Design without constraints isn’t realistic

Patrick Shannon

Patrick Shannon

July 4, 2017

No matter what kind you are, one of the most important traits of a creative professional is understanding the fundamentals, limitations and behavior of the media you work with in order to explore the possibilities and achieve the best possible result. Knowledge is power after all, and few markets view professionals less for knowing MORE.

Some creative fields and markets tend to be very odd citizens in this area, and the siloing of design and execution prevalent at many places are by-products of this philosophy.

Skeptics claim that creatives with production knowledge will focus solely on limitations and not explore innovation. This concern is understandable but misguided: a person too concerned with logistics early on is simply guilty of attempting to address the wrong problem at the wrong time. (Equally guilty are those who forget that clients are not necessarily paying for art but a cost-effective solution to their problem.)

Rather, I think there is an even deeper ideology at work here, and I truly believe the idea of keeping designers separate from execution is guided by the belief that creatives should be left to work without any constraints.

Design without constraints…sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? And I mean in the sense that it’s not realistic.

As I stated above, the early stages of the creative process isn’t the time to be worrying about logistics and should encourage free exploration of ideas and possibilities. But ALL ideas must eventually be grounded and a big part of that is learning how to make ideas work amongst the constraints.

Constraints are a universal truth in life: the best idea in the world is for naught if the execution falls apart. A photographer will blow the exposure if they didn’t regard the variables of the environment / subject. A beautifully designed piece of furniture could split if structure or wood movement is not considered. A brilliant website design on a static document may fail when fluid content, devices or browser limitations changes the equation.

Part of designing with constraints is foreseeing these kinds of scenarios and determining how to best work with (and challenge) them, and someone who can do that is far more effective at their job than those who cannot. One must learn the rules in order to break them, as they say.

I think the biggest negative connotation with constraints is the feeling that the very word is synonymous with “NO,” that a constraint-minded person may reject potentially groundbreaking ideas, as I’ve said. Perhaps the idea is offensive to creatives themselves who don’t want to feel limited in what they can do.

While constraints may put a disappointing halt on a direction, the proper response to problems should not necessarily be “NO” but rather “WHAT IF…?” Constraints need not be considered the end of a good idea…but rather the potential for the start of a better one.

Embrace constraints: design solves absolutely nothing without them. Only when a creative is allowed to face and overcome these challenges is when innovation can be realized.

About Patrick Shannon

As a user experience (UX) designer / researcher based in St. Louis, I've worked with technology partners across the country to study end-users and create fictionless products and solutions that today's audiences connect with. In my spare time, I enjoy photography and building ideas out of anything from electronics to wood...still determined to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime someday.