How do you feel when you hear the words “just do what you want”? Creative freedom or choice paralysis?
In this post, I’m going to argue that designing with limitations leads to better decisions, and therefore more effective designs.
To begin, let’s define what we mean by constraints. A constraint can take many forms, but ultimately is a necessary or required consideration that must be factored into your designs. And by design, I’ll generally be talking about the design of digital products and services.
In the words of esteemed designer Charles Eames in 1972, “Design depends largely on constraints.” He elaborated, “Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognise as many of the constraints as possible; his [or her] willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.”
All designers will have a clear process they follow that helps them to uncover the core problem and opportunity.
For us at Hustle Digital, we start with an in-depth workshop to establish an understanding of the business or business proposition and (in many cases more importantly), the intended customers. This understanding forms the basis for all our strategic design work that follows.
Establishing an understanding of the end users as early as possible ensures that more effective design decisions can be made throughout the rest of the design process. And this includes identifying design constraints.
As an example, we have recently been working with A Plus Fire on a system to enable them to digitally record the results of their testing and maintenance of fire protection systems. Doing tests on-site with their team showed us that we needed to consider in our designs whether the worker had access to wifi, and ensure they would not lose data if they lost connection. We were able to use this constraint to improve our designs and create a more effective solution.
A collaborative process
Throughout the design process, there will always be multiple stakeholders from business owners to end users to developers. Particularly when working in an agency environment, the success of a digital product or service can depend on a designers’ ability to understand the business objectives and longer-term strategy.
At Hustle, we share our designs with the client team throughout the design process and strive to be as collaborative as possible in our approach.
In particular, our recent work with Young+Metcalf got me thinking about the impact of design constraints on creativity. Our brief was to create a website that showcased their outstanding architecture projects and expert team, with the one caveat; the website was to fit only within the user’s window with no scrolling.
Designing with no scroll introduced certain challenges, and made us think carefully about the space available. The end result is a clean website that alludes to the attention to detail and awareness of space upheld by a leading architectural practice.
So to conclude, getting to know your design constraints, whether from an end-user or business perspective, can be a great place to kick start creativity.
And if you’re not convinced, just open up google.com. As the most powerful search engine on the planet (google processes over 40,000 search queries per second on average), Google designers are constrained by an imperative to keep things simple. As a result, their home page content is under 20 words, the same number of words as this sentence.