Why Constraints Are A Fundamental Part Of Design

What do you think about constraints? How does the word make you feel? How do you view constraints as a part of design?


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The word constraint can sound like a bad word. Constraints are something you can’t do. They restrict what you’re allowed to do They take away freedom. They remove options. They’re rules you didn’t set. They’re an early bedtime or being forced to eat your vegetables when you want ice cream.

Constraints are fundamental to design despite the negative connotation of the word. They’re fundamental to all creation. Take the primal example of two people creating a child.

The pairing of the first two constrains what the third will be. The child will be constrained by the specifics of the parents. Different parents lead to a different child. The same parents at a different a time lead to a different child. There are lots of constraints in something so basic to our species.

Facing the Blank Canvas

When any and every option is in front of you, it’s difficult to decide. It’s the principle of choices. The more options the more difficult it is to choose any of them. We become overwhelmed by all the possibilities in front of us.

Your first choice facing an empty canvas is the most difficult one to make, whether it’s a blank sheet of paper for an article, a literal canvas for a painting, or the beginning of a design.

The first mark on an empty page or the blank canvas; the first few decisions in a design are difficult because you have no basis on which to decide. The eventual finished product can be anything before that first mark on the page.

There are too many possibilities and it’s too soon to have any reason to believe which of the possibilities will be good and which will be less than good. There’s little basis to decide in the beginning.

Your first decision (first few really) are arbitrary. In reality you probably know something about the problem before making any design decision and have already made decisions by this point, but earlier in the process there’s going to be more arbitrariness in your decisions.

Each successive choice after the first should be less and less arbitrary than the ones before because current and future decisions should be in harmony with past ones. In the beginning you don’t have much to harmonize with and so little reason to pick one thing over another.

Constraints help design because they force a few early decisions on you. They take the responsibility of some early arbitrary decisions off your shoulders and place it on the constraints.

Yes, responsibility. There’s a lot of responsibility in having no constraints. Everything is on you, which can be a scary thing to face. Constraints give you an out, a way to tell yourself deep down it wasn’t your fault. I don’t mean this in a bad way. I don’t mean this as a way to avoid responsibility.

It’s a way for us to get started more easily where those first few marks on the page or first few design decisions or conerned. Once present you can then start shaping into something more, but the constraints help take away the uncertainty of the early decisions in a design.

Constraints

There are a lot of things that constrain the design of a website. Off the top of my head here are a few.

Problem definition is in many ways an exercise in discovering constraints. You find goals which add constraints and establish what the result and direction of the project should be. There will be a budget that adds constraints in what can be done and how you can solve the problems you’ve been hired to solve.

A client’s worldview and taste adds constraints in aesthetic choices. If a client tells you they hate the color blue then it’s highly unlikely your design will contain blue. You’ll eliminate blue entirely as a consideration.

It’s one less thing you can choose that’s imposed by your client’s taste in colors. A new constraint is added with every detail you learn about the problem you’re being asked to solve.

When a client says the company brand is fun and dynamic it helps you make choices about typefaces, imagery, colors, and general aesthetics. It does so by imposing constraints and removing all the other possible choices that don’t say fun and dynamic.

Content is a great place to find constraints. I start every design solution with the content. I take a content inventory and decide what will be on the site. Then I organize and prioritize it.

The decisions you make about content add more constraints. If a page heading is more important than a link within the text, it constrains how you can design both visually in relation to each other. The heading needs to be more visually prominent then the link.

There will still be many ways to show their visual prominence, but all those options that would make the link more visually prominent are no longer permitted by the constraint of the page heading being of higher priority than the link.

Design principles add constraints by offering guidelines. Anything suggested not to do in the guidelines is no longer an option, assuming you adhere to the principles completely.

Anything a principle says not to do becomes a constraint. You can ignore design principles to explore options that would be constrained otherwise, though you should understand why the principles exist first.

The ability and skills of the designer constrain design. There are certain things I can’t do or do well. I’m unlikely to find a best solution going down paths that aren’t aligned with my strengths. It’s likely the same for you, though the particular strengths might be different.

We travel down different paths because of our different skill sets but we’re both constrained by the specific path we walk. We can increase our skills as designers and remove some constraints as we do, but the current level of our skills always constrains us to some degree.

Every choice you make constrains future choices. Each choice should be in harmony with choices that came before. Making decisions is in some sense a way of removing future options. Decisions made in harmony lead to a whole that’s more than the sum of it’s parts and gives them direction and focus.

Sculpting a Statue from Clay or a Block of Marble

You can create a sculpture by building up (adding more clay) or removing and revealing (chipping away at a block of marble).

Constraints are like the sculptor chipping away at the block of marble. Each cut into the block constrains what the statue can be. Each constrains where the next cut can be. The statue is revealed as the block is chipped away. Each piece of marble removed is one less piece that can be included in the statue.

We probably think about design more as building up. We keep adding things until it’s done, but we can also look at it the other way. We remove possibilities through constraints and eventually reveal the design that’s left.

The design is revealed as the potential options are chipped away and more and more constraints are added to reveal the design within the options that are left. Every decision is a constraint and is like another chip at the block of marble.

Seeing design as making one decision after another is like adding more clay and then shaping it. Seeing design as adding constraints is like chipping away at the block of marble, reducing options for future decisions until the only options left are the design.

Closing Thoughts

Whichever way you want to approach a design, whether it’s adding new clay and shaping what you added or by chipping away at all the possibilities and reducing them to a manageable few, is fine and your choice. You can view design either way. Both are ultimately opposite sides of the same coin.

As long as your additions or subtractions are made in harmony with the ones that came before you’ll end up with something good. Assuming you also started with a good understanding of the problem and have been working in right direction, you should end up with a good solution that solves the right problem.

You can reveal the design by removing what’s not there as well as you can by adding what will be there.

Constraints are a good thing. They get you past the blank canvas by forcing decisions on you when there’s no basis for deciding. They help you get started and you can continue to add constraints until you reveal the design.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

2 comments

  1. Hello,
    it was a very interesting article and answers a lot of queries on why restict your creativity….I’m teaching at a fashion design institute and lot of times students ask this question -” why restict ourselves with concepts and inspiriation and purpose of designing?” .I used to try and convince them but not as well as you have done. after reading this article i’ll be able to answer it with more conviction and understanding..thanks for sharing

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