Ask any creative if he’d like to have carte blanche on a project, he’ll tell you he’s in. For many designers, being given total freedom is a fantasy, even an urban myth. Something that only happens when they reach the pinnacle of their career.
Paradoxically, being able to do whatever you want might be what will block you the most. Constraints have a negative connotation, but they’re in fact the major asset to boosting your creativity.
First, it’s important to draw a line between art and design. The purpose of this article isn’t to reopen this debate, but understanding the difference helps starting to grasp the numerous advantages of constraints in design: art conveys a message, design solves a problem.
Art is a free form of expression, while design is a visual way to display content, in order to serve a purpose.
Assuming that, design is per se bound to constraints.
It would be inaccurate to say there’s an absolute absence of constraints in art. Excluding the obvious limitations inherent to its medium, custom art pieces commissioned by clients can be subjected to their own tastes. This is where the difference is significant: the limitations in art are subjective. They respond to personal preferences. Design meets objective requirements. Design isn’t made to please anyone in the strict sense of the term, but to be efficient in a given situation, in order to accomplish a goal.
In practice though, the line isn’t always clear: good design works are often referred to as “pieces of art”. The word “art” is used as a synonym of the word “craft”. We call designers “artists” in their job titles (3D artist, lettering artist…). Many designers are also artists in their spare time. This is often why a project’s constraints can be experienced as freedom deprivation: with time, the difference becomes hard to make between making beautiful things and making objective choices to serve a purpose in an aesthetic way.
However, design isn’t only about aesthetics. They play a significant part among many other aspects that a professional designer should consider equally, and not let himself be influenced by his own particular inclination for beauty. If artistic freedom is fundamental to something as deep and limitless as the human imagination, limitations are inherent to the nature of problem solving, and therefore, graphic design.
Having no constraints at all conveys a false idea of creative freedom, because being able to do anything you want is the best way to paralyze you.
An unlimited choice is the worst enemy of decision-making, and every company with a good sense of marketing knows it. A good restaurant doesn’t have a menu with ten pages of main courses. A good online service provider doesn’t offer ten different subscription plans for the same product. If you set your sight on a cool piece of clothing, too many color options will make you hesitate (or even leave), while a very limited number of options (or no options at all) will make you buy it without even wondering what color you’d have liked better.
Designers often experience it when crafting their own website/portfolio. When it comes to branding yourself, it becomes very hard to make objective design choices without being affected by what you subjectively like better. However, we like many things, and as if this was not enough, it’s difficult to choose which facets of yourself to showcase. This is why people often stay without a website for years, and have plenty unfinished mockups left in their personal files. Too much choice is the enemy of choice.
French author André Gide said “choisir, c’est renoncer” (“choosing is giving up”). Selecting certain things involves dismissing others. However, overcoming this tough process is the only way to move forward.
In this brilliant Ted Talk, American psychologist Barry Schwartz explains what he calls the paradox of choice, and why associating more freedom with more choice is a lie.
“Everybody needs a fish bowl.” Barry Schwartz
Creative constraints are a blessing, because they allow genius to rise.
When you have constraints, a big portion of the choices have already been made for you. In addition to that, they force you to work from a place that’s not necessary safe, and therefore push you to explore uncharted territories.
Creative freedom is the risk of staying in your comfort zone, do what you do best, what you know how to do, what you always do. It diverts you from the true creative process, and turns you into a technician who just does what he does.
Constraints aren’t freedom deprivation, they’re a challenge. They’re not a hassle, they’re new, and everything that’s new is always hard to assimilate. However, they’re the best way to stimulate imagination. Our best ideas and reactions always happen when facing adversity; that’s what constraints are. They’re a new level of difficulty on your usual routine. Facing it and overcoming it with flair makes you a better professional instead of a lazy one.
My favourite example to illustrate this idea is the case of iOS app icons.
iOS app icons must stand out in multiple contexts: in the App Store, they are the first thing vouching for the quality of your app. A beautifully made, eye-catching icon which explicitly conveys the purpose of an app will increase chances for a user to download it instead of another one. Furthermore, after downloading it, the app must be easily identifiable among the potentially huge number of other apps on a user’s phone, so he doesn’t have to wonder what it is.
However, it must respect a format constraint: the artwork must fit in a square with rounded corners (which radius increased between iOS6 and iOS7).
At first, this might seem very restrictive. Indeed, using an uncommon format may be the first instinct when you’re willing to make something stand out from the crowd. “Let’s be different from everyone else and do an octagon-shaped icon. Now that will make it pop!”
This is in fact a quite mediocre creative call, because this becomes a subjective battle of originality. Wanting to beat something big with something bigger, or arbitrarily deciding that triangles are the new circles aren’t creative decisions, they’re trends. And trends change so quickly that a hot new thing you did today is very likely to be totally has-been tomorrow.
Being bound to the same format puts the designer’s creativity at the center of the problem. In addition to creating a perfect level playing field and thus allowing fair comparison, it forces the designer to use his imagination and skills to free himself from the constraint while respecting it.
On these examples, the execution is so brilliant that you sometimes can’t believe the format is respected. Even better, the designers took full advantage of it, they played with the boundaries and made us forget them. All these icons depict true creative cleverness and genius.
This is the challenge of constraints: they force us to come up with ideas to solve our client’s problem within delimited boundaries, but must not become a visible disadvantage. If it looks like you had a hard time doing something, your work isn’t done. If you have to justify a weakness in your work, your work isn’t done. If the constraints your worked with are visible, your work isn’t done.
The bad call for these designs would have been to stay away from the edges. Design inside the allowed area and keep away from this restrictive shape. Disclaimer here, I’m not saying that all app icons that doesn’t fit the shape are poorly designed. Nonetheless, there are plenty examples out there (that I won’t display out of respect for their authors) where you can clearly see that the format was a problem, that they wish they could change it, but never mind.
The worst thing you can do when working with constraints is trying to get away from them. Thinking inside the box, no pun intended. When all you can do is stay inside the box, your work is to make people believe there is no box.