Friday, December 28, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 17, Embracing Constraints

Download Episode 17

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Now, we've spent some time trekking through that terrain known as the creative process, and on our way we've looked at a few ideas that will help us to gear up for the challenges we can expect to face as we traverse our projects. Today, we'll bring this series to an end today with some parting thoughts. But since this little excursion has been by no means exhaustive, you can expect that we'll dip into the general subject matter of creativity from time to time.

And I encourage you to continue doing your own study in this area. At my webpage, which you can find at, I've posted shownotes, which include a bibliography of all the books I've referenced during these programs. And at the end of today's talk, I'll recommend a few of the programs that I enjoy and highly recommend for real world insight into creativity.

If you've been with us from the start of the show, you'll remember that before we launched into this series, we discussed how design begins. Along those lines, we explored requirements gathering, and the discovery process that we undertake with out clients. And in those programs, I recommended that you keep your horizons broad as you prepare for the creative phase of your projects. And this provided a natural segue into the series we're wrapping up now, because the big idea is that we want to approach creative without a heightened sense of constraints pressing down on us. The early part of our project should be characterized by an open-minded brainstorming sensibility, where no idea is a bad idea. And this meanas that, at least for a little while, we can indulge ourselves in a bit of fantasy. To use a filmmaker's analogy, we can allow ourselves to think like Steven Spielberg for a while, even if we've only got a Kevin Smith budget. And this exercise in thinking big safeguards us from aiming too low on our projects, or assuming that we can't pull off great results with very little resources. And if you remember the design adage, Less is More, this makes even more sense, and should encourage us to make the most of our little projects by always thinking big.

Now, as we get deeper into the design phase, we necessarily have to allow reality to inform our open-ended brainstorming. The facts of life being what they are, we're going to have to design in a way that jibes with the resources we've got to work with. Which brings up the subject of constraints.

And what are constraints? Constraints, simply put, are limitations. Like the picket fences in our yards, constraints are the boundaries we've got to live within. The good news, though is that we navigate constraints, we adapt to constraints all the time, with minimum thought or energy expended. This holiday season, I doubt many of us will buy a 13 foot Christmas tree if we've only got an 8 foot ceiling in your living room. On New Year's Eve, we can hope that our celebration will be constrained by a personal drinking limit, so we can all drive home safely after the party.

In our projects, there are all kinds of limitations that we need to factor in. Some limitations are intuitive, and don't require much thought. Others, require detailed attention and planning. Of course, the one constraint we all face is time. There's a limit to how long we can work on our project if there's a paying customer waiting.And so, we'll likely draw up some kind of schedule to measure and mete out the time that we do have. And if we're to be profitable, we've got to stay withing a budget, so clearly there's a money limit, too.

The other broad area of constraint we must be cognizant of is that of our media. If we're print designers, there's only so many colors we can reproduce with CMYK process inks. And there's only so much quality we can expect out of uncoated papers, so maybe we should use our one-color logo for that newspaper ad.

If we're new media designers, we have to content ourselves with limited typographic control. At least for this present age of limited screen resolution, inconsistent browser support, and other limitations, we have to content ourselves with macro-typography, instead of the micro-typographic control we've enjoyed in the realm of print. Or we're going to have to compress our media assets more than we like to in order to fit them within bandwidth limits.

So, constraints are limits. Constraints confine us. Constraints are the ceilings we bump our heads on. At least, this is one way to think about constraints.

On the other hand, we can make our peace with constraints. We can look for opportunities within our limitations. In one of Hillman Curtis'(1) books on Flash design, written at the dawn of the Flash Web Design era, he speaks to the transcendant principle of embracing constraints. Rather than bemoaning the fact that you can't fit 100 lbs of design into a 10 lb. design bag, you can change your perspective. You can embrace your constraints.(2) You can look at the possibilities of your chosen format and medium and plan accordingly. And when you do this, a wonderful thing happens. You stop making the mistakes that all the hacks make. You stop trying to make your format do things it was never intended to do. You stop trying to push your medium so far that all the user sees are its weaknesses.

A timely example of this principle are the movies that attempt to recreate authentic looking human beings using CGI. The more they push for this goal, the more they risk falling into what some have coined the "uncanny valley"(3) - which is that point where 3D models look pretty human, but creepily unreal at the same time. This is an example of pushing a medium too far. Of not living withing your means, so to speak.

So, go for economy. Remember that Less is More. That you can have more impact with fewer things. Oftentimes, the more you add to your work in the way of design elements, the more you begin to dilute the piece. The more you introduce what designers refer to as "extraneous elements." But if you embrace constraints by putting 8 lbs. of design in your 10 lb. design bag, you'll have room left over. You'll have breathing room for your work so that it can live and be vital and effective. So, make friends with those limits, scale your design accordingly, and you won't have a sense of confiment anymore. You'll just have good design.

Well, as I mentioned before, we'll move on from this creativity series. But that doesn't mean our study has to end. Here are three programs that I highly recommend you subscribe and listen to, because they explore creativity in the real world, where the best and brightest tell the tale of their own journeys into creativity.

The first is KCRW's The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell (4), which focuses mainly on filmmakers and writers, and the design and thematic drivers of their projects. The second is PRI's Studio 360. (5) The third is The Accidental Creative. (6) Like this program, these shows avoid focusing exclusively on any one design discipline, but, rather, they speak to design in general, as they explore the universal and timeless aspects of design that every creative encounters.

Well, that's it for today. I want to thank you again for listening and look forward to having you back again. But before I go, I'd like to plug my new voice mail number once more, which you can use in order to add your voice to the discussion. I'd love to hear from you, and to add your recorded remarks to a future show. But you've got to make that call, at 206-350-6748. Until next time, this is Design Guy. Be well.


1. - Curtis' books are always embued with timeless principles of design. I recommend you get your hands on MTIV: Making the Invisible Invisible: Principles, Practice and Inspiration for the New Media Designer.

2. More on the philosophy and principle of embracing constraints from the folks at 37signals, one of the most innovative web application developers today.





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