Morgan & Claypool Publishers.

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