An Unlimited Imagination Limited

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Internal Sensemaking

This past week, we’ve been grappling with one main question: What limits what we can imagine? This question is quite complex. Our imaginations are complex. And our imaginations are also immense. Ironically, our imagination itself is greater than we can imagine. Or rather our imagination is greater than we can comprehend.

Imagination happens all the time in our brains, consciously or unconsciously. It’s the sensemaking we do to our imagination that limits it. The sensemaking that comes when we try to understand what our brain is telling us and the sensemaking that we use to then convey it to the external world. Even the act of our consciousness trying to understand our imagination puts new constraints on it.

I’m imagining things right now that I could never explain to you. I can’t even explain them to myself, because they don’t make sense. Because making sense means fitting into the constraints of our current world.

Think about the last dream you had. Try to tell it to someone else. As you begin to unravel the dream itself, you are realizing that there are things within the dream that don’t make sense. As you slept, it felt totally normal, but now to your conscious, sensemaking brain, you can’t comprehend it. As you tell it, you use metaphors and similes to describe how it’s “kind of like” this or that. Ultimately, when you finish telling it to someone else, it’s not the same as the dream you had. You may think that you’ve explained it as best you could, but the retelling of it wasn’t how it happened and didn’t make you feel how you felt when it happened to you in your dream.

This is your brain creating things that you can’t comprehend. The subsequent act of your brain trying to understand those thoughts is the first constraint that your imagination undergoes.


External Communication

After internal sensemaking occurs (the first constraint on what we can imagine), the second constraint occurs: communicating to the external world. We want to deliver this thought to others and make it more tangible. Our first resource we draw from is language, spoken and written.

Language and Perspective

As we seek to externalize thoughts from our imagination, we draw from our language. While language can help us communicate our ideas to others quickly, it also constrains our ideas into only thoughts that can be expressed in our language. Language is a good system for some things, but it’s not a perfect system. In his piece “Metaphors Can Change Our Opinions in Ways We Don’t Even Realize,” Steve Rathje explains how language changes the way we view things and ideas. He states, “Because of the role [metaphors] play in our thought processes, the metaphors we choose to use can dramatically impact people’s perceptions in ways that have real-world consequences.”

Language matters. Language limits not what we imagine, but limits how much of our imagination we can understand and how much we can communicate to others. As Rathje puts it, “Words matter, and if we are careful with our words, we can use them to make a positive impact. Like poets, we can approach our language with grace and precision, crafting metaphors that are persuasive and give people new ways to think about issues.” Our language may constrain our original imagination, but it can also be used to create new frames of looking at problems and reframing can spark our imagination all over again.

doesnt speak language

Perspective also can limit how we understand or communicate our imagination. Language often alters our perspective. Take the medical field for example. The verbiage and environment of understanding anatomy creates a new perspective of the human body. Instead of seeing humans as people, medical practitioners can switch to seeing humans as bodies. In his article “How Medicine Constructs Its Objects” Byron Good explains how this perspective alters the way medical students see their patients. He writes, “Students are quite aware that they are learning an alternative way of seeing, that it is a way of seeing that they can usually ‘turn on and turn off,’ but that they are learning to ‘think anatomically’ in a way that is central to the medical gaze.”

Learning this new perspective combined with its new language, provides opportunity to see and understand in a new way. However, doctors must be wary of where this perspective comes into conflict with the alternative perspective of human bodies as people not just objects. Medical professionals have to constantly be code-switching between medical jargon and an anatomical perspective to a human-based, empathetic way of understanding and communicating. If they cannot do this effectively, the whole system struggles because humans are not either people or bodies, they are both and medical professionals need to operate to serve both.

It’s not just the professionals. Ultimately, it’s the medical system that inadequately prepares and inadequately cares for the medical professionals within it. Because the doctors and nurses are not just walking medical databases, they are people too and they need humanizing care as much as the patients.

The Role of Fear

Fear is another constraint we have on the implementation of our imagination. The limitations that fear impose can be good or they can be bad. The can limit us in moving toward certain directions and they can show us potential downfalls to our ideas.

Fear can be tacit or explicitly depicted. Some fear is internal and guides us from implementing or acting on things that scare us. This can hinder our ideas by not giving them the opportunity to grow in new ways or address the parts that scare us. Fear can also be depicted outright to hinder our growth or to call attention to potential darkside of our implementing our imagination. For instance, in the short videos “Strange Beasts” and “Sight,” we explore the potential of augmented reality only to discover that it could creep into our lives in unexpected ways. Unexpected ways that change the way we interact with other people, change our behavior, change our culture, and change us. This fear can hold us back from implementing our imaginations, which could be detrimental to our growth, but these short videos also call attention to potential repercussions that we may not otherwise consider. So, fear can be a constraint, but it can also help us grapple with the responsibility we need to have over implementing our imagination in real life.




In “Reframing Health to Embrace Design of our Own Well-Being,” Dubberly et al. promote a reframing of the medical system to promote the voice and responsibility of the patient. They argue that the current field often reduces patients to a childlike status, where medical professionals have all the power and all the responsibility. Dubberly et al. propose a reframe to increase the autonomy of the patient, the responsibility of the patient, and the view of health. This new perspective would change the way that the whole system works and would especially change the way that healthcare professionals and patients interact. Reframing is an important design tool that can allow designers to look beyond dominant lenses to understand a problem from multiple perspectives and in various contexts. 


Bell et al. uses defamiliarization as a way to reframe perspective. As an example exercise, Bell et al. has people “describe something as if they were talking to someone from Mars…[or] imagine that [you] are from Mars and are seeing our world for the very first time.” They describe defamiliarization as “first and foremost a literary device, a style of writing…available as a strategy to anyone with access to a pen and paper.” Still constrained by the limitations of language, defamiliarization can be used to open up new ideas and understanding through a specific type of reframing. Reframing and defamiliarizaton can be used as strategies to stimulate new thought and push ourselves beyond our current understanding of a problem. As an example, here’s a short video of defamiliarization of food to reframe how we think about what we eat.

Finding a Balance

As designers, we need to balance multiple perspectives and fill in the gaps of where our knowledge ends. We can help fill out our repertoire of perspectives by doing our best to experience what others go through. We call this type of understanding ‘empathy’ and as human-center designers, we try to build it with our users in everything we do. But, be wary of where immersion within a community or a perspective can constrain your ideas. Be ready to switch between multiple perspectives.

As designers we need to balance not only how we develop our ideas, but also how we communicate them. Language has its strengths and words matter, but there are other mediums to express our ideas and they should be utilized throughout our work. Drawing our concepts helps move us beyond the constraints of language. Making mockups or prototypes can allow people to interact with our ideas in new way. Drawing and making can not only allow us to communicate to others in a new way, the process of externalizing our ideas can change how we understand them as well.

Our knowledge and understanding can limit that way we implement our imagination. Having a holistic look at something can push us to understand an issue from multiple frames and can provide us with new ways of understanding a certain problem.


Collaboration can be used throughout the design process to reframe problems, to balance perspectives, to fill out knowledge gaps, and to provide feedback on our ideas. Collaboration is a powerful tool that can be used to stimulate thought and feed the imagination. It can also be a constraint, but if used well, it can be the key to powering our imaginations. 



Our imaginations are not constrained in and of themselves, but our sensemaking and communication of our imagination imposes limitations on what we can comprehend and externalize from our imagination. Our knowledge, perspective, language, and even fear, add layers of constraint. However, strategies such as reframing, defamiliarization, finding a balance, and collaborating can help us cope with some of the constraints and find new ways of understanding and new ways to communicate our ideas.