The Power of Constraints

I learned one of the most important lessons in my career during my first semester in architecture school: there is great power in exploring the constraints of a design project.

Jeff, the instructor who was leading my very first design studio class, asked us to create a three-dimensional composition using a limited number of elements: wood dowels, foam core planes, wire, etc. The constraints seemed very limiting. Still, this was one of the very first things we’d been asked to design and my fellow students and I aimed to make them “cool.”

When we came together to share what we’d done, all of the compositions looked oddly familiar. It seems we’d all assumed we were supposed to be modeling spaces; all the compositions featured elements that looked like scaled walls and columns. Jeff asked us why we hadn’t considered using dowels with a diameter bigger than their height, or very thick foam core. He hadn’t specified any of these things; we’d assumed they were supposed to be a certain way.

Jeff explained there is a great deal of freedom in constraints: instead of facing the intimidating challenge of a completely blank slate, you’re tasked with exploring the boundaries of a limited domain. I’d never heard this idea expressed like this before, and it blew my mind. I spent the rest of my career as an architecture student exploring the boundaries of projects, and finding great joy in doing so. (I still do.)

Some of my favorite work comes from smart people exploring the constraints of a problem domain. Two examples, in particular,​ come to mind when I think about this.

The first is the icon system Susan Kare designed for the first Macintosh computer. Kare was dealing with incredibly limited constraints: a 512 × 342-pixel screen that could only display 1-bit color. These constraints meant icons needed to be relatively small, and could only use two colors: black and white. The clarity and charm that many people associate with the Macintosh come directly from the beautiful and subtle balance that Kare struck with her icon designs for the system:

Image: Fast Company https://www.fastcodesign.com/3043312/moma-recognizes-susan-kare-the-designer-of-the-macintoshs-original-icons
Image: Fast Company

Kare went on to design other icon sets for computer systems with more colors and higher resolution graphics, but they don’t have the power, simplicity, and personality that her original Mac icons do. I attribute this to the constraints she faced in the project.

The second example comes from the work of the musician and producer Brian Eno. In 1994, Microsoft asked Eno to design the startup sound for its then-new operating system, Windows 95. This OS was a great hit when it was released, so many people got unwittingly exposed to Eno’s work. Here it is, in case you haven’t heard it:

The commission for this piece came with a very interesting constraint that liberated Eno. He relates what happened in an interview:

The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I’d been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, “Here’s a specific problem — solve it.”

The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah- blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said “and it must be 3 1/4 seconds long.”

I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel.

In fact, I made 84 pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.

I’ve had similar experiences, where a project’s constraints make me see it (and the rest of my work) in a different light, triggering a flurry of creative activity. Every time I encounter this situation, I thank Jeff for teaching me that lesson so many years ago: There is incredible power in constraints. Don’t fight them; embrace them.