Constraints lead to great design

Great art and, by extension, great design requires the artist to create constraints within which they do their work. They can then judge the strength of their resulting work by how well it satisfies these constraints.

Constraints are good not just because they provide a method by which we can judge our work, but also because they can act as a framework upon which to build our work.

Without constraints, we do not know what problems to solve.

Consider the following:

A potential client has arrived, requesting that you “design [them] a website.”

This situation alone is very hard to approach. There are countless different directions to take when designing a website, and designing one appropriate to the client’s needs is very difficult without further information.

As designers, it is our job to solve problems creatively. However, the complete lack of constraints given in this would-be scenario make it very difficult for us to know what problem it is that we need to solve.

In short, we need constraints.

“Why” is the question to get us our first constraint.

To obtain these constraints, we must ask questions. We have to probe deeper, to understand why the client is looking for what it is they ask. Once we have the why in hand, only then can we approach the how.

Let’s return to our client and ask her why she needs a website designed for her. Why is the strongest question word to use at this stage, because it allows us to hone in on the problem which is present.

Upon being asked why she wants a website designed for her, the client replies that she, “needs one for [her] established pet store.”

At first glance, we appear to have received the constraint that will set us on our way to designing this lady’s website. We now know that we need to design a business website, as opposed to a personal or organizational one.

We could go on to design a website which shows all her store’s products as well as information about her business. Based off of the information we have thus far, that would be a reasonable approach.

However, upon closer inspection we see that the answer provided here does not actually explain why a website is needed at all! It provides to us what type of website she is looking for, but we still need more information before we can confidently craft this design.

We need more constraints.

“Why” is the question we return to in order to get more constraints.

Interestingly enough, “why” is the question word which will yield our next set of useful constraints.

Knowing that we need to find out why her brick and mortar pet store requires a website, we return to our client to ask her just that. She responds that she, “wants to engage with [her] store’s loyal community of pet owners.”

Fascinating. By asking this question, it is clear that the problem our client wants solved is very different from what we had initially suspected.

Instead of wanting a website which merely displays her catalogue, our client is looking for a way to take the store’s existing community online. This constraint provides for us an entirely different problem to solve, and we must create a different solution accordingly!

Keep asking questions.

Just by asking one more question, and getting one more constraint with which to design within, it has become quite clear to us the problem which our client has to have solved.

This question-oriented approach, where we must ask questions in order to obtain constraints, is very effective at quickly bringing to light the underlying problem which our work must solve.

Use this process to narrow down with your client what it is they’re expecting you to create. By going through the simple steps upfront of asking questions, we can build a framework within which to create our work.

The end result? A happy client who walks away with a design that truly solves their problem, instead of one which solves a problem their designer thought they had.

Let’s review.

As a short review, here’s what you are going to do in your next pre-project meeting.

  1. Understand that the key to good design is having constraints. These constraints let us design appropriately and judge effectively.
  2. Ask your client for the “why.” Why is it that they want a website?
  3. Continue to ask your client questions oriented around “why.” Ask until you’ve identified the specific problem they need solving.

With these three simple steps, you’ll have a much clearer understanding of what your client needs you to create for them.

You now have a canvas upon which to create. Go make art.

P.S. We should meet up on twitter, here.

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