Choose Constraints by Design

George Aye, co-founder of Greater Good Studio and assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, talked to Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs about how designers think about constraints.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: At some point in my conversations with designers, nearly every single one of them seems to point out some way in which constraints lead to creativity. But I think that if you did a poll of 100 random people on the street in Chicago, I think most of them would probably disagree — they’d say you can be more creative if you have no limits. If you had to persuade one of those people of the opposite point of view, how would you do it?

George Aye: I would back up a little bit. I have definitely found over time that constraints are a useful sounding board for design. People who have been trained in design are challenged by them and think of them as generative. But I’m not sure that’s true for the general population, for whom it may be more helpful to discard constraints.

In general, constraints help you by focusing and narrowing your efforts. So if you know that you need to come up with a new way of holding paper together, you might come up with something like staples, paper clips, binding, tape. But if you say, “Come up with some way to organize paper,” it actually becomes more challenging.

There is definitely a “sweet spot” at which restraints become more generative. Too narrow a focus is debilitating, but too broad a focus is too. The “sweet spot” is the point where the restraints help you generate the most ideas, but the trick is always finding it.

I find there is a way of phrasing problems that helps, which is “How might we…?” If you can frame a sentence that way, you’re closer to something generative. For instance, if we said, “How do we hold paper together?” we’ll come up with a number of existing answers. But if you ask “How might we hold paper together… for people heading to a meeting”, you start to explore the parameters of a new solution. It makes it easier to start finding those parameters of, “Who would be using it?” and “In what setting is it happening?” and so forth. Is it on a table or a desk? Is it part of a filing system? Is it for a person in a rush? All of these questions help designers wrap their heads around the situation the design is being generated in response to.

So in a way, constraints help provide a prompt to give a considered response. That’s why it’s hard to generate ideas without them. It’s like trying to play tennis with yourself. There is nothing to bounce ideas off of. But you also need there to be enough distance between you and the constraint to have a decent volley. There needs to be room enough between you and the person or the organization or the thing for that creative response to happen. Without the response, the constraint is not valuable.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Let’s say you had a list of 100 potential constrains on a project. You somehow know that a third of these constraints will enhance creativity, a third will harm it, and a third will have no effect. How would you go about sorting them?

George Aye: I don’t know if there is anything inherently restrictive about any given constraint. It’s when the set of them collectively becomes too narrow. It’s almost impossible to know up front.

In general, you don’t want there to be a one-to-one relationship between the constraint and the solution. I’ll give you a somewhat random example from a course we taught on design, which is plus-sized women’s clothing. The question “How might we change the mirrors in women’s changing rooms?” limits you to one set of solutions. The question “How might we make women more comfortable with their body image in general?” allows for more solutions, but they’re also more shallow. You could imagine anything from education programs to changing images in magazines.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: One thing I’ve noticed about questions like that is that when you go too broad, people tend to fall into cliches. They can already think of one or two answers to the question, so they don’t bother to apply their creativity and come up with their own.

George Aye: Right. So a question that frames the problem generatively is, “How do we help women feel empowered, beautiful, and in control in the changing room?” That gives you a few hooks to hang solutions on without telling you what the solution will be. It gives you a place and a context.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It’s interesting to me that you can’t come up with a general rule or an algorithm that determines which constraints are best. It’s almost as if you’ve got to try out different sets of them to reach an answer.

George Aye: Yes. I think of it as kind of like trying to write jokes for Conan O’Brien. There is a whole team of writers coming up with just one joke. They may re-write it 50 times. You have to do the same thing with constraints. You have to re-frame them again and again until you get to the point where it feels right. And in the end, the quality of the ideas being generated will correlate quite well with the quality of the question generated by those constraints.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I wonder if this would be a helpful contrast. It seems important to emphasize that you’re not just overcoming restraints, but using them as part of a creative process. Here’s what I mean. I think there are a lot of professions where people might think, “Well, I’ve done this under difficult conditions, I’ve done this with very little time.” They think of constraints as these opponents to be defeated by the gladiator. But designers seem more excited to tinker with the constraints and incorporate them into the process. It’s not a military cadet saying, “I’ve run that obstacle course so many times that I can run it blindfolded.”

George Aye: I’m a little hesitant to draw those sorts of distinctions, though. I think we all have different responses to various problems based on our training. There are different responses in science, law, art. I would rather focus on the ways in which those responses are similar. I think that if you use constraints to create a really well-written contract that is robust and will respond to various challenges over time, that is design. Design doesn’t have to imply something made of metal or plastic. If it’s elegant and efficient, if it’s robust over time and graceful even when it fails, that’s good design.

What you could argue about designers is that because of the media we work in, our tolerance for mistakes is quite different. We have a cultural tolerance for error and experimentation.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I wonder if you’re right that it’s a question of attitude. I’ll stick with my military example from earlier. It seems to me that if a military officer encounters a constraint, they may say, “This is tough, but I’ll overcome it no matter what.” But a designer might actually feel a sense of relief, because he was searching for the right constraints from the beginning of the creative process. Does that seem right?

