Embrace Constraints: How Limiting Yourself Won’t Limit Your Designs

If you’re a creative person it’s easy to believe you will be at your most creative without any constraints. In reality however, this isn’t the case. Your creativity needs a focus, which is found by setting limits. If you can do anything your creativity stalls – there are too many decisions and you get confused. Restrict yourself to just a few design elements and a set a deadline to give your creative brain a goal to focus on. This article looks at how designers can turn constraints into opportunities.

Embrace Constraints: How Limiting Yourself Won’t Limit Your Designs

The Myth of Creative Freedom

A man’s worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes. - Thomas Huxley

There’s nothing better for a designer than being given creative freedom by your client. Equally, there’s probably nothing worse than a designer giving themselves creative freedom.

It should be in the client’s interests to leave the designer to do their thing because a good designer can identify the key elements required to make the project a success. Often more so than the business owners.

The client can tell us the problem "we need a website to promote this new product x", it’s then up to the designer to create a solution: build the product x website and get applause from users over how great it is to use.

A bad designer might get this very open brief and think ‘great’ - then go off and spend several weeks designing and building the product x website.

The good designer will get the same brief and think ‘great’ - then go back to the client with a whole list of questions and suggestions. Then, following an in-depth discovery process, will go off and spend several weeks designing and building the project x website.

The Myth of Creative Freedom

Setting Limits

The good designer gets to the design stage with a big list of constraints from the discovery phase: they know the demographic, branding guidelines and, through various conversations with his contacts there, a gut reaction of the type of designs that will or won’t:

  1. Be suitable for their customers
  2. Get signed off by the director

The good designer knows the company uses Franklin Gothic font and the director wants lots of green on the site.

The bad designer is still wondering in the back of his mind if red is the right colour to be using in that navigation bar, and whether those headlines should really be in a serif font.

For the responsible designer, the truly open brief doesn’t exist. And even when they have got a set of constraints from the client, they might well impose still further constraints upon themselves.

Man built most nobly when limitations were at their greatest. - Frank Lloyd Wright

Work to Deadlines

The first constraint to put upon yourself is time. Speed helps in the early stages of a design because you get down key concepts without focusing on details.

Work to Deadlines

Working fast also helps switch your brain functions. It encourages use of the right side of your brain and it’s the right side of the brain that does the creative heavy lifting. If you have a serious time limitation, you aren’t able to rationally analyse your work. You simply don’t have time. Instead, if you force yourself to rely on the subconscious and intuition, you will be using the, creative, right side of your brain.

You can produce acceptable designs working from the left side of your brain, but they will have been processed rationally, based on existing solutions. Force yourself to use the right side of your brain and you can get away from these rationalised processes and make decisions based on instinct and gut reaction - and it’s here the original and innovative processes can take place.

Design isn't Always Creative

It’s worth noting that there is a separation between creativity and design. Exactly what we’re calling these is semantics, but the above process is one to encourage free, unrestricted, thought with the goal of promoting innovation. This is the creative process. The design process requires you to take the creative work and pull it into a more cohesive shape. For a website designer this requires assessing how the creative designs can also be usable, functional, designs. We’re building websites not making art.

So how do you go about pulling the purely creative into being great design?

You can continue to use the right side of your brain to your advantage:

When the right side of the brain is presented with an environment it doesn’t like - it fights to correct the situation to a state it is happy with with. The left side of the brain is more passive and will adapt to the environment it is given. Perhaps this is how bad design is prevalent - the designer using the left side of the brain to rationalise their work will accept a design because they can’t explain why something is wrong. The designer using the right side of their brain also can’t explain what is wrong with the design, but they instinctively know it’s wrong and will keep pushing against it.

In most cases the aesthetic value of your website is of secondary importance (by no means an unimportant aspect, but secondary nonetheless). The primary goal is a design that your users can use. Typically this means guiding them through a website to whatever the site’s goal is.

Design isn't Always Creative

Understand the Constraints

It goes without saying: the simpler the process can be for your user to reach this goal, the more likely they are to reach it. Some of this simplicity comes from functionality (how many/few pages can your checkout process be), some of it also comes from the graphic design. Your design should guide the user through the process. It shouldn’t dazzle them with embellishments. Sometimes the embellishments are valid, but you need to understand why they’re valid.

Understand what elements, be it font, colour, image type, text size, line weight, or whatever ... are required for the design and embrace them. These are the constraints that will allow your creativity to really shine and offer site visitors the best usability experience.

We all like to see something that is new, creative and inspiring. No matter how good your designs might be, you will always see another design that you think is better. If you’re lucky, you’ll see this design when it’s too late to change the work you’re comparing it to.

If you’re unlucky, you’ll see this great piece of design mid-way through your own design process. And if you haven’t set yourself strict constraints you’ll likely start tweaking your design to accommodate some of the best bits of this other design.

The problem here is that those great elements in the other design are so great because they are harmonious with the design whole. Chances are they will not be harmonious with your design because you’ve dropped them in late in the process with no real justification for their presence.

Understand the Constraints

This is not to suggest you should always constrain yourself to black and white. Green’s a great colour to choose, but know why you’re using green even if it’s just because it matches the company logo, and if green is important - give it importance: use different tones of green to add richness. Or if it’s a single tone of green you need to use, highlight it with an accent colour. Your limitation is to use this particular colour green, your opportunity as designer is to focus all your creative might on featuring that green throughout the website in a beautiful and inspirational manner.

Conclusion

Setting limits is not solely about not using design elements. It is much more about focusing on the few genuinely important elements that are required to convey the message of your website, and adding in other design elements only when they support the key elements.

Choice doesn’t give us freedom. While this belief is perpetuated through society, too much choice is confusing, disabling and dissatisfying.

So what do you think, do you have any tips and tricks for embracing constraints in your own work?