Thoughts on Constraints in Design

A Constraint That Hinders Creative Freedom

In both art and design, we can identify three dimensions of constraint: material, functional, and cultural.

The beauty of art often lies in the freedom of expression where a constant, self-indulging or self-induced struggle over the constraints by those dimensions. All three pose fascinating challenges to an artist, who looks to her personal goal and private exploration for the creative effort to unwind.

But in the case of design, only the first two (material and functional) are more likely to bring about a similar feeling of creative freedom. But it’s the cultural factor in a constraint that offers the most rewarding challenges for design in business.

The cultural constraints in design, in the form of managerial, operational, market-wise, and monetary challenges, demand a pragmatic approach that makes compromises, most of which an aspiring designer doesn’t want or expect to make.

An Education That Hinders the Constraint

The rhetorics and education on design may have been focusing primarily on the material and functional constraints. Aspiring designers get into business with a naive pursuit of creative freedom most easily found in those two types of constraints, while the cultural one hits the hardest and hurts the deepest, hindering their perspective or prospect of a successful designer career. They struggle with the cultural tangle of thorns by experience. As a result, few learn to engage at the strategic level soon enough, no matter how much lip service to design thinking is paid by the orgs who hire them.

It doesn’t have to be that frustrating. We can do better. And it’s already happening.

Veteran designers and experienced leaders have already started taking steps to bridge the gap between that cultural dissonance and the designerly potential. Books like Design Leadership, Org Design for Design Orgs, Creative Clarity, among an emerging literature, are starting to bridge that gap in one way or another.


In a sense, “design” is rather like “climate change”. There may not be absolute truths. Hypotheses? Yes. We’re merely paying lip service to it as long as we’re not so determined to challenge its economic, cultural, societal, and political underpinnings.

Hiring designers is one thing, trusting them is quite another. Becoming them is yet another – inevitable, albeit unintuitive. How prepared are you to embrace the cultural constraint when you become one?


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