George Aye: Yes.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So where does that come from?

George Aye: It may come from what I mentioned earlier, that feeling of finally having something to push against. You’re learning more about the possible field of responses. In product design, it’s often a maximum budget. That can give you some very specific information about what kind of materials you can use, for example. But again, I’m not sure that there is no equivalent in the military.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: You’re right, actually – military people are always glad when they learn what the exact mission is.

George Aye: Right, there is a relief in understanding what you’re working on. I think it’s possible that designers do have the kind of specific response you’re talking about, but it’s basically a human response to knowing there is some sort of scope or limits to what you’re trying to do.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Earlier, you said that working without constraints was sort of like trying to play tennis by yourself. That reminded me that finding the right constraints is also a social process – it could play out between various designers or between the designer and the client. Could you tell me about that?

George Aye: It’s interesting. There are some ways in which the general public is becoming more familiar with the design process. There seems to be a greater understanding that designers explore multiple models and do extensive testing, for example. But I would say there is relatively little understanding of the amount of effort and debate that goes into finding the right frame for the problem from the beginning. There is very often a moment where you need to re-frame the project you are on, when you come to realize just what the project is really about.

One recent example is a project where we redesigned a public school cafeteria. Going in, we thought the problem would be to design a space where kids would eat healthful food. We thought that was all there was to it. But after doing some research and interviewing everyone from the teachers to the janitors to the principal, we realized that the project had to be re-framed entirely. The problem wasn’t getting kids to eat healthy food — this school actually had a pretty healthy menu. It was about getting kids to eat food at all. The basic relationship between food and children is poorly designed.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Ha! Parents of toddlers across the nation will be relieved to hear it.

George Aye: Right. Every attempt to combine those two elements is difficult. So if parents are having trouble doing it with their own kids at home, imagine the difficult of trying to do it with hundreds of children in twenty minutes.

So we had to completely re-frame the project. We had come to realize what the true constraints really were.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And what did you do with them?

George Aye: We concentrated on re-designing the actual protocol for feeding the kids. Instead of having them get all the food at once, we created a system in which it was divided into courses. It’s actually what you do in every restaurant in the world and what we do at home. When you think about it, serving all of the food items at once is kind of strange — it’s the way we serve food in prisons. The design goal there is to get the food to as many people as efficiently as possible. But to use the same objective with schoolkids just seems wrong.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It fails to appreciate their kid-ness.

George Aye: Right. It sets them up to fail. They do what anyone would do in the same situation, which is immediately grab the food items they recognize first. We were mistaking familiarity for preference.

So the project pivoted during our research. Because we were designers, we were ready for that. We even anticipated it. But in some other professions, it’s unnerving when that happens. Actually, the only other type of person I’ve encountered where it’s commonly anticipated or expected is the entrepreneur. They also refer to it as “the pivot.” I expect it occurs with all kinds of projects, but other types of people are inclined to ignore it.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Or hide it.

George Aye: Or hide it. But you don’t have to hide it if you always anticipated that it would occur.

But then again, it may be due to the nature of the organization or the team. I don’t really know anything about the military except what I’ve learned from playing video games, but it seems as if you had a special ops team of six highly trained individuals, they would be better at fulfilling a mission with multiple “pivots.” That sounds like a design team to me.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Sure, sometimes you decide to abandon one of the helicopters.

George Aye: Right. But to have that kind of decision-making, you need to build in an ability to rapidly respond to changes in the constraints in real time. It takes a lot of trust and it takes a lot of training. I think there’s a need for that in any kind of design team.

Actually, I think we are getting better as a discipline at responding to changes in constraints.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Tell me more about that.

George Aye: Well, I should first say that I think that for a long time, we had a lot of inertia as a discipline around making stuff. That was our first response to a problem — design new things — and it was actually kind of irresponsible. There was a lack of constraints around the questions of, “Why do this project right now?” The result was the pages and pages of things you see in SkyMall. The basic solution was to make something in the hope that someone would buy it. In design schools, you can still see a lot of execution on projects without a lot of questioning by the students — or their professors — about whether the project was basically worth doing.

But there are now a growing number of designers asking not just, “Can we do it?” but “Should we do it?” Those aren’t easy questions. It’s the more socially-minded firms that are forcing us all to ask them. They’re pushing the question of our value to the foreground. One way we’re trying to do that as a company is to ask for every project, “What is the social problem we’re trying to solve?” If we can’t answer that, then it probably isn’t a project worth taking on.

But it’s really hard. It’s really hard. Because my training hasn’t been in asking those questions. My training has been in doing design. If the question is “How do we sell more frozen pizzas?” design has gotten pretty good at answering those questions. But the question of “How do we solve for obesity?” isn’t asked as often. So we’d like to answer those kind of questions rather than just mindlessly design stuff.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: You sound like the Stan Lee of designers.

George Aye: The Spider-Man creator?

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Yeah. “With great power comes great responsibility” and so on.

