Design is characterized more by the constraints imposed on designers than by the freedom given to them.
Identifying the constraints of a given design problem is critical both in framing the problem and in finding a solution.
In fact, constraints are tightly coupled with a solution. The solution wouldn’t even be considered if it couldn’t accommodate the constraints that go with the problem.
But in real work, what we most often see are not constraints, but barriers. The barriers come from different places like management, communication, and culture.
Barriers can seem daunting at first sight. While thorough analysis and further elaboration would often reveal ways to approach at least some of them.
Everyone, designers included, starts by identifying barriers to solve a problem.
Designers go one step further in a far more explicit way in tracking down the constraints hidden behind those barriers.
Why is that?
Because constraints are often derived from barriers.
Constraints are often the barriers that can’t be removed, completely or partially.
In solving a problem, we strive to remove barriers identified along the way, and whichever barrier that persists to the end is accommodated in the solution — it becomes a constraint on what we can say about the problem and what we can do to the solution.
Barriers are often easy to see, but hard to remove. Constraints are often hard to see, but easier to accommodate.
The creativity in a design comes from its constraints, not from the barriers its designer faces.
The transition from barriers to constraints is natural to a designer’s process. As the designer identifies the barriers to the design work, the ones that cannot be removed are just as important as the ones that can.
There comes the dilemma: if all barriers couldn’t be removed, then the remaining constraints could become impossible to accommodate in any solution; but if all barriers were removed, then the resulted freedom could actually become disorienting and the designer might lose the creative focus.
In other words, giving too much freedom is just as hindering as giving too many constraints.
The resolution is to find a balance between freedom and constraints.
Different designers may have different threshold for each. Some become more creative when given more freedom, others thrive by accommodating mounting constraints in creative ways.
There is no recipe for that balance. A designer finds his or her own by designing.
When I was a graphic designer in a publishing house, I surely enjoyed the rare freedom of creating whatever I like for book covers. But looking back, I definitely enjoyed even more whenever an author told me what he or she thought the cover art shall communicate, or the “character” of the writing.
Finding one’s own balance between creative freedom and constraints is a milestone in a designer’s career.
Of course, that balance changes throughout your life and career.
But, hey, what doesn’t?