George Aye: I don’t know about that. But I do think we might want to grow up a little bit. We might want to ask some harder questions of ourselves. We need to recognize that there will always be a part of design that is developed in response to business problems. There is nothing wrong with that — I don’t think it's helpful to criticize designers for that per se. I spent a great deal of my career doing that. But I think there are also great needs in our society that design should be responding to.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I want to go down this road because I think it actually contributes to our discussion of constraints. You’re adding a very particular kind of constraint, which is, “All projects must be consistent with our values,” yes?

George Aye: You could say that. Right.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Okay, so when you add this internal constraint, forcing yourself to figure out how all of your designs will respond to various social problems, I think you actually do something very interesting. First, you enter a discursive process with your clients or partners or whoever. It’s possible that they’ll just say up front, “Okay, good idea, let’s have the product address a social problem.” Then you’ve already won just by planting the flag. But you could also imagine guiding the client to a point where the product achieves this just so they could work with you. That would be awfully cool.

But there’s also a second thing that seems super important. You’ve generated a research agenda. You could look back and say, “Hmm, it seems as if we did ten projects that helped children learn more effectively.” You can learn something about that area of inquiry that is greater than the sum of its parts. And that learning occurs as a result of applying this particular constraint consistently.

George Aye: Sure. Ultimately, we would have a body of work that could inform the discipline of design. I absolutely hope we do that.

There is something I wanted to add about your first part which seems important. Yes, we have discussions with clients about the social problems projects should solve. But just as important is the internal conversation we have about a month before. We need to incorporate it into our own process, persuading ourselves, being able to articulate it ourselves. When we can’t do that with a straight face, we have to set the project aside. I think that having that kind of internal discussion is the responsibility of every design firm.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Well, and it’s not as if you’re being snobs. It’s also a cognitive process. I think that in every family in the country, when the youngest daughter goes out on a date for the first time, all the older brothers and sisters get together and say, “What do we think of that guy?” They may all think he’s perfectly nice, but part of the essence of family is having that conversation, getting in touch with the group’s values. They’re asking, “What does this mean for who we are?”

I like that you used the word “mature.” That kind of process seems mature. It seems normal. It seems healthy. It also seems like something that nearly very organization I encounter forgets to do.

George Aye: You have to have some faith in yourself. You have to believe that the projects will come. I know that my natural inclination is to say “yes” to every project that comes along because I want to make a living and I want my employees to make a living. But I am grateful that my team reminds me that it has to be the right project for us. The focus that we have collectively is what defines us. The projects that we turn down may be just as instructive in developing our point of view as the projects we do accept. They may actually be more revealing, even if the projects we accomplish become the public-facing aspect of the company.

I remember hearing a story about Tim Cook at Apple once… remember, Apple is one of the largest companies in the world. But they have such incredible focus. He was doing a quarterly earnings call, and he pointed out that the number of products the company makes could probably fit on the conference table in front of him. That is amazing. There are very few companies of that scale where that is true.

I was blown away by that observation. Because what it reflects is an incredible amount of discipline. They turn down a huge number of projects. They still treat themselves as if they were a resource-restrained company. They are still asking themselves the question, “Given limited resources, what is the best thing we should spend our money on?” And they have more money than God.

We actually are a small company. We actually do have limited resources. But we are trying to use that constraint creatively.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think you are productively bringing it all back home. Over time, our relationship to constraints, the way we respond to them — that’s kind of what our professional sensibility is made of. What brings out the best in you? What do you get excited about? I wonder if that’s the secret sauce. It’s not the intellectual challenge, but the personal one — discovering after the client leaves the room that everyone else is in a panic over a new constraint, but you’re actually excited about it.

George Aye: Hm.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Don’t you think that’s something we should give people permission to do, to find the constraints that excite them?

George Aye: Sure. Sure. Yes. I think about my early professional days. I was definitely drawn to projects that nobody else seemed to care about, the ones that were going under the radar, like public transit. We have a project right now that I’m very excited about around tenants’ rights. That’s about the least sexy problem I’ve ever heard of. But for us it’s really cool because no one has really tried to take it on. I’m excited by those types of constraints. They’re what ultimately leads me to say, “This is something I’m proud of.”

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Wonderful. Well, is there anything else you think non-designers should know about the ways designers use constraints?

George Aye: There is something I would like to add about where I think we’re headed next. As a discipline, designers have become really good responding to constraints by coming up with something that no one has imagined before. So I think that where we’re headed next, particularly with the movement for social design, is actually learning how to design the constraints themselves.

I think there are projects that are not good for design as a whole. There are projects that may be better for companies that solve business problems or for lawyers. There are many firms that we have enormous respect for and we could say, “This would be a better fit for them.”

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And can you imagine how much respect you would have for a lawyer who told you, “This is not a good project for lawyers, period”? That person would become my go-to lawyer on the spot.

George Aye: That person would be acting as their counsel in the truest sense of the word.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Insight Labs, and the original version can be found here.